It could have been by chance that I was selected to write about why Blue Jackets’ coach John Tortorella is this year’s 2019-20 Jack Adams Award winner for NHL Coach of the Year. At the very least, why he should be among this year’s crop of candidates.
And I’m glad I was as I’ve often given praise where praise is due towards a coach that is the best in franchise history given the consecutive playoff appearances the team currently has.
That’s three for those of you counting at home after two combined appearances in the first 15 seasons in franchise history.
And though it seems like an eternity ago, this Blue Jackets team was left for dead by virtually everyone before the season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Artemi Panarin nearly one full year ago by way of free agency. A rough start to the season only backed up the critics’ assertion until the copious amount of injuries — league-leading 419 man-games lost to injury — helped spur the improbable playoff run. Or rather, in spite of the injuries, the great depth in Cleveland was able to step in and contribute from the word GO.
On Dec. 8, the Jackets were 11-14-4 and propped up by the dregs of the Eastern Conference. Between Dec. 9 and Jan. 30, Columbus was an NHL-best 16-2-4.
Among the storylines behind the mid-season success include the revitalization of unsung heroes like Nathan Gerbe and rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, both stepping up and becoming regulars because of injuries at their respective positions. It does make you wonder where the team would have been sooner if Merzlikins started a few more games to work out the kinks, but Joonas Korpisalo played pretty well himself. Enough to be an All-Star for the first time before an injury in late December sidelined him.
On the surface, Tortorella is a Jack Adams candidate for being the bench boss of a team who’s injury-ravaged roster was still in the mix for the playoffs at the time of the Coronavirus league-wide shutdown in March (33-22-15). While the team was spiraling backwards in February, on the heels of losing prominent star Seth Jones — further adds to his case for the Norris trophy one day — and though the road-heavy schedule of March could have been what ultimately undid Columbus’ quest for a forth-straight playoff bid, circumstances have the team smack-dab in the playoff picture.
Injuries couldn’t kill them, and they limped along, in part, thanks to the overtime loser point (league-leading 15 OTL). Now they await the Maple Leafs in this summer’s best-of-five play-in series to determine the official Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When it comes to Coach of the Year, it’s basically an award that means so much had to go right, more-or-less, due to the impact by the head coach. At the end of the day, it’s up to the players to score goals and stop pucks. How do you measure the intangibles and the amount of success put forth by a coach and his staff?
Where is this team if the depth from Cleveland isn’t able to overcome the amount of injuries that beset the team? Did Merzlikins’ strong play bail out this team as the clubs’ scoring — tied-for-27th in GF/GP (2.57) — struggled? And only seemed to back up those that wondered aloud why ‘Torts’ didn’t give Merzlikins more games earlier on? Sure.
But on the other hand, Tortorella was the man in charge of this active roster night in night out, and there’s the intangibles (influence?) that can keep a team steady among the rigors of 82 games, let alone something as unsettling as injuries and team inconsistencies. Tortorella’s toughest critics will be hard-pressed to come up with why he shouldn’t at least be among the top three Coach of the Year nominees for the NHL.
I personally thought ‘Torts’ was the right coach for this current team in the wake of losing big-time free agents. Though some thought this team was essentially going into a rebuild, or at least wouldn’t be a threat to qualify for the playoffs, I thought this was the time for the veteran coach and two-time Jack Adams winner to get the most of his young players.
There’s so many that I see on social media, where, ya know, Twitter GMs live and know best. They like to quibble over the lineups Tortorella produces and the guys that dress. The amount of minutes players play. It’s true that some players have thrived outside of Columbus. And it’s evidently true that players can thrive under ‘Torts.’
I’m not sure many coaches get this team to persevere and play the way they did in the absence of several key players. Young players play, coaching and discipline can help carry the way.
Look no further than Exhibit A, the 2019-20 Blue Jackets.