John Tortorella has always been interesting. Even so, his story has gotten more layered during the Columbus Blue Jackets phase of his turbulent, lengthy head coaching career.
To be more specific, we’ve seen a “dinosaur” (his words) trying to evolve (our words) in a game that’s increasingly dependent upon speed and skill, and less about grit and hitting.
Credit Torts for frequently deploying more progressive tactics, sometimes in contrast with his persona of being anti-analytics. This isn’t the emotionally drained, locker-room-storming Tortorella from his dark days with the Canucks, and Torts is smart enough to realize that the old way that worked so well in New York (and, to an extent, Tampa Bay) doesn’t fly so well these days.
Also, while Torts is an absolute gold mine of great quotes – seriously, can we just get him to an open mic and ask him to riff on his hatred of the Penguins? – his anger feels more like a controlled, homic missile after all those years of being a loose cannon.
With grandfatherly glasses and more gray in his hair, it’s impossible not to feel like Torts has mellowed out a bit.
That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.
When asked about his team, Tortorella made it clear that he wanted them to play a “harder” game, rather than relying so much upon skill. Really, though, Torts wishes the league would bring back some of that sandpaper.
“It’s a little frustrating, quite honestly,” Tortorella said to Darren Pang during a press conference. “[The] game’s changed, and for some dinosaurs in it, it’s very frustrating … Conversations on the ice amongst opponents on a faceoff, it’s like a big hugfest sometimes. I don’t know if they have so many meetings with this NHLPA and all that stuff that goes on but there’s no hate and I miss that. It frustrates the (expletive) out of me.”
This really might be a personal thing rather than a league-wide thing, though. Deep down, Torts might bristle at how lightly physical his team has been; through nine games, Columbus’ 120 hits easily rank as the least in the NHL. The second-lowest is New Jersey, and the Devils’ 140 hits happened in two fewer games.
Apologies to old-school types and/or dinosaurs, but … that’s not really a bad thing.
(Note: it also looks like they haven’t engaged in a fight this season, based on Hockey Fights’ listings.)
There are situations where hitting can bring about good things on the ice, particularly regarding forechecking. Still, more often than not, if you’re delivering a ton of hits, it’s probably because you don’t have the puck very often. If you ask me, this great Kent Wilson tweet about block shots also applies to racking up too many hits.
There’s ample evidence that the Blue Jackets are doing a good-to-great job of limiting the chances they’re giving up, and possessing the puck more than chasing it, so Tortorella should douse at least some of that fire in his belly (or at least turn the heat to other areas).
And, let’s be honest: the NHL doesn’t change anywhere near as rapidly as many of the other major sports leagues.
People grumble about ticky-tacky roughing the passer calls, policing hits to the head, and the many other ruling obstacles in the way of defense in the NFL, yet plenty of people would argue that the dazzling offense is easily worth it. (Deadspin’s Drew Magary profanely and convincingly argued as much recently.)
Tortorella might cringe at the basketball-AAU-style-chumminess creeping into the NHL, but let’s be honest: it’s pretty much inevitable.
And not just because of the way social media can connect people, allowing different players to giggle over silly memes and Halloween costumes. It’s also not just about having the same agents, or being members of the NHLPA.
Player development and international team play feed into the fostering of friendships. Can hockey people really ask players to suit up for their country right after a season concludes and not expect bonds to be formed? It’s pretty silly to ask players to grimace and growl at each other during an 82-game season, especially since NHL teams never hesitate to trade players to teams they once feuded with.
Here’s a thought that should comfort those who are gritting their teeth at friendliness, even after hearing my argument: speed, elusiveness, and very justifiable concerns for head injuries explain a drop in aggression more than any concerns of “hugfests.”
There was plenty of grit, hostility, and hitting during “The Dead Puck Era.” We can’t get in a time machine and relive those times, and frankly, I’m glad, because obstruction-era hockey was agonizingly boring.
So, Torts, just roll with it. That’s my friendly suggestion.