The Blue Jackets Will Lean Heavily On Their Experienced Coaching Staff In New Circumstances

By Dan Dukart on July 14, 2020 at 8:05 am
John Tortorella watches his team practice from the stands
Adam Cairns/Dispatch

John Tortorella's transformation as a head coach in the NHL has been well-documented.

More than a decade ago, he was as well-known for his temper and fiery press conferences as his success on the ice, despite having won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.

After one season in Vancouver, most agree that he's rebranded himself. His arrival in Columbus was well-timed and he's largely responsible for creating and changing the culture and perception of the Blue Jackets, who have made the playoffs every year he's been behind the bench with the exception of the first year, where he took over for Todd Richards' 0-7-0 team in 2015-16.

His success in the game is now well-cemented. He's won two Jack Adams Awards for the league's best coach and is nominated again this season. He's won a Stanley Cup and sits 14th all-time in wins.

Since his arrival, Tortorella has assembled a veteran coaching staff, led by Brad Shaw.

Shaw, who spent nearly a decade in St. Louis as an assistant, has been critical in the development of the organization's defense corps which is the backbone of the team. Brad Larsen is in his sixth season as an assistant coach with the Blue Jackets. He's led the forward group to mixed results, though many would argue a more talented forward group would help his cause. The coaching staff's inability to produce an adequate power play led to the mid-season hiring of Paul MacLean, a 14-year veteran behind the bench in the NHL.

In Tortorella, MacLean, and Shaw, the Blue Jackets boast three coaches with NHL head-coaching experience.    

That's not to say experience always wins. Tortorella won his only Stanley Cup in his fourth full season as a head coach in the NHL. And while being high on the NHL's all-time wins list helps, Mike Babcock (eighth all-time in wins) was unceremoniously fired midway through the season by the Blue Jackets' qualifying-round opponent Toronto Maple Leafs after a disappointing 9-10-4 start. Enter rookie head coach Sheldon Keefe, who has had a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks. In the shortened season, the 39-year-old Keefe registered a 27-15-5 record.

The differences between the two coaches are plentiful. Keefe is seen as a players' coach, perhaps in contrast to Babcock's rigidity. Babcock was often criticized for being reluctant to play his stars big minutes, and Keefe has given more leash to his best players. Keefe has made some structural changes, including relying less on Babcock's infamous 'flip' breakout plays that often relinquished possession of the puck. The rookie coach is seen as more aligned with GM Kyle Dubas' robust analytics and player development staff and has a reputation for being progressive in both fields. 

Like Tortorella, Keefe isn't a huge advocate for line-matching, though we'll see how that changes in a best-of-five series. 

While Tortorella will have the option to rely heavily on his experienced coaching staff, Keefe will have less experience to draw upon. His staff is comprised of Paul McFarland, 34, Dave Hakstol, 51, and Andrew Brewer, 34. Hakstol was head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers from 2015-2019 and is the only coach on the staff with previous head coaching experience at the NHL level.

In a series where every bounce will be magnified, making calculated decisions will be of the utmost importance. Having experience is not a prerequisite to having success in the NHL, but for a young team like the Blue Jackets to be able to lean on its veteran coaching staff is an advantage that the Maple Leafs lack.