Sorry Flyers Fans, But John Tortorella Should Win NHL Coach of the Year

They say honesty is the best policy.

It is better to deal with difficult conversations and uncomfortable truths by taking them on head-on rather than using a tactic of ignoring and avoiding confrontation.

I have to come right out and say it; even though it will surely be difficult to digest what is sure to be an unpopular opinion among my fellow Flyers fans.

So here goes.

If I had a vote for the Jack Adams Award, my vote would go to Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella over Alain Vigneault.

I know that everyone is on board the Alain Vigneault for Jack Adams train.  I understand and agree that he is absolutely a strong choice for the award.  The Philadelphia Flyers were an inconsistent franchise desperately seeking a new direction after the dismissals of both GM Ron Hextall and former Head Coach Dave Hakstol.  The season was a smashing success by all accounts for the fans of the Orange and Black:  2nd place in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, 89 points from 69 games, a lock for clinching a postseason birth, and a team that pundits were tabbing to make a Stanley Cup run.

And then COVID-19 ground the NHL season to a halt.

With plans for the resumption of play taking shape, the Flyers remain in a strong position as a team jockeying for playoff seeding once the Stanley Cup Playoffs are slated to begin later on this summer.  While everyone is expecting wild and unpredictable play when hockey resumes, the Flyers are still a team that many are backing to be a very tough out.  Vigneault’s presence as the bench boss has been a breath of fresh air in Philadelphia.

NHL.com released a graphic showing that Vigneault was in the pole position for taking home the 2019-20 Jack Adams Award (for NHL Coach of the Year) according to 18 writers for NHL.com.  These lists are always a major talking point with hockey fans and are meant to create a conversation.  The NHL’s ‘Top 20 Centers’ list is a great example as is the ‘Trophy Tracker: Jack Adams’.

No longer an underdog, Alain Vigneault is in good shape to win ...

Graphic is from NBCSports.com and was originally posted on NHL.com

The graphic shows Alain Vigneault ahead of Mike Sullivan (PIT), John Tortorella (CBJ), and Dave Tippett (EDM).  Note the omission of Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, whose team had the best record in the NHL and were awarded the President’s Trophy for being the team that finished with the most points.  No question, all of them had successful seasons with their respective teams.  For me, there is no doubt that Vigneault’s debut season with the Flyers has been impressive and he deserves to have his name mentioned as a favorite for the Jack Adams.  But to me, John Tortorella is not getting enough recognition for the coaching job he has done with the Columbus Bluejackets.

Both Vigneault and Tortorella have done tremendous jobs with their teams this season, with the Flyers and the Blue Jackets in playoff positions when the NHL paused due to COVID-19.  I wanted to see if there was a wide difference between the two coaches or if the voting should be a much closer call.

Lets take a closer look at both Vigneault’s and Tortorella’s situations this season.

 

Coaching Record

Coach 2018-19 Record 2019-20 Record Pts Pts % Special Teams Goal Diff. Final Standings
Alain Vigneault (PHI)

 

 

N/A 41-21-7 (69 Games) 89 0.645 PP  20.8%(14th)

PK 81.8% (11th)

GF 227 (8th)

GA 191 (8th)

Diff. +36

2nd in the Metro

6th Overall

 

John Tortorella (CBJ)

 

 

47-31-4 (98 Points) 33-22-15 (70 Games) 81 0.579 PP 16.4% (27th)

PK 81.7% (12th)

GF 180 (28th)

GA 183 (4th)

Diff. -3

6th in the Metro

14th Overall

 

On the surface, Vigneault absolutely had the better season than Tortorella when looking at the season as a whole.  He finished with 8 more points with 1 less game played, and the Flyers were red hot when the season was halted and were contending for the Metropolitan Division title.  The Flyers finished eighth in both goals for as well as goals against; a massive improvement from the Dave Hakstol Flyers from a year ago.  Vigneault’s system really took hold in Philadelphia after the turn of the calendar year in 2020.  Starting with the January 8th game against the Washington Capitals, the Flyers compiled a 19-6-1 record before the pause and established themselves as a team that fully bought in to the coach’s style of play and were among the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Conversely, Tortorella’s Blue Jackets scratched and clawed their way through the entire season.  Columbus had tremendous difficulty scoring goals, and as a result had to play a heavily disciplined, hard checking, defensive style in order to be competitive in every game.  With this style of play, Columbus finished 4th in the NHL in goals allowed (183) and were surprisingly blessed with some excellent goaltending by rookie Elvis Merzlikins and to a lesser extent Joonas Korpisalo.  They had to be sharp more often than not as the Blue Jackets were 28th in goals scored with the powerplay not being much of an advantage as Columbus finished 27th in powerplay efficiency.  In terms of the Penalty Kill, the Jackets surprisingly only finished a tenth of a percentage point behind the Flyers.

