A year away from the NHL grind gave John Tortorella an opportunity to decompress, take a step back, and learn.
He learned from his coaching colleagues in the hockey community, from general managers, scouts and other trusted people in the game. More recently, he’s spent time with the NHL Network as an analyst, giving him a chance to catch many teams in action and break down what’s gone right or gone wrong.
Even before he was officially named head coach of the Blue Jackets on Wednesday morning, the 57-year-old Tortorella admired the team from afar. He was impressed by the way the Jackets competed and were resilient under former coach Todd Richards, making the playoffs in 2013-14 and finishing an otherwise disappointing, injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign with a 15-1-1 record.
As the losses began to mount early this season and the downward spiral began, Tortorella saw a team that had lost its way. There was missing something that had, at one point, been a significant part of its makeup, and the veteran coach is certain that he can resurrect it.
“I’ve always been impressed with how they played,” Tortorella said. “I’m really interested. I think this is the third-youngest team, they have some pieces, and it’s real exciting to be part of it because you’re going to be teaching, developing kids and teaching them to be pros.
“Along with that, you’re looking to win. It’s a team that’s there.”
The Blue Jackets were notoriously slow starters under Richards, stumbling to 6-15-2 last season (after a 4-2-0 start) and now 0-7-0 before the coaching change. There’s no overnight fix to what ails them – and Tortorella was not interested in publicly setting goals for his new team – but like any coach, he’s got an idea of where to start.
Tortorella has been known for preaching a defensive-minded, shot-blocking style that wears on players, but he’s not naïve to the fact that the game has changed drastically. He’s not unlike many of today’s coaches in wanting an uptempo, pressure-based attack that forces opponents to react rather than dictate.
“It’s a pretty simple approach: we want to pursue, we want to be aggressive, we want to go north-south and play very quickly,” Tortorella said. “There’s really no secrets – a lot of coaches are doing the same thing. It’s making sure you’re doing it better. We want to spend time on how we play. I think it’s important that we get our identity back. I saw an identity last year, and that’s what we want to try to get back to. It’s about us, not really what’s going on with other teams.
“I watched this team play pretty much straight ahead, quick and hard, and watched them them have success. There’s expectations (now) that weren’t there last year with this club. It’s amazing what it does to the individual athlete and what it does to your team concept, so that’s where I think it’s kind of lost its way a little bit.”
More than X’s and O’s or specific systems-related changes, Tortorella wants to help the Blue Jackets get back to what made them successful. Though the situation seems dire at the moment, he firmly believes that it can turn around quickly if everyone is on the same page.
“It’s not reinventing the wheel – I’m not here to do that,” Tortorella said. “We just want to get back to who we are and go about our business that way. We need to take this day-by-day, meeting by meeting, practice by practice. As quickly as it’s gone with lack of confidence and it’s gone south a little bit, you can get that quickly back and get the ball rolling the other way.
“It has to be together. We have to be talking and helping one another through this here, and I do think we’ll get this going in the right direction quickly.”