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John Tortorella's alterations fuel Blue Jackets' rise

Coach's system adjustments, culture change help Columbus to top spot in NHL

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

COLUMBUS -- The sign hangs above the door in the locker room, putting it top of mind each time the Columbus Blue Jackets walk to the ice at Nationwide Arena.

"SAFE IS DEATH."

John Tortorella used that motto when he won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year and his Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and he has resurrected it in Columbus this season.

The more you understand why, the more you understand how the Blue Jackets have gone from 27th in the NHL last season to No. 1 midway through this season with 60 points and won 16 straight games, the second-longest streak in NHL history, from Nov. 29 to Jan. 3.

Tortorella will coach the Metropolitan Division at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles on Jan. 29 because the Blue Jackets have the best point percentage in the division, the toughest in the League, at the midpoint.

He deserves to be the leading contender for the Jack Adams at the midpoint as well. While benefitting from good health, great goaltending and the No. 1 power play in the NHL, overseen by assistant coach Brad Larsen, Tortorella has helped everything click by adjusting to the League and his personnel.

"As individuals and collectively you've got to play to your strengths and you've got to build your system to your strengths, and that's what he wants to do," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "That's just a smart way to do it."

Tortorella took over in Columbus seven games into last season and went 34-33-8. His motto then was not "SAFE IS DEATH." He cracked that he should have put up a sign that said, "ENTITLEMENT [STINKS]." He spent much of his time changing the culture.

But Kekalainen acquired defenseman Seth Jones on Jan. 6 last season, and then Columbus' prospects shined in the American Hockey League playoffs as Lake Erie (now Cleveland) won the Calder Cup. The most notable player on that team was defenseman Zach Werenski, the No. 8 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, who came out of the University of Michigan and had 14 points in 17 AHL playoff games.

"I told Jarmo, 'We're going to change this. We've got to let them go a little bit and we're going to have to eat some of the bad plays that come with it,'" Tortorella said. "So that's when it changed for me. It's a very important point, at least for me, in my philosophy as a coach: What you have as a team, try to get the most out of that team. We're coaching the team totally differently now than we did last year."

The backbone of the Blue Jackets is Sergei Bobrovsky, 28, who won the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender in 2013. When you have a goaltender who can erase mistakes, it allows you to take chances.

The defense includes Jones, 22; Werenski, 19; Ryan Murray, 23, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft; and Markus Nutivaara, 22, a seventh-round pick (No. 189) in the 2015 draft from Finland who made the team in training camp. Werenski is on the top pair with Jones, on the point on the power play and a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Jack Johnson, 29, slotted lower in the lineup, has gone from a perennial minus player to plus-21.

Tortorella wants to take advantage of their mobility by pushing the puck up the ice, transitioning quickly and supporting the rush. He discourages D-to-D passes because he believes they slow things down.

The forward corps is deeper with the additions of veteran Sam Gagner, 27, and rookies Josh Anderson, 22, and Lukas Sedlak, 23. Pushed by Tortorella to stay on the details and keep improving, Cam Atkinson, 27, is on pace for a career season, leading the Blue Jackets in goals (19) and points (39). Alexander Wennberg, 22, is developing as a No. 1 center.

Video: 16 great plays from the Blue Jackets' historic streak

"Overall you see the League moving … faster and faster," Kekalainen said. "But I've always thought it's not just the skating fast. It also has to be thinking fast. If you skate fast but you don't think fast, you're not going to play fast. I think puck movement and hockey sense is always faster than any pair of legs."

Tortorella keeps his players fresh mentally and physically by eliminating lots of practices and morning skates, and by keeping them short when he has them.

"It's kind of one of his coined phrases: 'Get the hell out of here,'" said forward Brandon Dubinsky, who played for Tortorella with the New York Rangers from 2009-12. "As soon as he blows the whistle at the end of practice, he wants his guys out of here to get their mind off the game and everything else."

Tortorella doesn't give his players as much information and harp on mistakes as much as he used to. He doesn't want them thinking too much. He doesn't want them to hesitate.

"Instead of doing 50 [video] clips [like in New York], we do 20," Dubinsky said. "He's started limiting that. I think it's just letting guys make mistakes, where before I think you were going to see the mistake on video and that type of thing. So I think he's allowing guys to just spread their wings and play, and I think it's especially important for young guys because they're going to make mistakes. We're all going to make mistakes."

Against the Rangers on Saturday, in the first game since the 16-game winning streak had ended, backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney allowed leaky goals and the Blue Jackets got nervous. They blew a 4-1 lead. Then Jones flubbed a pass at the offensive blue line. Rangers forward Michael Grabner took off on a breakaway and scored the winner with 16.5 seconds left in the third period.

Tortorella didn't sugarcoat it. He said Jones screwed up and couldn't turn it over in that situation, especially to the fastest guy on the ice. But he also said Jones, "makes that play 99 times out of 100," that it could have set up the winning goal for the Blue Jackets, and that he hoped Jones would try it again. He said he wanted his players to take more chances and banged the lectern for emphasis.

"I do not …"

Bang

"want …"

Bang

"us …"

Bang

"safe."

The next night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Blue Jackets allowed the tying goal with 16.5 seconds left in the third period. In overtime, Jones broke up a play in the defensive zone, led a 3-on-2 rush and fed captain Nick Foligno, who scored the winner.

"Our guys have come a long way," Tortorella said. "No matter what our record is, no matter what happens with the winning and losing, I know our guys have improved on being pros, and it's good to see. Because if the organization does take more steps in the right direction, that room has to be theirs, and they're beginning to take that over."

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