Whenever Columbus Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson needs a break from the day-in-day-out grind of running an NHL team, he listens to Bruce Springsteen.
“I like (his work). All of it. I listen to it. I just read his book. The book is great. It’s really good. And I listen to him every day so I block it out,” Davidson said.
The Boss – as Springsteen’s fans affectionately call him – also acts as a coping mechanism for Davidson to deal with the controversy that seems to follow coach John Tortorella. Whether it’s merited or not, Tortorella can be a lightning rod and even those who work with him sometimes need to tune out the criticism that can surround him. This isn’t so much a statement about what Tortorella actually does, but more how the perception of Tortorella outside the organization can provide some frustration to those who know him best.
“You do what you do and people say what they say and people write what they write and that’s how (media) works,” Davidson said. “And I have no problems with that as long as people try to be accurate but to block it out, which I have to do because … I like to understand the flavor, I have PR people who talk to me all the time about what’s going on and I respect it, but I need to block it out too so I listen to Bruce Springsteen.”
This season, mostly praise has come Tortorella’s way. He led the Columbus to 16 straight wins – the second longest stretch in NHL history – and rewarded the faith of Davidson and the rest of Columbus’ management with arguably the NHL’s best coaching job so far in 2016-17 for the league-leading Blue Jackets.
“Ask our team, they’ll go through the wall for him. Ask a lot of players who have played for him that are exceptional players, they’ll go through a wall for the guy and that was part of our research,” Davidson said. “And when it’s all said and done, he’s going to be able to walk away, right away, and know that he gave his best shot all the time. He’ll know he crossed the line a few times, but he’s man enough to admit it. And I think the people that he cares about and the people he got to know will have a pure understanding of who he is and what he’s about because he’s a lot better person than a lot of people think, and he has earned that, he has earned that, that people think he goes off the wall, which he has a few times. But there’s a lot more depth to him than that.”
Davidson’s decision to go with Tortorella last season to replace Todd Richards after a 0-8-0 start, was one of the more controversial moves of 2015-16. Tortorella was coming off disastrous stretch with the Vancouver Canucks that was marred by off-ice drama and lack of on-ice success.
During his time with the New York Rangers before he got to Vancouver, Tortorella’s mouth sometimes got him in trouble such as when he ripped the officiating of the 2012 Winter Classic.
But Davidson, who knew Tortorella in 1999-2000 when Tortorella was a New York Rangers assistant coach and Davidson a team broadcaster, had a better perspective on the person. Davidson, along with assistant general manager Bill Zito and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, used this knowledge – along with some extra research on the coach – to hire Tortorella.
Overall, they didn’t see the move as risky.
“I think the perception of John Tortorella in the sporting world and beyond is well-earned,” Davidson said. “I mean, he has crossed a line a number of times and he’s the one to admit it. What people don’t know is the person. He’s a good person. And generally when he has crossed a line, not all the time, but generally, it has to do with something that has bothered him regarding what’s right and what’s wrong and maybe he has done it wrong the way he has done it. But he realizes it.”
Tortorella’s ability to bounce back from September’s World Cup of Hockey, where he coached Team USA, has been almost as remarkable as the Blue Jackets’ turnaround. In the event, the Americans went 0-3-0 and were outscored 11-5. Tortorella took some heat for his decisions, such as sitting Dustin Byfuglien in the first game against Team Europe where Team USA lost 3-0.
Davidson said he looked into Tortorella’s World Cup performance and concluded that it wasn’t quite as poor as perceived, but he understood why Tortorella took a lot of the blame for Team USA’s failures.
“I went and did my research and people that were close to the situation thought he did a very good job. People may think I’m nuts when I say that, but it didn’t work. Maybe some of the people that didn’t play weren’t playing well enough for him,” Davidson said.
“They were tough decisions but, of course, this is John Tortorella, everybody runs with it, which is going to happen. He has earned that. That tournament was close. The team that beat them right out of the hop did a great job, that was the European team. They did a great job. Brad Shaw, one of our coaches, was on that team. He may have done some things differently. Maybe the roster selections would have been done differently, but that’s not him. That’s part of him but it’s not all of him. He knows, as the head coach and the way it went, he’ll take the heat. That’s just what it is. That doesn’t make him a bad coach. That makes him a person who was part of a group that didn’t do well or as well as they expected to do. That doesn’t make him a bad coach. In fact he’s a terrific coach.”
Though Tortorella has received most of the acclaim for turning around the Blue Jackets, the team’s push upwards in the standings has been more than just him.
Several of the Blue Jackets’ top prospects and young players have all matured into solid NHL contributors. Forward Alexander Wennberg, a 2013 first-round pick, has 34 points in 37 games played and looks like a legitimate first-line center. Defenseman Zach Werenski has been the NHL’s top rookie defenseman this season with 25 points in 37 games played and defense partner Seth Jones has taken another step in his development.
Other less-hyped youngsters like center Lukas Sedlak and forward Josh Anderson have also provided a spark.
“We underperformed last season badly as an (NHL) group. Not all the players who are here now, the young ones, the rookies in particular, didn’t underperform. They had a great season in Cleveland winning the (AHL) championship,” Davidson said. “This is what you hope for when you develop players so it’s all kind of happened at once.”
The veterans such as Cam Atkinson (18 goals and 38 points in 37 games), Nick Foligno (33 points in 35 games) and Scott Hartnell (22 points in 37 games) along with some others, have also been energized
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has stayed healthy, and given one of the top NHL goaltending performances of the season with a 2.03 goal-against average and .930 save percentage.
The Blue Jackets rank third in the NHL scoring 3.35 goals per-game and second in allowing 2.11 goals per-game. Their power play has been the NHL’s best at 27.0 percent.
“Werenski and Sedlak and Anderson and all these young rookies that are coming here, they’ve all helped,” Davidson said. “You think about Bobrovsky and (backup Curtis) McElhinney hasn’t played as much but he has played well and Bob has played great. That’s a difference from a year ago. You think about Foligno and some of the veterans who had a tough year, they’re back to playing hockey the way we expect them to play.”
The streak gave Columbus some memories and created history, but most importantly it set up the Blue Jackets well for the rest of the season. Their 58 points leads the league and the playoffs seem like a certainty, even though the team hasn’t reached the halfway point.
“I think that probably the best thing about the streak was putting points in the bank, which in a very difficult division, you’re going to need them,” Davidson said.
Though Columbus may be in an enviable spot at the moment, they still have a long way to go. A long winning streak can easily be harmed by a losing streak and there’s a lot of time left this year for a lot of different scenarios to play out.
“As a group we have to continue to show up with a businesslike attitude. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low and keep moving forward. Where it ends up? I don’t know,” Davidson said.
“I wouldn’t call our team a team of greatness, but I’ll tell you what we’re a pretty good team. We’re a pretty good team. And we’ve proven it by playing some good teams and having some success. We certainly don’t, as a group, think we’re the greatest. We think we’re a good team and we’re going to prepare to play and see where it goes.”
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