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Tortorella contract extension shows how far Blue Jackets have come

Columbus banking on coach's passion, blunt honesty and experience leading the way to a championship.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The Blue Jackets have come a long way in three years, after an 0-7-0 start in 2015-16 led to a coaching change that brought one of the NHL's most recognizable and successful coaches to Central Ohio.

Since hiring John Tortorella on Oct. 21, 2015, the Jackets have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons - the first time in franchise history they've been part of the postseason in consecutive seasons - plus they've assembled a roster brimming with talent and feel like the path to winning the Stanley Cup is solidly underfoot.

That, above all else, is the reason Tortorella's tenure as the Jackets' head coach has been extended by two years after this season, keeping him under club control through 2020-21.

"They've done a good job," Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com, while grouping Tortorella in with his entire staff of assistants. "I think they've earned the right to continue and have that security. I think it's important not just for them, but for the team and the organization to have that stability. We're trending into the right direction, so they can continue the process they've started."

Video: Blue Jackets' Coach and GM address the media

A week ago, that same stability was ensured with contract extensions for the Jackets' hockey-operations leadership, including President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, Kekalainen and Associate GM Bill Zito. Their multi-year extensions were the first steps toward keeping the band together, so to speak, while Tortorella's was the capper. 

It was assumed a new multi-year deal for him wasn't far off, and it wasn't. It arrived on the eve of the official start of training camp Thursday, when players will undergo medical and physical testing for two days before scrimmages begin Saturday. Tortorella was thankful, from both the personal and professional standpoints.

"On a personal note, for my wife and I, we're thrilled," he said during the team's media day event Wednesday at Nationwide Arena. "We love the area. We're involved in the area, we've met some great people, we feel part of it. So, on a personal note, we're really excited about that. On the hockey part of it, I really appreciate the opportunity that Jarmo, [Davidson], [chairman and CEO John P. McConnell], [president/alternate governor Mike Priest], all the guys that are giving me an opportunity to continue to keep working with this team."

Things are certainly better off than when Tortorella first arrived.

After handing the reins over to him, the Blue Jackets have thrived - going 129-87-23 in 239 games under Tortorella, including the first consecutive playoff appearances in franchise history. Tortorella has not only become the franchise's all-time leader in wins (129) and points percentage (.588), but the high bar he's set for himself and the players is steadily helping the organization's culture shift into one of sustained success.

"We're not only developing as players," Tortorella said. "We're developing as a staff, as a coaching staff, working with Jarmo and his staff, and I appreciate the opportunity - and [there's] some loyalty to it, also, to allow me to continue to work with the club. All around, I'm happy about it, because I really like the team. That's the most important part of it, are the players. I really like the group we have. I really like some of the things that could add to it, some of these kids that are coming through, and to be part of that, I feel very fortunate."

The Blue Jackets do too. They have a coach with 575 career coaching victories in the NHL, which ranks 19th all-time, running their bench at age 60.

"'Torts' deserves a lot of credit for the whole time he's been with the organization and the way he was able to turn the team around after the bad start [in 2015-16]," Kekalainen said. "That year, obviously, wasn't an easy year to turn around, when we started [0-8-0], but after that we've made the playoffs two years in a row. And it's not just about that. He's had a great career as a coach and won the Stanley Cup once, so we believe that he can win the Stanley Cup again - and we keep building together toward that."

Tortorella has coached 10 teams into the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the NHL portion of his career, including that Stanley Cup in the 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He spent eight years (2000-08) with Tampa Bay and then moved on to stints with the New York Rangers (2008-13) and Vancouver Canucks (2013-14).

He's won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL coach of the year twice, including 2016-17 with the Blue Jackets, has the most all-time NHL victories among U.S.-born coaches and has run the bench for the U.S. national team twice internationally - first at the 2008 IIHF Men's World Championship and again in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, both held in Canada.

The bulk of that resume is what initially led to his hiring in Columbus, when Kekalainen examined it closer during the "due diligence" portion of his research. Players who'd been coached by Tortorella previously were consulted, along with Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, and they all came back with the same recommendation.

Hire the guy.

"He's a demanding coach, so you're going to have to have the right mindset, knowing that what's expected of you is going to be right there in front of you all the time," Kekalainen said. "I think a lot of players have learned to appreciate the honesty. Sometimes it's brutal honesty, but it's much better than hearing it from behind [your back] on what the coach is thinking. It's much better to hear it in front of you and that's one thing that Torts is pretty good at, is giving you feedback that you deserve - that you earn based on your performance, whether it's practice days or game days. There's no channels that go around. He comes right at you and lets you know what he thinks."

That coaching style can be a tough adjustment for some, but ultimately, it's a key component to what's transpired with the Jackets under his guidance. In many ways, Tortorella is the perfect type of coach for the Columbus draft-and-development management style.

A number of veterans have benefited from Tortorella's coaching with the Jackets, but there are also shining examples of young stars making major gains the past three years - including defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and center Pierre-Luc Dubois.

"Whether you're young or old, you have to earn your respect from him and earn your ice time," Kekalainen said. "Usually, it's a pretty simple formula how you do that. It's hard work and compete. If you work hard every day and you compete, there's a good chance that if you're good at what you're doing, then he's going to give you a lot of respect and a lot of ice time that you've earned."

That honesty is a trait that extends to Tortorella's relationship with management, as well.

Kekalainen didn't have a history with "Torts" until he hired him to become the Jackets' bench boss, but they've since forged a strong working relationship. He's seen the full range of emotions Tortorella has, has felt the internal passion that drives him, and finds the blunt nature of his team's head coach refreshing.

"My favorite thing is that people have that perception about him as the fiery and sometimes emotional coach, but I like dealing with him, because we have a good exchange of honest opinions and he's a good listener - and I think that he wants to get better every day," Kekalainen said. "That's what you expect from a coach, no matter what his age or experience level. He still has that hunger to get better every day, and that's probably my favorite thing about him. As a general manager, you want to work with a coach every day and you want to have a good exchange of ideas and opinions and have good listening both ways. I try to listen to the coach and I expect him to listen to me on certain things, and I think we've built a really good relationship."

One that's set to last even longer now.

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