The Evolution of the Blue Jackets: John Tortorella

(Jeff Vinnick / National Hockey League / Getty) 

By Kyle Borick @OnNetReports

"John Tortorella becomes first American-born head coach to win 500 NHL games"

As the Columbus Blue Jackets won 4-3 in OT over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, December 18th, John Tortorella picked up his 500th career win as an NHL head coach. The Columbus Blue Jackets extended their win streak to 9 games with their win and continue to push it to 11 games. Tortorella also become 22nd all time in NHL coach’s wins, accomplishing this feat in 1,042 games. While the other 21 head coaches are all Canadian-born, John Tortorella is the only American-born head coach above the 500 NHL win plateau.

Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets have been the talk of the NHL this past week with their franchise record breaking season. Their 11 straight wins have rocketed the team to first in the Metropolitan division and league following their 7-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night. Coming from a record of 34-40-8 last season, the Blue Jackets are on pace to surpass their 72 points from last season. They have played 31 games after Thursday night, and have gathered 48 points for a point percentage of 77.4%. Sitting first in the league this season can assure the Blue Jackets of a playoff spot, which would be their first since the 2013-14 season, but only if they continue to win games.

Columbus plays at home tonight in the Nationwide Arena against the Montreal Canadiens. Puck drop is at 7pm ET against the Canadiens who are first in the Atlantic division with 46 points. Columbus’ 48 league leading points will be challenged as the Rangers and Penguins, both with 47, play tonight. The Rangers face off against the Wild, and the Penguins face off against the Devils, both at 7pm ET tonight. The Rangers and Penguins look to retake control of first place, meanwhile the Blue Jackets look to add separation from their opponents. At the end of tonight, the Blue Jackets will be tied with the Washington Capitals for fewest games played with 32. Going into the Christmas break after tonight will give the Blue Jackets and the rest of the league rest with the opportunity to draw up new strategies.

Columbus’ success should be contributed to their head coach of two seasons, John Tortorella. Having come into the organization last season as a replacement for Todd Richards, who started last season without a win at 0-7-0, Tortorella has transformed the Columbus franchise to a winning team.

John Tortorella began his NHL coaching career as a “mid” season replacement for the New York Rangers in 2000. The Rangers fired their head coach John Muckler near the end of the 1999-2000 season with 4 games left. Tortorella took the interim position and coached the Rangers to 0-3-1 to finish their season.

When Tortorella’s internship was up at the end of the season, he was without a job until the Tampa Bay Lightning fired their head coach Steve Ludzik in the middle of the 2000-01 season. Tortorella took over at the 40 game marker and finished the season with the Lightning going 12-27-3 with 1 tie. The next season with the Lightning would be Tortorella’s first full season with an NHL team. He coached the 2001-02 team to a 27-40-4 record with 11 ties.

It wasn't until next season, 2002-03, that things began to turn as he coached the team to first place in the Southeast Division. With a record of 36-25-5 record with 16 ties, Tortorella brought the Lightning back to the playoffs for the first time in 7 years. Falling short in the Conference Semifinals 1-4 to New Jersey, Tortorella led the Lighting back to first place in their division the following season. With a record of 46-22-6 with 8 ties in the 2003-04 season, Tortoreela’s turn around of the team was in full swing. Powering through the playoffs, they beat the Islanders in 5 games, swept the Canadiens, and knocked out the Flyers in 7 games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Facing the Calgary Flames, equipped Jerome Iginla who scored 41 goals that season, Tortorella’s team had to gather their strength for the task ahead. The Lightning went on to lose Game 1, win Game 2, and continue to trade wins and loses until Game 7 with the series tied 3 a piece. During Game 7, Ruslan Fedotenko scored 2 goals, one in the first and the other in the second period, to give the Lighting a 2-0 lead. Craig Conroe scored in the 3rd for the Flames but they fell short as the Lightning won Game 7 with a score of 2-1. The Tampa Bay Lightning were Stanley Cup Champions for the first time in franchise history.

Tortorella’s coaching and playoff success were enough to win him the Jack Adams Award as best head coach that season. Unfortunately, his success would be put on hold as the NHL had a lockout for the entire 2004-05 season. When hockey returned for the 2005-06 season, Tortorella brought the Lightning back to 2nd in their division before being knocked out in the conference Quarterfinals. The exact same thing happened the following season as the finished 2nd and were again knocked out in the first round. Continuing to 2007-08, Tortorella and the Lightning slumped to a 31-42-9 record and failed to make the playoffs. The Lightning decided to fire John at the end of the season, and, once more, Tortorella was left to find a new coaching position.

