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Analysis: Tortorella must evolve to succeed in new job

by Dan Rosen

It was interesting Wednesday to hear John Tortorella say getting the Columbus Blue Jackets turned around this season won't require him to reinvent the wheel, because Tortorella will have to show he has reinvented himself in order to coach his new team out of its early-season slump.

Tortorella took over for Todd Richards as Blue Jackets coach Wednesday, a reflection of Columbus' 0-7-0 start to what was a promising season filled with high expectations.

Tortorella said his job is to get the Blue Jackets back to playing to their identity as an aggressive, straight-ahead, quick and hard team. Those are the same principles most of Tortorella's past teams have lived by and won by, but he started losing games, the team, and eventually his job when his tired philosophies and principles got in the way of his relationship with the players.

Change some of those (not all), and Tortorella has a chance to change the Blue Jackets.

For starters, shot blocking should never be a preferred form of defense and definitely not systematic; it should be done only when necessary, which won't be often if the Blue Jackets are playing the right way.

If a team leads the NHL in blocked shots it's a reflection of how much that team is playing defense. In each of the past two seasons, there were six teams that finished in the top 10 for most blocked shots and in the bottom 10 for shot-attempts percentage (SAT).

"We want to pursue," Tortorella said. "We want to be aggressive. We want to go north-south and play very quickly."

Tortorella can't be the same aggressive, hands on with blinders on, my-way-or-else coach he was in his later years with the New York Rangers. On the flip side, he can't replicate his hands off and distant with blinders on approach he had in one season with the Vancouver Canucks.

"I need to have better listening skills," Tortorella said. "I want to know what is going on here and then act accordingly as we talk as a group. It's so important that we do it collectively here. We need to have some honesty amongst ourselves so we can get on the right road."

A previously broken relationship with forward Brandon Dubinsky, who was with Tortorella in New York, must be mended. That's why Tortorella said he sought out Dubinsky on Wednesday to tell him how important he is to him and how he can be his conduit to the dressing room.

"I need to lean on him," Tortorella said.

If Tortorella can prove he's made changes, he might prove to be the best possible coach for the Blue Jackets, because the roster he's inheriting is tailor-made for the style he wants to play.

Tortorella has a chance to do in Columbus what he did in New York, which was turn the Rangers into a contending team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in 2012.

The key will be playing to Columbus' strengths, which means simplifying the attack to take pressure off the flawed defense and slumping goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, whose 5.07 goals-against average and .835 save percentage are as much a reflection of his poor play as they are of how bad Columbus has been playing in front of him.

Bobrovsky isn't absolved of blame, but the skaters have been loose and disorganized, relying too heavily on defensemen who aren't skilled enough to be a big part of the attack, have been too wide in their gaps or out of position, and not crisp enough in their passing.

"It's about details," TSN analyst Craig Button said. "We talk about defensive zone, but to me it's also about not going offside, not turning it over at the top of the circles. If your defense can't recover, you have to be really cognizant of that."

Tortorella has to get the Blue Jackets to be cognizant of their strengths, No. 1 being their big, heavy and aggressive forwards.

Columbus has six regulars in the lineup who are 6-foot-2 or taller and five or six more, depending on who plays, who are at least 6-foot. That's the Blue Jackets' advantage. They should be using it to be more of a grinding team than a finesse team.

The Blue Jackets were going the other way under Richards and it led them into the forest without a compass. They had no way out, hence the 0-7-0 start and coaching change.

"They don't look organized and I think that does point to coaching," Button said. "I don't think they were so much lacking effort as they were lacking purpose."

Columbus' purpose should be in generating scoring opportunities from below the goal line, or at least from below the dots. To do so, the Blue Jackets will have to adopt more of a chip and chase philosophy, but not in the "here is the puck, you can have it back" kind of way.

Giving the puck back is never a good move, but moving it strategically into places where the forwards can use their size or have numbers to get it will play to the Blue Jackets' strengths and reduce the risk of turnovers at the top of the zone, which in turn eases the burden on Bobrovsky.

A perfect example is defenseman Thomas Hickey's goal for the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

Instead of trying to skill, or rather, will the puck across the blue line, opening the door for Hickey to intercept the long pass and go in on a breakaway, the Blue Jackets should have gotten the puck into the corner and let their forwards go to work.

The blue line is the weakest part of this team right now, so why put extra pressure on it?

"The forwards will know, bang, we're going to engage there now," Button said.

Simplifying the game and grinding it out doesn't have to be a long-term solution because Columbus has a group of forwards who can play a skilled game too. But until management improves the defense, the Blue Jackets really don't have any other choice.

That's why Tortorella is perfect for Columbus and why the makeup of the team is perfect for Tortorella, as long as tired principles and philosophies don't stand in the way.


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