John Tortorella’s hiring in place of the fired Todd Richards by the Columbus Blue Jackets was a needle-moving moment for the franchise.
In his first news conference as the team’s coach, Tortorella faced questions about whether he had softened his intense style and his relationship with Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky, who played for Tortorella in New York.
Tortorella was fired by the Vancouver Canucks following the 2013-14 season. The previous summer the New York Rangers let Tortorella go. He had won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lighting in 2004, but was also known for heated moments with the media, his own players and other teams. The Blue Jackets started the year 0-7-0, the first team do so since the 1997-98 Chicago Blackhawks.
Richards was fired early Wednesday morning.
“You look at yourself,” Tortorella said of what he did in his year off. “You get to look at other coaches. You get to look at other teams. The game is ever changing. There’s so many changes as you go through a season and you’re able to watch it from a different perspective, not on the bench, not making split-second decisions. You’re able to encompass everything and watch the trends.”
As for Dubinsky, who indicated he and his Rangers teammates had trouble with Tortorella near the end of the coach’s tenure there, Tortorella said the relationship had been smoothed over to a degree.
“Dubi and I, in New York we spent a lot of time together. I had him at a different stage in his career when he was a young kid,” Tortorella said. “We went through the process, him and I, some good things and some bad things."
“It was so good to see him. He’s a family man now. I need to lean on him. He’s part of that heartbeat of the club there and he needs to be a conduit for the coaching staff and the players until I get to know the other guys also.”
This would indicate Tortorella has put what he called “better listening skills” into practice. That was one of the main elements of what he said he would try to do differently with the Blue Jackets, who started the year with Stanley Cup expectations under Richards.
“I just want to know what’s going on here and act accordingly as we talk as a group,” Tortorella said. “It’s so important we do it collectively here as a management group, coach, coaches and players, we need to have some honesty amongst ourselves so we can get on the right road.”
Those who know Tortorella and have coached against him see this move as a smart decision for Columbus – even if it comes at the expense of Richards, a universally liked hockey coach.
Said a longtime NHL coach to Puck Daddy, “(Torts is) a good hockey mind who brings accountability and a winning background to Columbus.”
Said an NHL executive who worked with Tortorella in the past, “I love him on the ice. I love him off the ice. I love what he does in the community. I love how passionate he is. I love how he treats people in and around the team and the venue.”
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had reportedly been trying to work on a trade before firing Richards. Hiring Tortorella was not an easy decision for the thoughtful Kekalainen. Tortorealla is a big name and a headline maker for both good and bad reasons. He won a Stanley Cup, but also famously fought with New York area media.
“We need a change of direction or ‘kick in the rear end’ and I think that’s a big part of coaching sometimes and sometimes a new voice will just be the kick itself and we need a change,” Kekalainen.
Since Tortorella’s Vancouver ouster, there have been other openings but teams have hired other experienced coaches. The decision by Team USA to name Tortorella as its coach for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey brought his name back to the forefront.
“We’ve had nothing but great experiences with him in both roles as a head coach and an assistant coach and I think it does come out that he does care about players as hockey players and people,” Team USA exec Jim Johannson said via phone to Puck Daddy. “There’s a lot of what he does to hold himself accountable and his players. He’s all about accountability and that includes him and I think he’ll invoke that in the players in Columbus.”
Johannson did say Tortorella becoming head coach of the Blue Jackets will not affect any Team USA duties.
“The little benefit we had of Torts not working probably, to me we’re shifting the benefit saying he’s back day-to-day behind the bench and going to have a direct feel for not only his team there but the opponents in the league and seeing that first-hand instead of just watching from the edge so to speak,” Johannson said.
The Blue Jackets have a litany of problems but also a longer list of upside. Though they haven’t won, they have a nice mixture of youth and experience led by forwards Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, has been a major problem this year with a 5.07 goal-against average and .835 save percentage in fives games played.
Tortorella believes Bobrovsky needs just solid period or one good game to get him back on track.
“This guy’s a Vezina winner, he’s a good goalie, it’s going to come back to him,” Tortorella said. “We just need to play better around him and hopefully he’ll feel his way back into it and have a couple of good games and will find his way.”
Part of that involves buckling down defensively. When asked about shot blocking – a major staple of his system – Tortorella scoffed a bit saying it’s part of playing solid defense.
“It seems whenever shot blocking and my name comes up it’s like I’m out of my mind as far as, ‘Everybody is going to block shots,’” Tortorella said. “But it’s just part of playing defense.”
The Blue Jackets start a four-game road trip Thursday at Minnesota, making a turnaround tough.
But Tortorella indicated the team needs to focus on small tasks right in front of the group, not the seven-game losing streak.
“I think that’s going through the team as far as lack of confidence. These guys care, and when it’s not going well they feel like they’re letting people down. They feel like they let (Richards) down,” Tortorella said. “Confidence is an easy word to say but it’s a pretty difficult thing to gain back as you’re going through during the season.”
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