ST. LOUIS — John Tortorella’s protege, Mike Sullivan, won the Jack Adams Award at the Midseason on Thursday, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
But make no mistake: This season is Torts’ best coaching job, which is why he earned this reporter’s first-place vote.
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the All-Star break in the Eastern Conference’s first wild card spot, winners of six in a row.
After waving goodbye to $81.5 million star Artemi Panarin, $70 million backstop Sergei Bobrovsky and rentals Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the Blue Jackets appeared destined to be cannon fodder.
They don’t have a scorer inside the Top 60. They lost starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo and were forced to turn to rookie Elvis Merzlikins. And Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, Josh Anderson, Alex Texier, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Murray and Oliver Bjorkstrand have each missed at least 10 games due to injury in the first half.
Yet, the Blue Jackets sit ahead of popular playoff picks Toronto, Carolina and Philadelphia at the unofficial midway point.
“He’s done an excellent job,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said of Tortorella on Wednesday. “You know, it’s about the team - but the coach takes a [bleep] when things are going bad, so it’s only right that he gets the praise when it’s time for that.”
With low external expectations heading into the season, Tortorella told the Ray & Dregs Podcast this week that he sent a letter to his players before training camp to set the tone. They also spoke of changing their style of play to be defence-oriented.
“We talked about it right at camp - we’ve got to be a team as best we can,” Tortorella said. “We have a concentration of being above the puck, playing as strict and concentrated as we can play for our goalies to be able to get their feet wet in the National Hockey League.”
That’s paid off. Columbus is tied for third in the NHL in save percentage (.917) at the break. Tortorella admitted that “there was a little bit of nervousness” when Korpisalo went down and the athletic rookie Merzlikins took over. But he’s looked more than comfortable. Merzlikins has three shutouts during this six-game winning streak and has a save percentage of .951 since starting the season 0-4-4.
Tortorella said this season has been a learning experience.
“You think you’ve seen it all. You think you have all the answers,” Tortorella said. “You need to listen. This league is crazy. You never know what’s going to happen. It just sets me back, it puts me in my place.”
To be sure, the NHL’s most fiery coach, who was fined $25,000 on Jan. 2 for post-game criticism of the officials - and given a warning that an additional $25,000 will be collected for a similar outburst within a calendar year - has not mellowed at all.
But Tortorella, 61 and now in his fifth season in Columbus, says he has found ways to cope. He wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. and tends to his dogs and horses in central Ohio before heading to the rink.
“I’m out there shoveling horses— at 6 a.m.,” Tortorella revealed. “I find it therapeutic. I have an hour and 45 minutes before I go to work, I get all my thinking done. No one’s out there bothering me. It’s fantastic.”
Tortorella calls himself a “guidance counselor” as an NHL coach and says the success is ultimately determined by the players.
Columbus developed a “bunker mentality” in part because of their coach.
“We set our own expectations,” Kekalainen said. “That is to make the playoffs, that’s how you get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.
“We don’t have superstars. No one was going to replace Panarin, he’s one of the best players in the league. But if we stick to our process, don’t start looking at the standings and individual points, we really believe we can do this together.”
The Blue Jackets are 24th in the NHL in goals per game. They have one of the youngest rosters in the NHL on the ice on a nightly basis.
Tortorella gave credit to Kekalainen, the NHL’s only European-born GM, for his eye for talent in filling out the organization with the proper depth for call-ups.
“We go at it just as every coach and general manager does. I think he’s one of the brightest hockey guys in terms of what he sees in players,” Tortorella said. “He fills me in on what he thinks they can become. I trust him, I really do. The way he looks at players and what he sees in them is dead-on.”
Tortorella said that depth and the youthful shot in the arm provided by players summoned from AHL Lake Erie has been an important reminder and “an eye-opener” to him.
“I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say this, but sometimes when a player has some stature in the league and has a spot on the team, entitlement comes into play,” Tortorella said. “They forget the hunger of it. We get guys that get called up and they’re dying to stay. They have the hunger and they think of the team aspect of it.”
Now that the hungry Blue Jackets have tasted success, Tortorella is preaching humility ahead of the second half.
“The bottom could fall out at any time,” said Tortorella, ever the realist. “So we’re going to take it one day at a time here.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli