Eulogy: Remembering the 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets

 

(Ed. Note: As the Stanley Cup Playoffs continue, we’re bound to lose some friends along the journey. We’ve asked for these losers, gone but not forgotten, to be eulogized by the people who knew the teams best: The bloggers and fans who hated them the most. Here is Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy, fondly recalling the 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets.)

By Ryan Lambert

(Subtitle: You’re not gonna believe this, folks, but I was right about the Columbus Blue Jackets all along)

Only two months and 13 days before Zach Werenski was born, on May 4, 1997, the 23rd episode of the eighth season of The Simpsons aired on the Fox broadcasting networks.

The episode was titled “Homer’s Enemy,” and was of course written by the genius John Swartzwelder. It told the story of new Springfield Nuclear Power Plant employee Frank Grimes, who was new to Springfield and therefore had no idea how the town’s reality bent toward this one guy, Homer Simpson.

Nothing should go this guy’s way. He’s dumb. Dangerously so. He’s not particularly nice to anyone. And he seems to succeed constantly anyway. And Grimes seems to be the only person in town who sees that this is not how things should be. Things should not go Homer Simpson’s way, and yet they do, constantly.

In a just universe, people like Frank Grimes, who are smart and work hard and understand how things should be, are the ones who get ahead. But Homer Simpson not only falls ass-backwards into success, people love him for it.

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Frank Grimes tries to tell the world that what they’re revering is wrong, and that the success Homer Simpson enjoys is ridiculously and obviously ill-founded, and how do they not see it? Everyone just tells him to shut up.

Starting on Oct. 13, 2016, the NHL transformed itself into Springfield.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, a team nobody thought was going to be especially good this year, coached by a guy everyone knew for a fact was actively bad at his job, started winning a whole hell of a lot of games in short order.

Within six weeks, they were 11-5-4. Six additional weeks later, they’d won 16 games in a row and sat at 27-5-4.

Were they playing well? Of course they were. But the real question was, “Were they playing well enough to even come close to supporting a pace for more than 132 points?”

And the answer was, “Absolutely.”

The reaction among Columbus fans and not-even-particularly-credulous members of the hockey media resembled that of Springfield’s reaction to another Homer Simpson adventure that inevitably works out in his favor: “They clearly earned this.”

There were no two ways about that. Like a former astronaut chosen for his everyman qualities enjoying a lobster dinner with his family in their giant house, if you had the feeling a team with the 15th-ranked 5-on-5 expected-goals percentage in the league after playing a fairly soft schedule for 36 games hadn’t earned “first place in the league standings by a mile” you were absolutely wrong.

Why were the Blue Jackets — and their coach, whose backward approach to the game had just been worthy of widespread ridicule and scorn during September’s World Cup of Hockey — winning?

Tortorella, long reviled for being an unlikable, bad coach, had completely changed his approach, and with it, the team’s culture.

They had the third-highest shooting percentage in the league. And the second-highest save percentage. They were exceeding their expected-goals share by more than 12 percent. And it was pretty much because Tortorella trusted his team more. Morning skates? Who needs ’em!

This was a Kinder, Gentler Torts. He let the guys listen to whatever they wanted in the dressing room instead of forcing them to listen to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on a loop, and he would only sometimes call it “crap.”

That extra effort to be nicer is what, in everyone’s opinion, resulted in a 103.5 PDO and the best power-play in the league.

It was running about 35 percent and generating exactly as many good looks as you might expect a man-advantage anchored by elite players like Nick Foligno to generate. So clearly, that’s why this team that drew the sixth-fewest penalties was blowing out every team it faced.

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Oh sure, shooting 20-plus percent isn’t in any way sustainable, not for a normal team. But folks, this was Kinder, Gentler John Tortorella we’re talking about!

You have to understand what being Kinder and Gentler meant for Tortorella’s charges. Instead of getting yelled at 24/7, they were only yelled at 23/6.5, and that’s the kind of thing every player loves. It’s also what puts you 22 games over .500. No question.

Because they were marginally above water in possession (but only because they destroyed bad teams and got pushed around by good ones), this was not — and in fact couldn’t be — another Avalanche or Flames or Panthers or Wild or Leafs situation. Not possible. Especially because Sergei Bobrovsky was likely to remain a .940 goalie forever.

