John Tortorella: confident, short-tempered, witty, in-your-face, passionate, and intense. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe the current head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the midst of his fifth season with the team. Throughout the course of his coaching career, the 61-year-old, Boston, Massachusetts native has seen it all both on and off the ice as a National Hockey League head coach. From his early days in Tampa Bay to his current post as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, “Torts” has experienced the ups and downs of life in the NHL unfold right before his very eyes.
However, if recent history is any indication, the current 2019-20 season definitely takes the cake in this regard. The only difference? His team is winning, and if you look at the roster they’ve been icing on a nightly basis, his club has every reason to do anything but win. Let’s take a closer look at the tremendous job that Tortorella has done with this group prior to the halt of the NHL season, and why he should be the odds-on favorite to win the Jack Adams Award by season’s end.
Expectations Heading into the 2019-20 Campaign
Each October signifies added excitement, hope, and optimism from around the NHL. Thirty-one teams, 82 games each, and a whole lot of emotion run wild during the more than seven months of battle.
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After shocking the hockey world last spring in a David vs. Goliath-style triumph, when the Blue Jackets swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning and their 128-point regular season, most “in the know” across the NHL expected the Blue Jackets to take a step back entering the 2019-20 season.
High-profile names like Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Ryan Dzingel all decided to ply their trade elsewhere and left the Jackets high and dry via free agency. This left a few gaping holes in the lineup, to say the least, and posed a schematic problem for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella over the summer months. After several key offseason subtractions, few could have predicted the run of success the Blue Jackets would experience when the puck finally dropped in Oct. 2019.
Current Blue Jackets on the Injured Reserve
It’s the old cliché — “every team has injuries.” Although this may be true, the injury bug has taken a big bite out of the Blue Jackets this season, with names such as Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, Alexandre Texier, Seth Jones, Brandon Dubinsky, and Josh Anderson, all spending significant time on the injured reserve.
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The Blue Jackets, it would seem, had every reason to throw in the towel this season. However, when a team is spearheaded by Tortorella, that’s just not a viable option. Certainly not under his watchful eye. To date, the Blue Jackets have reeled off two separate five-game winning streaks, good for a 33-22-15 overall record in 70 games played.
Even with the vast array of injuries, this resilient group of players continued to chug along and accumulate points, mesmerizing opposing teams and fans alike. Even the actual severity of the injuries (i.e. forward Brandon Dubinsky injured since training camp, defenseman Seth Jones, ruled out for the remainder of the season, etc) takes precedence and further reiterates the phenomenal job that Tortorella has done behind the bench this year. His “no excuses” mantra rings loud in the ears of every one of his players, regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup on any given night. His honesty with his team is one of his all-time best redeeming qualities.
When the NHL decided to hit the “pause” button on Thursday, March 12, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jackets found themselves in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, arguably the most competitive division in the league. As it stood, this would be sufficient enough for a berth in the postseason, as the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining. This is absolutely astonishing given the frequency and magnitude injuries sustained in one season.
No one is really sure when or if play will resume in the foreseeable future this season. The health, safety, and well-being of the NHL, its players, and personnel, as always, remains atop the priority list. Tortorella has made his case, and then some, to be named the Jack Adams Award recipient by a country mile. Like all of us right now across the hockey (and sports) world, we’re just going to have to wait and see.