On February 23rd 2009, The New York Rangers fired their head coach of 5 seasons, Tom Renney, and hired their former coach of the Rangers, John Tortorella, on the same day. Tortorella added a 12-7-2 record to bring the Rangers to 4th place in the Atlantic Division and a 2nd round fallout to the Washington Capitals in 7 games. The Rangers would again finish in 4th place within their division, but this time they missed the playoffs. The Rangers returned to the playoffs in the 2010-11 season, but were knocked out in the first round in 5 games by the Capitals.

Tortorell’s best season with the Rangers came in 2011-12 as they finished with a 51-24- 7 record, placing them in first place in the Atlantic Division. Tortorella looked to head to the Stanley Cup Finals, but their cross-river rival, The New Jersey Devils, stood in their way. The Devils knocked out the Rangers in the Conference Finals in 6 games to bring Tortorella and the Rangers back empty handed.

The following 2012-13 season would be shortened to 48 games as the NHL avoided a complete lockout. The Rangers were coached to second in their division at 26-18-4. This time time an original-six rival, the Boston Bruins, would knock them out in the second round and send Ranger’s management looking for a replacement head coach.

John Tortorella continued to look for a job after being replaced in the offseason by Alain Vigneault. Alain came from Vancouver where he finished 6 out of his 7 seasons in first place in the Northwest Division. The Canucks were swept in the first round by the San Jose Sharks, and Vancouver management decided to fire Alain. Ironically, Alain would be heading into the Rangers organization as Tortorella was heading out. With the opportunity open, John Tortorella became head coach of the Vancouver Canucks for the 2013-14 NHL season.

At the end of the 2013-14 season Tortorella’s talents at coaching weren't enough as the Canucks finished 36-35-11, missing the playoffs. The Canucks had their worst record since the 1999-2000 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08. During the season, an incident got Tortorella suspended for storming into the opposing team’s hallway and starting a brawl when playing the Calgary Flames. He soon had the spotlight on him for his unorthodox, vocal, and hotheaded actions. Vancouver management felt John wouldn't be a good fit for the Canucks and Tortorella was, again, fired.

Tortorella sat quietly and patiently as his name was floated around the off-season, but was never signed to a coaching position. The 2014-15 season passed and he didn't even fill in as a mid-season replacement as he has been known to do. Tortorella wasn't signed to a coaching position until the 8th game by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2015-16 season. After Columbus went 0-7-0, they fired Todd Richards and began their journey for success with Tortorella. Limited by injuries, Columbus finished 2nd to last in the entire Eastern Conference. Although they missed the playoffs in Tortorella’s first season, the Blue Jackets were 20 points out of the playoffs, but, with 14 points squandered, Tortorella was not at fault.

Tortorella returned for the 2016-2017 season this year and picked up were he left off. Being drastic and unorthodox again, he cut morning skates on game-days. Questioned by the media, Tortorella feels it makes more sense to keep guys rested, especially in the compressed season the NHL has this year following the World Cup of Hockey that many players participated in. With injuries to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and defensemen Jack Johnson and David Savard, Tortorella has made it a focal point to rest his star players by cutting the amount of time he requires of them. He talked to the media about head coaches and their time they ask of their players between practices and make ending skates. Tortorella said “We bring them in here one time a day on practice days, but on game days we bring them in twice.” His chemistry built last season, and confidence built early on this season, has brought him to shake up the way things are done in Columbus.

John Tortorella’s new methods have allowed the Blue Jackets to transform this season. The Blue Jackets’ star veterans Dubinsky, Hartnell, Foligno, and Saad have been joined by Sam Gagner allowing them to rest and keep up with the fast, young scorers of Werenski, Wennberg, and Atkinson. Cam Atkinson leads the Blue Jackets in scoring with 15 goals and in points with 34. Savard and Johnson have also been able to rest with the addition of all-star defenseman Seth Jones. Sergei Bobrovsky has currently gone 20-5-2 this season and looks to start the 2nd game of a back to back. Bobrovsky’s stats of a 1.91 GAA, .933 save percentage, and 3 shutouts will look favorably to critics as he aims to win the Vezina for best goalie this season.

Playing the Canadiens will prove a test once more for the Blue Jackets before they head into the Christmas break. With Bobrovsky playing back to back games, he should be tired, but instead he has been given rest from John Tortorella. We will see tonight if John’s methods pay off as the best team in the Metropolitan Division faces off against the best of the Atlantic Division tonight at 7:00pm ET in Columbus.