Tonight, the Blue Jackets will play host to the Philadelphia Flyers for the first time this season. In a somewhat shocking twist, it’s the Flyers who have stormed out of the gates in the Metro, currently sitting ahead of Washington, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers. Under newly appointed head coach John Tortorella, the Flyers are digging for an identity. In Columbus, we know all too well what they’re seeing.
If you’ve been a Blue Jackets fan for awhile now, you know all about the team’s historical struggles. For a decade and a half they were basically the laughing stock of the NHL. Never good enough to make the playoffs. Never bad enough to land top talent at the draft. They were just kinda stuck in this odd level of irrelevancy.
Their record through their first 14 seasons was 451-532-105 with 33 ties. They made two playoff appearances during that time – a 2009 sweep by the Detroit Red Wings, and then again in 2014, on the back of a Vezina winning season by Sergei Bobrovsky. Their fate that year? The Pittsburgh Penguins, and while the Jackets gave us a memorable series, they didn’t stand any real chance at winning it. This is the highlight of the first decade and a half for the Blue Jackets, an overtime win in a series they went on to lose:
The team was stuck in the middle of the pack during that roster construct, but an 0-7 start under Todd Richards to begin the 2015-16 season, meant a change had to be made. We all knew the next head coach was going to be a tougher personality; you might say the anti-Todd Richards. When the club hired John Tortorella on October 21, 2015, we knew what to expect; but at the same time, we had no clue what to expect.
The Torts effect was immediate. They lost their first game with him behind the bench, but almost immediately, you could see guys being held more accountable. His standoffs with players became the stuff of headlines. He wasn’t afraid to bench a guy, regardless their standing within the organization. He poked at players who were out of shape, and he took no excuses. He took a team that started 0-8 and led them to a respectable 34-33-8 record through the remainder of the year.
His second year in Columbus, would prove to be his best season behind the bench. He coached a team whose leading scorer was Cam Atkinson (62 points) to a franchise best 50-24-8 record (108 points). This group was built around a full-team effort on defense, mixed in with some timely scoring and elite goaltending, and man were they tough to play against. Torts won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year, and it was well deserved.
But the NHL’s new playoff structure pitted them against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Again, while the Jackets fought hard and made it a tough series, they were playing one of the NHL’s most elite teams (and the officials), and could not get it done. Huge changes to the offseason roster were made to bolster the team’s offense, but over the next four seasons under Torts, the team couldn’t match its magical 2015-16 season.
He’s likely most fondly-remembered by CBJ fans for orchestrating the team’s surprising upset of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2019 NHL playoffs. His pre-game locker room speech to the team went viral (I still get chills), and while the start of the game was ugly, the team rallied and wound up winning four straight over the best team in the NHL.
The team’s total record under John Tortorella was 227-166-54. The core players during many of his years here, were not NHL superstar talent. They had Artemi Panarin for two seasons, but aside from that he led a group including Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, and Seth Jones, to some of the best seasons in franchise history. While he was likely here for a season too long, he set a level of excellence for any player who put on a jersey with a Blue Jackets logo.
Guys loved him and hated him, but he got the most out of nearly all of them. Players like Sam Gagner and Anthony Duclair signed here to try to rejuvenate their careers. Talented scorers like Oliver Bjorkstrand, became high-end two-way players. He somehow turned David Savard and Jack Johnson into one of the game’s premier shutdown tandems on defense. Pierre-Luc Dubois turned into an absolute monster in the playoff bubble in 2020 after a tongue-lashing from Torts.
He holds team records in every important category amongst coaches: games (447), wins (227), points % (56.8%), and playoff appearances (4). I can only wonder how much differently we might have viewed him, had the team not run into a hot Boston goalie in 2019 – they went to the finals against St Louis that year. Or a juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins team in 2017, who won the Cup. Take away some bad luck, and the Jackets were right there.
The standard was higher then. It was an honor to wear the Blue Jacket crest, and nobody was allowed to take it for granted. He took the laughing stock of the NHL and brought relevancy and some seriously strong seasons here. For that reason, and all of the positive memories with him behind the bench, we should always be thankful to the greatest head coach in CBJ history. That’s John Tortorella’s Columbus legacy.
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