The Columbus Blue Jackets just completed their fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, in that span they’ve also advanced past the first round just once. Today, two of our writers debate whether or not John Tortorella is the right coach for this team for next season and beyond.
Well, here we are, at the end of another Columbus Blue Jackets round of 16 playoff exit that was incredibly predictable. Three times in the last four years, Columbus has lost in the first round despite the series being even at some point. This season, the loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was predictable: on the prediction/preview podcast before the series started, I predicted that Columbus would hold Tampa Bay to roughly three goals per game (check), limit high danger chances against (check), but fail to score enough goals to actually win the games (check) before falling in five tightly-played games (check).
What made the individual frustrations in this series game-to-game even worse, however, was how predictable they all were and how they fall squarely on the shoulders on the head coach, John Tortorella and are a microcosm of how he should be nearing the end of the line in his tenure with the team. When he was hired, most fans recognized that he came with a shelf life: he was brought in to change the culture in the locker room, but he would not be the guy who could take them to the top
There are several reasons that stand out to move on from Torts, the following chief among them: improper utilization of his players, lack of adjustments from game to game, lowers the ceiling of the roster overall, and inconsistent “teaching moments.”
The Tampa series, for example, highlighted the improper player usage by Tortorella. Despite Pierre-Luc Dubois leading the team in scoring during the regular season (and blossoming into a point per game player in the postseason), the only two forwards to average more than 18 minutes of ice time this season were Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner (who combined for 55 points total this year, or six more than Dubois had by himself). For long stretches of the postseason, Jenner and Foligno got extended minutes at even strength despite getting caved in by most every possession metric, yet the same utilization was deployed until game five of the Tampa series. Every coach has players they ride, but you didn’t see Jon Cooper playing Pat Maroon big minutes: he trusted his offensive players to eventually create opportunities, and they did. Torts could learn a thing or two: play your best guys in offensive positions.
As a head coach, while Torts raises the floor thanks to his brand of low event, defensive hockey, he ultimately lowers the ceiling of the team overall thanks to his aversion to offense. Compared to a similarly defensive-minded head coach in Barry Trotz (with a similarly talented Islanders team), he significantly underperforms with the roster at his hands. Columbus, in four seasons with Torts, has won 10 playoff games total (not including the three “play-in games” against the Leafs, since the NHL cannot decide how to count those). For all of the talent that has been here, he has not only not reached the post-season ceiling, he has had to rely on hot streaks to even get into the postseason in general. In 2017-18, the team made the playoffs by a point. In 2018-19, the team made the postseason by two points (and that required winning 5 out of 6 down the stretch to even sneak in). This year, the team was on the outside looking in based on points percentage before the pause and the expansion of the postseason.
Torts was brought in to change the culture. He has done that. It was always understood that, eventually, he would wear out his welcome and another coach would have to come in to take the team to the next level. With the floor raised for this team, it is now time to find that next coach and move on from Torts.
It is not the time to part ways with John Tortorella, as he has just come off arguably the most impressive season of his coaching career. His roster was coming off a historical success (sweeping the President’s Trophy winner in the first round of the playoffs), but lost a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender and a forward who is a Hart Trophy finalist this season. Despite the exodus of elite talent - and after some bumps in the first month - he got the team to rally and put together another dominant stretch of games. His teams had won 16 straight in 2016-17 and 10 straight late in the 2017-18 season, and this time put together a 19-2-5 stretch from December to early February. The wins kept piling up despite a new name entering the injured list seemingly every game. These injuries weren’t minor, either: three of the top four returning goal scorers from last season (Atkinson, Anderson, BJORKSTRAND) missed at least 20 games this season. With a revolving door of Cleveland Monsters having to fill in, Torts managed to integrate them seamlessly into the system.
Torts gets blamed for the lack of offense this season, but where would the goals come from when the top offensive talents are missing? Furthermore, the scheme which favored a defensive focus was designed to a) account for the talent disparity and b) give assistance to the green goalies. In both regards, this approach was successful. Against more talented teams, the Jackets could either win or play to a tie in regulation. Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins, and Matiss Kivlenieks combined to be one of the stingiest goaltending corps in the league.
The sacrifice of offense in favor of defense paid off in the postseason, as well. In the regular season, Toronto was 3rd in the league with 3.39 goals per game. Tampa Bay was 1st with 3.47. In five games each, Columbus held Toronto to 2.00 and Tampa Bay to 2.14. Columbus went from a goal differential of -0.04 per game in the regular season to +0.11 in the postseason.
As for the lack of playoff success, in this regard the NHL’s unique playoff structure has done the Jackets no favors. In 2017, they had the fourth best record in the league and did not get home ice advantage in the first round due to being third in their division. In both 2017 and 2018 they were eliminated by a division rival who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Last year, they were bounced by a veteran Boston squad which itself went to the Final and lost in Game 7. Over the last four seasons, the Blue Jackets have the 8th best points percentage in the league (5th in the East, 3rd in the Metro). They were eliminated, chronologically, by the 4th, 2nd, 3rd, and 1st teams on that list.
If you want to compare him to a coach like Barry Trotz, the Jackets allowed 0.18 fewer goals per game than the Islanders, and scored .21 fewer per game. The Jackets were the third worst offense, but the Islanders were the tenth worst. Not exactly prolific lamp lighters in their own right. As for the postseason, the Islanders’ offense has leapt to 3.25 goals per game, but against two teams not known for their defense: Florida (3rd worst at 3.25 goals allowed per game) and Washington (18th best at 3.07 goals allowed per game). Toronto was in between (6h worst at 3.17) but Tampa was the 8th best, allowing just 2.77 goals per game.
Finally, if you move on from Torts you have to answer the question...who replaces him? It’s far from a given that the replacement would be an upgrade. The last time the Jackets had a hall-of-fame caliber coach, Ken Hitchock, he was replaced by Scott Arniel who managed to make the team worse at both offense AND defense. The identity of the roster - a blue collar team known for physical play and good defense - means an overnight turnaround of the offense due to coaching is unlikely. The identity existed before Torts, when Todd Richards was coach. It’s the identity that Jarmo Kekalainen has built.
I also question how much of offense can be improved by coaching, and how much of it is about player talent. Obviously defense is something which CAN be coached and learned. But a coach can’t make a shot more likely to go into the net. Of the 10 Columbus skaters who took at least 20 shots on goal (all situations) in the 10 postseason games, just three shot above 10% (Dubois, BJORKSTRAND, Atkinson). Texier, Savard, and Nyquist had no goals, while Werenski, Jones, Jenner, and Foudy were all below 5%. Is that Torts’ fault? If any of those seven shot at the team’s regular season average of 7.9%, the Jackets would still be competing, given that they were only outscored by two goals overall in the Tampa series. Would that make Torts a better coach, or just a luckier one?
Bottom line: The Blue Jackets are a great defensive team, and much of the credit goes to John Tortorella. Replacing him with someone else is much more likely to cause a defensive regression than an offensive renaissance. Now, if you want to talk about replacing Brad Larsen and Paul MacLean with a more creative coach for the forwards and power play, then I’m all ears.
Should Torts coach the Blue Jackets in 2020-21?
This poll is closed
No, it’s time for a change