Overall, there is no doubt that Vigneault gets the nod in terms of which coach had the better overall season.  The Flyers finished the season a close 2nd in the race for the division title, while the Blue Jackets were clinging to a Wildcard spot and dealing with a rash of injuries to an already talent starved squad.  It is interesting to note that while Vigneault had the better season, Tortorella only lost one more game (with one extra game played) in regulation time.  The real difference in their records are the fact that Vigneault has eight more wins than Tortorella, but the Blue Jackets had 15 overtime/shootout losses for an extra-point compared to 7 for the Flyers.  Again, this speaks more to the fact that the Blue Jackets were in survival mode for the entire season and needed to play a style of hockey suited towards ensuring close games being decided in overtime or by shootout.

Advantage:  Alain Vigneault

 

Offseason Moves Heading into This Season

Comparing the offseason moves and for the Flyers and the Blue Jackets is a case study of polar opposites.

After hiring Vigneault in the offseason, GM Chuck Fletcher went about the offseason trying to make impactful additions to maximize the potential of the roster.  In a trade with the Washington Capitals, Fletcher dealt defenseman Radko Gudas as part of a deal to bring in Matt Niskanen.  Although Gudas was one of the better blueliners on a very disappointing team from last season, Niskanen has been a breath of fresh air.  Playing top pair minutes and deployed in key situations, Niskanen’s veteran presence was able to bring Ivan Provorov’s confidence and swagger back to the point where Provorov was on pace for a career best season.  Add to that the acquisition of Justin Braun from San Jose; and Fletcher solidified the top six of his defense corps with a penalty killer who played difficult minutes and killed penalties to allow youngsters like Travis Sanheim and rookie Phillipe Myers to gain traction together as a pairing.  Not to mention the fact that Braun mentored the formerly inconsistent Robert Hagg to the point where he became a fixture in the Flyers lineup and relegating Shayne Gostisbehere to the press box.

With Vigneault’s hire, much was made about Fletcher’s decision to acquire the rights of Kevin Hayes before the official start of unrestricted free agency.  Hayes was strongly recommended by Vigneault; as the two were familiar with each other through their time together while with the New York Rangers.  With Hayes signing a mammoth deal worth $50 million over 7 years ($7.14 million AAV), concerns about the contract by fans were swept away as Hayes proved his value over and over to the Flyers faithful all season.  With his strength as a puck possessor and his prowess while shorthanded, Hayes made both Fletcher and Vigneault look sensational for their choice to shore up the center position.

Not to be overlooked, the Flyers also made noteworthy gains to their forward roster with the acquisition of Tyler Pitlick via trade, and the promotion of Joel Farabee and Nicholas Aube-Kubel from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.  Put into such an advantageous position, Fletcher was able to make the Flyers buyers at the trade deadline (albeit with some significant cap restrictions) and was able to add Derek Grant as well as Nate Thompson for the playoffs.

With the Blue Jackets, the contrast could not be much sharper.  After what may have been the biggest upset in Stanley Cup Playoffs history with Columbus sweeping the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in 4 games, the Cinderella story came to an end in the second round as Columbus lost to the Boston Bruins in six games.  While Columbus achieved their goal of winning a playoff series for the first time in their history, GM Jarmo Kekalainen went all in on the season by refusing to deal pending free agent forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchesne, and Ryan Dzingel; defenseman Adam McQuaid, as well as two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.

