Why John Tortorella Should Win the 2017 Jack Adams Award
On May 1, 2014, John Tortorella’s ill-fate tenure as the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach ended after only one season. At the time, it appeared his long NHL coaching career was over.
Nearly three years later, Tortorella is the likely favorite to win the Jack Adams Award as this year’s NHL coach of the year. In less than two seasons, he helped turn the rudderless Columbus Blue Jackets into one of the league’s top teams.
At the start of this season, no expert dared suggest “Torts” would be in line for the Adams. He was too demanding, too hot-tempered, too old school. His best days were in the past. Team USA’s poor performance under his coaching in last fall’s World Cup of Hockey seemingly drove that point home.
It wasn’t always so. Back in 2013, when Tortorella joined the Canucks, he was considered among the league’s best coaches. Between 2002 and 2004, he guided the Tampa Bay Lightning from laughingstock to Stanley Cup champion. In 2011-12, he coached the New York Rangers to a 109-point season and their first conference finals appearance since 1997.
By the time Tortorella moved on to Vancouver, he was a three-time finalist for the Adams Award, winning it in 2004. But his short, unhappy tenure with the Canucks nearly derailed his NHL career.
The low point came during a Jan. 18, 2014 game between the Canucks and Calgary Flames. Upset with then-Flames coach Bob Hartley over what he perceived was some of the Flames deliberately targeting several Canucks players at the start of the game, Tortorella angrily attempted to confront Hartley in the Flames’ dressing room during the first intermission. Those antics earned him a 15-day suspension from the league.
Tortorella also created controversy by starting backup Eddie Lack over then-struggling starter Roberto Luongo in the 2014 Heritage Classic against the Ottawa Senators. The season ended with the Canucks missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Though Tortorella still had threes years remaining on his contract, the Canucks fired him on May 1.
Hired by the desperate Blue Jackets in late-October 2015 after dropping their first seven games of the season, the injury-ravaged club made only moderate improvement over the course of 2015-16 under Tortorella’s tutelage. Throughout last season, he frequently questioned his club’s leadership and called out his veteran players. His clashes with Ryan Johansen were considered a significant factor in the Jackets shipping the young center to the Nashville Predators in a midseason trade for defenseman Seth Jones.
Entering this season, Tortorella appeared on several lists of NHL coaches most likely to be fired. Team USA’s early exit from the World Cup with Torts as their bench boss seemed likely to grease the skids for an inevitable breakup with the Jackets.
But a funny thing happened over the course of this season. Rather than implode, the Blue Jackets responded well to Tortorella’s coaching. They even rattled off an impressive 16-game winning streak, falling one short of the league record.
The Jackets struggled through an 8-8-1 record following that streak ended, but regained their footing. With only a couple of weeks left in the 2016-17 regular season, they’re among this season’s top teams. They’ve also set franchise records for wins and points.
Along the way, Tortorella reined in his fiery temper, avoiding clashes with rival coaches and testy interviews with reporters. He no longer tears into his players onto the bench when displeased by poor performance or publicly scolds them in post-game interviews as often as he used to.
That doesn’t mean Tortorella’s completely mellowed. He’s still unafraid to speak his mind or hold players accountable. He can still freeze a reporter in their tracks with a withering glare if he gets a question he doesn’t like.
He’s become more forgiving of his players’ mistakes, especially by youngsters such as Alexander Wennberg and Zach Werenski. They’ve responded very well under Torts’ guidance. He’s also done away with morning skates and tried to avoid micromanaging his charges. In short, he’s letting them play.
Some old habits die hard. As the Jackets struggled following their streak, a report emerged in mid-February claiming the players asked him during a team meeting to take it easier on them.
Tortorella’s response to the report was simply to say that what is discussed in the dressing room should stay there. However, several veteran Jackets quickly came to his defense, downplaying the matter and pointing out it was merely one issue of several that was discussed.
But it’s clear that Tortorella has attempted to change, or at least modify, his demanding style. No one can argue with the results. With the playoffs over three weeks away, the Blue Jackets are peaking at the right time. They’re enjoying their best season in franchise history. Some Jackets fans are daring to dream of a Stanley Cup run this spring.
It remains to be seen, of course, if the Jackets can carry over their regular-season success in to the 2017 playoffs. The fact they’re even in this position, however, is due in part to Tortorella.
As he once did in Tampa Bay fifteen years ago, Tortorella’s turned a perennial bottom feeder into a possible Cup contender. That should make him a lock this season to win his second Jack Adams Award.