Report: Blue Jackets hire John Tortorella; will send Canucks 2nd-round draft pick as compensation

Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

The 0-7-0 Columbus Blue Jackets have hit the panic button. They’ve gone full Torts. And you never want to go full Torts. 

In a shocking move on Wednesday morning, the Blue Jackets have reportedly fired head coach Todd Richards and will replace him with controversial former Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella. Tortorella’s one year Vancouver tenure was an unmitigated disaster. The brash, outspoken bench boss tried to fight Bob Hartley, alienated the room, and singlehandedly and ingloriously put an end to both the Mike Gillis and the Roberto Luongo eras of Vancouver Canucks hockey.

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Tortorella was signed to an expensive five-year deal back in the summer of 2013, and the Canucks will reportedly still be paying a portion of Tortorella’s salary somehow. On the bright side, Vancouver will receive a second-round pick at some point in the next few years as compensation for the Blue Jackets mistake decision to hire Tortorella. 

Receiving a better return for the worst coach in Canucks history – a man who openly discussed the ‘staleness’ of his team’s core; who never even moved permanently to Vancouver; who didn’t even use the murphy bed Canucks management installed in his office; a coach who was sitting around costing ownership money and doing fuck all – than your club netted for a promising goaltender in Eddie Lack seems rather thoroughly ironic. What a time to be alive.

While Tortorella was an awful fit in Vancouver, I think he’s a pretty able hockey coach. I generally liked his zone matching tendencies and appreciated some of the things he tried with the Canucks. Tortorella, for example, was the first coach to promote Chris Tanev to the top pairing, his penalty killing system was top notch, and his forechecking schemes were pretty cool even if they were overly aggressive for a team like Vancouver that lacked the requisite foot speed.

For whatever it’s worth, Vancouver’s underlying performance was actually pretty strong under Tortorella. From Neil Greenberg, writing then for ESPN (Insider):

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In the past two seasons, with Vigneault behind the bench, the Canucks saw 51.7 percent and 51.9 percent of unblocked shot attempts in their favor (ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations). In Tortorella’s first campaign as coach, that number bumped up a little to 52.3 percent. Not a huge jump, but enough to indicate this team is heading in the right direction in terms of puck possession despite the injuries and the learning curve associated with a new coach.

Part of that learning curve involves playing in front of a new primary goaltender in Lack, but despite the inexperience, he has performed well, providing Vancouver with league-average goaltending in the form of a .915 save percentage. In fact, at even strength, Lack has a .922 save percentage, on par with Luongo (.925) and better than Schneider (.910). It helps that Tortorella’s system limits opponents to 28.7 shots on goal per game, ninth-fewest in the league.

Maybe Tortorella works out for the Blue Jackets. They have the sort of young, tough team that he can perhaps mould into playing the game his way. Perhaps he’ll have learned to do a better job of getting established, modern NHL stars to buy into what he’s selling since his brief Vancouver sojourn.

It could happen, but this seems like a massive risk for the Blue Jackets. For all the good that I can say about Tortorella, it’s impossible not to point out that the controversial head coach messed up the big picture something fierce in Vancouver, and did so repeatedly. 

He reportedly wanted the club to buyout Alex Burrows, still one of the league’s best defensive wingers, after an insanely unlucky season. He started Eddie Lack in the Heritage Classic, damaging the Canucks brand enormously in the process. Tortorella then started Lack for two months straight, causing the the young goaltender to breakdown physically. While he seemed occasionally open-minded about analytics, he’s also come up with his own analytic hockey stats since losing his job, which sounds… uh interesting. And finally, while the Canucks played some decent defense under Tortorella, they couldn’t breakout the puck and looked stuck in the mud in transition (kind of like the New York Rangers did prior to hiring Alain Vigneault, which may not be a coincidence). 

I’m truly just not even sure that the way Tortorella likes his teams to play is compatible with being successful in the contemporary NHL anymore. The Blue Jackets will give it a shot though. And they’ll pay the Canucks for the opportunity. I’d imagine they’ll be uncorking the good bottle of champagne over on Griffiths Way this evening.