EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – At training camp, Columbus Blue Jackets players didn’t see coach John Tortorella as mopey.
Tortorella had just come back from the World Cup of Hockey where his Team USA squad went winless and flamed out in disappointing fashion. He had every reason to be upset but instead he got right to work with skating heavy practices that caused a lot of his players both discomfort and some weight loss.
“If you thought you were done skating there was more skating and more on top of that. It was hard,” forward Scott Hartnell said. “He put us through it and everyone survived and I think we’re better off for it.”
The goal for Tortorella was to push his team to prepare for an up-tempo style that relied on speed. While Tortorella has been seen by some as a ‘behind-the-times’ bench boss – a stigma that became stronger with some of his coaching decisions the World Cup – he appears to have moved on with the Blue Jackets and focused on how he wants his young group to perform in his first full year as their coach.
“Our quote this year is ‘safe is death,’” defenseman Seth Jones. “We need to attack the game. Can’t sit back in this league and watch guys skate around and make plays. Offensively we have to be aggressive.”
When Tortorella was asked about Team USA’s struggles and his experience, he immediately shifted the focus away from himself and to the people he worked with and how he felt he failed them.
“Certainly one of my biggest disappointments because I love working with the man so much is (general manager) Dean Lombardi,” Tortorella said. “Certainly I didn’t want to let him down and I felt as a coach it’s on your watch and you want it to happen for him because I felt he put so much time into it.”
When asked about the media scrutiny around him at the event, Tortorella noted he generally pays no attention to what’s said about him. Before the tournament, Tortorella received criticism for saying he would bench national anthem protestors on his own team. During the tournament his decision to healthy scratch offensive stars Dustin Byfuglien and Kyle Palmieri for Team USA’s World Cup opener against Europe also was picked apart. The Americans lost that game 3-0, and then went down the spiral that led to them being ousted.
Coming back from the World Cup, Bovada listed Tortorella, who has won a Stanley Cup, a Calder Cup and a Jack Adams Award, as the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired in the NHL.
“If I have to worry about what people are thinking about me and the criticism coming my way, it would be an awful way to live,” Tortorella said. “I live in that world over there with those players. That’s who I owe my time to, that’s who I owe my thoughts to and that’s where I live, right there in the locker room. “
The players who know him best believed a lot of the chatter about Tortorella as a coach was a misrepresentation of the man himself.
“We know what type of person Torts is and what type of guy he is and so frankly I don’t think we pay attention too much to what the media makes of it and I know he doesn’t really himself. It doesn’t matter,” Team USA and Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “All that matters is what his players and his management and everyone else thinks of him and that’s it.”
In some regards this just has to do with Tortorella’s personality. He takes strong stands and sticks to his opinions, whether they’re popular or not. This could rub observers the wrong way.
“I think Torts has a unique ability to do his job the way he sees fit and I think one of his greatest strengths is his clarity of his convictions and he doesn’t get affected by what the media or some of the noise surrounding our business has to say about him or what he’s trying to accomplish,” Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who coached on Team USA, said. “He has sincere objectives. He has strong convictions on how he goes about it and he sticks to his convictions through the good and the bad and he has experienced his fair share of both over his coaching tenure but that’s something I’ve always grown to admire about Torts.”
In some regards, Team USA’s losing was a silver lining for Tortorella with the Blue Jackets. He barely missed any training camp and was his typically feisty, aggressive self as the group went through intense conditioning.
“He didn’t bring that negative energy to us in camp.” Jones said.
According to the Columbus Dispatch the team reported “significant weight loss” up and down the lineup. Captain Nick Foligno lost seven pounds and defenseman Dalton Prout lost 11 pounds.
“The whole point is to get in shape. You had to come to camp in shape this year. You couldn’t come to camp not in shape. If you tried to get in shape in camp you wouldn’t have made it. I think it was very clear how camp was going to be and I think that’s definitely going to help us in the long run,” Jones said. “That’s just what his camp is. He told us in the middle of the summer, talked to the fitness guys on our staff here, gave us a program to get us into shape – a lot of conditioning off the ice during the summer and a lot of conditioning on the ice near the end of the summer.”
Tortorella said he understands how the NHL has become a speed league for 2016-17. This is something he is trying to preach with his current team and he has tried to figure out different ways for the group to play faster.
“I think teams, when you talk about speed, the first thing you think about is just the skating with the players. I think if you’re even a little bit – the foot speed slower than other teams – if you have a mindset of playing quick, I think you could be a quick team,” Tortorella said. “We’re certainly trying to play quick. Even in the games we lost there were minutes there I thought we played, we had some good minutes in playing that way. We’re just trying to be as north/south as we can and try to get away from playing D-to-D plays and going east/west so much we’re trying to get the puck up the ice as quickly as possible.”
Those who have coached with Tortorella don’t see a coach too set in his ways to change. In fact, they believe adaptability is in part what has made Tortorella successful.
“The one thing that Torts and I always talked about when we were coaching together was how do we get the most out of our players and I think one of the things Torts does a really good job at as a head coach, he defines and steers the identity for his group extremely well,” said Sullivan who also worked with Tortorella during his tenure in New York with the Rangers. “I think it’s one of the most important responsibilities as a head coach is to define that identity and down to a man, what’s each player’s contribution to that identity and that was something I certainly took away from my experience of coaching with Torts.”
Jones is one of the young cornerstones on the Blue Jackets and believes Tortorella’s decision to give the defense the green light offensively has taken their games to a new level.
“One of the main emphases is jumping in the play – every time you get a chance you see it the first few games here,” Jones said. “He gets upset if we’re not jumping. We don’t have to touch the puck necessarily but he wants to see us in the picture.”
So far the Blue Jackets are 2-2-1, and while they’ve shown some progress in a few games, they’ve also struggled in others. Legit proof of whether Tortorella has been able to truly move the rebuilding organization forward may not come until much further in the season when there is more of a body of work. But at least the World Cup has quickly become a distant memory for Tortorella and that’s the first step towards a successful year with Columbus.
“Everyone picks apart everyone. Everyone is trying to find flaws in everybody. That’s what media’s for. That’s what everyone does. It’s just human nature so he has been good this year and been very positive and being patient,” Jones said. “We kind of have a younger group this year. He understands mistakes are going to be made during a game but he has given us freedom to make plays knowing that we may take chances but we still have to play responsible. As a young team he’s letting us kind of find that balance.”
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