There some similarities between the 2015-16 and 2021 Columbus Blue Jackets seasons. Both were derailed early and never recovered, with the team struggling to string together wins. The longest win streak in 2015-16 was three games (twice), while this season never reached that mark. Both teams were below league average on offense, defense, and special teams. In both seasons, the team’s young first line center was traded during the season after clashing with the head coach. Each season ended with an overtime win at home, but left more questions than answers regarding the future of the franchise, and uncertainty as to how long before the team could compete again.
It is poetic, then, that those seasons bookend the tenure of John Tortorella as head coach of the Blue Jackets. He took over behind the bench in October 2015 after a shocking 0-7-0 start to the season under Todd Richards. Today, the team announced a mutual parting of ways (first reported on Saturday night by Aaron Portzline of The Athletic).
As we look back, however, we cannot ignore the four seasons in between and the unprecedented run of success. His accomplishments tower over his eight predecessors behind the Columbus bench. He coached 163 more games than Ken Hitchcock, won 100 more than Richards, earned 222 more points than Hitchcock, and led the team to four straight appearances in the postseason. The fourteen seasons before his arrival featured just two appearances, and a total of two wins. He won 13 postseason games, including series wins over Tampa Bay in 2019 and Toronto in 2020.
Those two playoffs were where Torts’s best coaching was on display. The Blue Jackets were outmatched on paper in terms of talent, but managed to play a cohesive, defensive-oriented game which shut down the opponents’ top scorers. It wasn’t always pretty hockey, but it was effective.
And the result was exhilarating for fans who had waited so long for a moment like this:
Over his six seasons, Torts showed an ability to change his schematic approach, while still maintaining his core principles of team-building. He demanded peak fitness from players, which he tested with a two mile run at the start of training camp.
This conditioning served the team well through the long season, and in late game/overtime scenarios. He demanded effort from his players, and would hold even the stars accountable for lapses, though benchings or scratches.
Schematically, his early teams ended up being among the best in the league in goal scoring. He embraced positionless hockey for someone like Zach Werenski, who earned the green light to be a “rover” and join the offensive rush. When Artemi Panarin was here, he was not reined in; rather, Torts let him play his game, and then reaped the results. After Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky left in 2019, the team converted to a more defensive-oriented approach. Beginning in December 2019, the Blue Jackets stifled their opponents while earning points in 24 of 26 straight games. They accomplished this despite losing key players to injury and integrating AHL replacements into the lineup.
Torts has earned a reputation as being hard on young players, but several young stars thrived under his tutelage here, including Zach Werenski, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, and Oliver BJORKSTRAND. The former two were impact rookies from day one, and fit the gameplan perfectly. Atkinson had been a healthy scratch in Richards’s last game, but became a favorite of Torts and was trusted in all three aspects of the game. The result? Two All Star Game appearances and two seasons with 30+ goals. BJORKSTRAND bounced in and out of the lineup for several years, but eventually blossomed from a one dimensional scorer into a fully rounded player and a legitimate top line winger.
There were plenty of bumps along the way, however. Friction with Ryan Johansen and Dubois led to those players being traded. He failed to develop former first round pick Sonny Milano and he oversaw the elite shot of Patrik Laine fail to produce goals for long stretches this season.
His candor with the media was sometimes entertaining, but often unnecessarily inflammatory. He drew heat in 2016 for saying he would bench a player that demonstrated during the national anthem (a position he walked back in 2020). He earned a fine from the league for cutting short his press conference after getting eliminated from the playoffs in 2020. He compared Matt Calvert’s game to a toilet seat. He said that Anthony Duclair didn’t know how to play. He revealed way too much information about Panarin’s flu symptoms.
Ultimately, what turned most fans against him this year was simply that the team stopped winning. By his own acknowledgement, he couldn’t figure out the locker room dynamics of this team. I still maintain that there are things that went wrong this season which are not Torts’s fault, but at the same time he was also clearly not the solution to those problems.
When he was hired, many of us assumed that he could provide a short term boost, but would eventually wear out his welcome just as he had in Tampa, New York, and Vancouver. The fact that he lasted six seasons greatly exceeds even the most optimistic expectations.
Tortorella earned this chance to end things on his own terms. In his conversations with the media over the last six years, I have learned so much about the game of hockey, and also about leadership in general. I am grateful for that, and grateful for all the great memories of his teams’ success here. Whether he coaches again or not, I wish him success and happiness.
At the same time, this is a great chance for the Blue Jackets to bring in a new coach. They need someone who can connect with this rapidly changing roster and build on the identity established by Torts, and the success he achieved here. For a short man, he has left big shoes to fill.