Getty

With Tortorella in town for Cup memories, is this best Lightning team since?

4 Comments

When sports teams milk nostalgia, like the Tampa Bay Lightning did on Saturday by remembering their 2003-04 Stanley Cup run, it often comes with that tinge of sadness that is part of the word’s meaning.

With John Tortorella watching on from the opposing bench of a very good Columbus Blue Jackets squad, the Lightning’s 5-4 shootout win brought about some different feelings tonight. Granted, coughing up a lead made it tenser than the Bolts probably hoped for, yet it also opened the door for Steven Stamkos to collect the shootout-winner.

The Stanley Cup memories and Tortorella’s presence inspire a bold question: is this the best team the Lightning have boasted since that championship run?

Before we dive into that, here’s video of the ceremony:

And a shot of modern players in those slightly-old throwbacks:

The game itself was a thriller, as the Blue Jackets stormed back from a 4-2 deficit to tie things up 4-4, forcing an eventual shootout. Former Tortorella acolyte Dan Girardi delivered a thunderous check on Matt Calvert during the contest:

Remarkably, the Lightning have reached some pretty high marks even though they haven’t sipped from the silver chalice since the season before the NHL went dark. They’ve enjoyed three deep runs since Torts left town:

2010-11: Finished second in their division (103 points), fell to Boston Bruins in Game 7 of a memorable Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins eventually won it all.

2014-15: Finished second in their division (108 points), lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

2015-16: Finished second in their division (97 points), lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final. Penguins won it all.

Those three deep runs are a helpful reminder that there have been some very good Lightning teams, from Guy Boucher’s brief run to a transition away from Martin St. Louis under Jon Cooper’s reign. It’s interesting to note that the eventual champions knocked out the Bolts in all three of those runs, likely inspiring some fun/wistful “What if?” discussions for hardcore fans in Tampa.

Let’s consider a few facets of this Lightning team, which may just be their best since 2003-04:

  • They’re running away with the Atlantic Division so far. As strong as those previous seasons were, the Bolts peaked in the playoffs. Maybe the Lightning can combine strong regular season work and postseason play, much like in those championship days?
  • They have an identity in net. Do not underestimate how well Andrei Vasilevskiy has been so far in 2017-18. The Ben Bishop – Vasi combo was very strong, but there are advantages to having a clear-cut top guy.
  • A deadly duo: Some of the best Lightning teams have deployed some dynamic duos. St. Louis and Stamkos constituted a prolific partnership, yet Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov might be even better. In a fun twist, Stamkos has taken the Marty role early on, as he’s been more of a facilitator to Kucherov.
  • Interesting supporting cast members: In retrospect, the magic of “The Triplets” line may have largely come from Kucherov. Still, there are some nice players who may be able to help generate some points for the Lightning, with Brayden Point seemingly being GM Steve Yzerman’s latest deft discovery.
  • A brilliant, dangerous defenseman: As great as Dan Boyle was, Victor Hedman is truly special. The addition of Mikhail Sergachev may also help the rest of the blueline maintain a solid level of play.

It’s too early to say that the 2017-18 Lightning will rank among the best in team history. Stamkos and Kucherov need to stay healthy and productive. Cold streaks are bound to come.

Even so, nights like these make it tough not to at least think about such comparisons.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johnson ‘chomping at the bit’ after Blue Jackets’ franchise-record regular season

Getty
3 Comments

The accolades came rolling in for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.

Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie, after his sensational 2016-17 campaign that included a .931 save percentage in 63 starts, which was a big reason for his team’s overall success.

— John Tortorella went from being the coach favored to be fired first to the coach of the year.

Individual awards were the result of a franchise record-setting season with 50 wins and 108 points, as the Blue Jackets qualified for the playoffs in a hyper competitive Metropolitan Division. But a great regular season gave way to a quick postseason appearance as Columbus was dispatched by the Penguins in the opening round, which doesn’t sit well with veteran defenseman Jack Johnson.

“Success is a relative term too, because we had a great regular season, no question, but we still lost in game five of the first round, so it’s not enough,” Johnson said in a Q&A on the club’s website.

“I want to win. I just finished my 10th year, and my 11th year I want to win. I hope every guy is taking the summer seriously, training and getting ready because whether you finished first in the regular season or snuck into the playoffs, if you lose in game five of the first round that’s just not enough. So I’m definitely chomping at the bit, excited for next season because I’m excited every year.”

His comments echo a message from Tortorella earlier this summer. In the coach’s words, the Blue Jackets were able to set a foundation. Now, it’s about taking that next step in contending for the Eastern Conference.

Gone from the Blue Jackets lineup is Sam Gagner, who had a nice bounce-back season with 18 goals and 50 points — 18 of which were on the power play — while playing on a one-year deal at a very affordable $650,000. He then turned last season’s production into a three-year contract, worth a total of $9.45 million, with the Canucks.