The culture had changed. That’s what the Frank Grimeses of the world — who for sure were not model-level handsome and genius-level smart and nice — were missing. It was one thing to bring three or four really good young players onto what had previously been a team that picked second in the draft last season as a means of getting almost instantly better. It was entirely another to have your coach only call you worthless twice a week. Huge change, you have to admit.

Even the biggest skeptics had to agree by early January: The Columbus Blue Jackets had figured out shot quality! And that’s the kind of argument that always holds up in hockey.

Which is what made the team’s whiplash-inducing descent into mediocrity so, so mystifying. While the Blue Jackets started 27-5-4 in their first 36 games (and man, that’s almost 44 percent of the season!) they only went 23-19-3 the rest of the way.

The Frank Grimeses — who clearly just had an axe to grind against a team they clearly hated and thought about all the time, and absolutely had never seen a mediocre team start of white-hot then collapse in the back half — would have pointed out things like the Blue Jackets actually being a sub-50 percent corsi team against playoff clubs this year. And a sub-50 percent fenwick team. And a sub-50 percent SOG team. And a sub-50 percent scoring-chance team. And a sub-50 percent penalties drawn team. And a sub-50 percent expected-goals team.

But those people — who obviously hadn’t watched hundreds of NHL games a season thanks to Center Ice and hadn’t been doing so for about a decade — were obviously just being disagreeable. Probably to get clicks. Some would call them “haters.” And they’d be right to do it.

And certainly, the doubters — who aren’t remotely so kind and knowledgable once you get to know them and stop yelling at them on Twitter — would have made too a big deal about the time reports started to come out about the Blue Jackets asking Kinder, Gentler John Tortorella to stop screaming at them basically the second they stopped winning. And for sure, they would have been big jerks to point out that the team’s stated goals shifted from “win the Presidents’ Trophy” to “win in the first round” to “just have a good showing” to “enjoy the experience” to “listen to a song they like” in the space of a month.

Any time these Frank Grimeses — whose success rate in identifying fluke teams was probably mediocre in comparison with most people in the national hockey media — pointed out any of those things, they were just trying to rain on someone’s parade, and certainly it wasn’t their job to highlight trends in the league that don’t always get a lot of attention, or to express their opinion on the NHL writ large.

These big media jerks — who had certainly not seen Tortorella coach two separate franchises into the ground over the past several seasons — clearly didn’t understand just how cool the cool racing stripe this genius coach who had never been massively disappointing painted on the side of the building really was.

He was Kinder and Gentler. And no one had ever tried that approach paired with an old-fashioned system that led teams with mediocre rosters to keep winning despite getting outshot most nights. So, y’know, checkmate, Grimey.

That’s why, at the end of “Homer’s Enemy,” Frank Grimes is electrocuted. Because he was wrong about Homer Simpson and he just couldn’t deal with it. Drove him crazy.

And that’s also why all the not-good-looking naysayers who doubted John Tortorella should be sobbing today. They were wrong, despite the results of this series in which they were outscored 21-13. And it’s time they just accept it.

Oh sure, those never-played-the-game haters — who weren’t just “jealous,” obviously, no matter how often they’ve been right about this kind of thing in the past — will point out that the Blue Jackets lost in five games and, in point of fact, lost in five games to a team without its No. 1 defenseman, a second-line winger, a third-line winger and its No. 1 goalie. And sure, they’re going to rub it in by mentioning that this particular franchise still has just three playoff wins in its entire 16-season history.

But look at the big picture! John Tortorella was almost kinda nice for a while there.

Everyone thought this team would be near the bottom of the league and instead they won 50 games and, in fact, outplayed the Penguins in five games, four of which they lost.

Y’know whose fault it was? That goalie who was basically the only reason they didn’t completely fall apart in the second half in the first place. He may deserve the Vezina in a walk, but also he sucks.

And if the anti-Columbus creeps out there — who definitely weren’t right all along — think that doesn’t result in reliable 100-point seasons in perpetuity, honestly, I don’t know what game they’re even watching.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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