The Blue Jackets also bid farewell to Brandon Saad, who was traded back to Chicago in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

In ‘unforgiving’ NHL, Tortorella demands more of Blue Jackets

Getty
18 Comments

Last summer, John Tortorella ruffled some feathers – and maybe lit some fires – in sending a letter demanding that Columbus Blue Jackets come to training camp ready to go.

Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt captured the mood during the Blue Jackets’ tremendous winning streak:

The letters arrived by mail, an old method from an old soul. Postmarked from Blue Jackets headquarters and individually addressed to each player, the single-typed page bluntly spelled out the road ahead. It was late July 2016, roughly one month before training camp began. “Usually you’re not talking hockey that early in the summer,” Foligno says, “but guys started calling each other, asking, ‘Did you get the letter?’ It sparked everyone.” The gist of the message? As Atkinson remembers: “You better f—ing come ready to rock and roll.”

Apparently this off-season’s version of that “rock and roll” letter went out on July 1, as Alison Lukan of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ website reports. Tortorella said that it’s “direct and to the point,” making it clear that he didn’t prompt players to go from “rock and roll” to, say, jazz.

Could it be too much? After all, an 82 regular-season games and some (potentially scarring) playoff matches can take a lot of a player.

Tortorella’s logic is reasonable, though: you can’t just relax. If you do, other teams might leave you behind.

“The league is so unforgiving,” Tortorella said. “If you’re not staying on top of things and staying current and always trying to improve as a leader, as a Blue Jacket, and as a team, you get stuck in the mud.

“We’ve just laid a little bit of the groundwork, we have a little bit of a foundation, now we have to continue to grow as an organization and as a team.”

And, before you accuse Tortorella of merely being a drill sergeant who can’t change, note his Jack Adams run last season.

Now, there’s the joke out there that Sergei Bobrovsky essentially “won” the Jack Adams for Torts, yet he got a lot out of a team that came into 2016-17 as a popular pick to finish with the league’s best draft lottery odds. Instead, he was often forward-thinking; the Blue Jackets even constructed a power play – enhanced by unexpected weapon Sam Gagner – that confounded the NHL for a significant chunk of the season.

In other words, Tortorella seems willing to innovate and keep up with a league that is “so unforgiving.” Such a thought makes it easier to accept that the coach, himself, can be a bit unforgiving, too.

Tortorella claims Jack Adams Award over Babcock, McLellan (video)

3 Comments

John Tortorella has won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s most outstanding coach for the second time in his career.

Torts beat out Todd McLellan of the Edmonton Oilers and Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs, after helping guide the Columbus Blue Jackets to a franchise record 50 wins and 108 points.

That’s quite an improvement from their 76-point campaign the previous season.

The Blue Jackets finished third in the Metropolitan Division this season, earning a playoff berth.

The interesting thing about Tortorella being named the Jack Adams award winner is that he was the most likely coach to be fired first during the season, according to the oddsmakers in October.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, as the Blue Jackets gained strength from a 16-game winning streak — the second-longest single season winning streak in NHL history behind the Penguins’ 17-game run in 1992-93 — and were in contention for a hyper competitive Metropolitan Division until late in the season.

The award is selected by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association.

Here is how the voting turned out:

Points: (1st-2nd-3rd)

1. John Tortorella, CBJ 267 (39-19-15)
2. Mike Babcock, TOR 182 (24-15-17)
3. Todd McLellan, EDM 181 (18-24-19)
4. Joel Quenneville, CHI 103 (12-12-7)
5. Barry Trotz, WSH 63 (6-8-9)
6. Glen Gulutzan, CGY 49 (2-8-15)
7. Guy Boucher, OTT 44 (1-10-9)
8. Mike Sullivan, PIT 25 (3-2-4)
9. Bruce Boudreau, MIN 22 (0-5-7)
10. Jon Cooper, TBL 3 (0-1-0)
Claude Julien, MTL 3 (0-1-0)
12. Randy Carlyle, ANA 2 (0-0-2)
13. Bill Peters, CAR 1 (0-0-1)

Report: Canucks receive Blue Jackets’ 2017 second-round pick for Tortorella hiring

AP
9 Comments

It looks like a done deal now.

The Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday received the Columbus Blue Jackets’ second-round pick in this year’s draft as compensation for Columbus hiring John Tortorella in October of 2015, according to multiple reports.

At the time Tortorella was hired in Columbus, he was still under contract to the Canucks, despite being fired after one tumultuous season in Vancouver. Hence the compensation of a second-round pick in, at the time, one of three drafts between 2016, 2017 or 2018, per Sportsnet.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, that pick to Vancouver is the 55th overall selection this year. Good news for the rebuilding Canucks, who now have a pair of second-round picks, and six picks in the first four rounds of the draft.

Vancouver currently has the fifth overall pick.

Related: Talks continue with pending UFA Miller, but Markstrom is Canucks No. 1 goalie … eventually