Ultimately, Kekalainen lost all of those players from his roster in free agency as Panarin signed a monster deal with the New York Rangers, Duchesne went to Nashville, Dzingel signed in Carolina, Bobrovsky went to Florida, and McQuaid was not signed by any team.  While Bobrovsky and Duchene in particular have had disappointing seasons with their new clubs, there is no doubt that the Blue Jackets were significantly set back by the departures of these players.  Especially considering that Panarin had an exceptional season with the Rangers and is a Hart Trophy candidate, Columbus learned the harsh reality that the city and the club will continue to attract free agents or keep players from hitting the open market in comparison to more popular destinations.

But who are we kidding?  Kekalainen was able to sign a free agent to help mitigate the loss of star power; enter forward Gustav Nyquist.  That’s it.  That was the lone free agent signing.  The four-time 20 goal scorer signed with the Blue Jackets and put up a modest 15 goals and 42 points in 70 games this season.  All this to replace the combined 53 goals that were lost from the forwards who left via free agency.

Adding to the uncertainty for the year was the fact that Joonas Korpisalo was expected to take over the crease after being Bobrovsky’s backup for the better part of four seasons.  While Korpisalo played 37 games for Columbus this season, the real revelation came from the impressive showing by rookie Elvis Mrzlikins.  Just turning 26 in April, Mrzlikins dazzled at times with a .923 save percentage, a GAA of 2.35, and 5 shutouts in 33 games.  When Elvis entered the building there is no doubt that his level of play made the Blue Jackets a tougher team to play against more often than not.

Additionally, the Blue Jackets were unable to drastically add to their roster at the trade deadline in the middle of a playoff push while trying desperately to hold on to a Wildcard spot.  Columbus could only manage to acquire Devin Shore from Anaheim in exchange for prospect Sonny Milano.

With respect to the management of both Columbus and Philadelphia, there can be absolutely no doubt that the Flyers executed a plan in the offseason to give their team and their coach the opportunity to succeed.  Vigneault did; and he absolutely deserves credit for turning the Flyers fortunes around with the opportunity that he was given.  At his own press conference when he was hired as the Flyers new bench boss, Vigneault mentioned that the possibility of a turnaround in Philadelphia was very possible in short order; and he delivered.

Meanwhile, John Tortorella had no choice but to sit by and watch as cornerstone players left Columbus after the most successful Blue Jackets campaign in club history.  Truthfully, there was not going to be much that Kekalainen could have done to help ease the pain of that exodus.  Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene had made up their minds before the Stanley Cup playoffs even began.  Although no attainable players could have possibly offset that personnel loss, the fact remains that no tangible adds to the roster made Tortorella’s job much more difficult heading into this season.

Advantage:  John Tortorella

 

Team Expectations

A coach’s job by definition is to be a teacher of the game, a strategist who formulates and implements a game plan, and a manager of people.  A great coach is someone who can do all of these things and can get the most out their players both individually as well as collectively.  Both Vigneault and Tortorella have very strong cases in this regard.

As mentioned earlier, Vigneault was the polar opposite of his predecessor Dave Hakstol.  Hakstol believed that offence in the attacking zone was generated by the point men, whereas Vigneault installed a forechecking system that prioritizes high pressure, puck pursuit, and puck management.  He was able to light a spark in veteran players by instituting a culture of accountability that was not present under Hakstol.  Vigneault also silenced his detractors who claimed that while with the Rangers he was a hindrance to the development of young players.  Overall, his overhaul of the general attitude that was pervasive in the Flyers dressing room and it translated into results on the ice.  Vigneault’s epic quote during training camp of “Be a f*cking Flyer”, instantly became a rallying cry for a team that needed something to rally behind.  There is no question that Vigneault knew exactly which buttons to push in order to transform this team from a bubble team for the postseason to a legitimate contender for the Metropolitan Division title.

John Tortorella is also no stranger of pushing buttons.  Tortorella came into training camp this season with a vastly depleted lineup from the season before and every hockey pundit writing off Columbus’ chances at making the postseason.  Like a good soldier, Tortorella didn’t complain (certainly not publicly); and went to work getting his team prepared for what looked to be a very long season.  A coach like Tortorella has seen his act wear thin with players while in New York and Vancouver, and the writing seemed to be on the wall for Tortorella to take some heat (undeservedly so) for a steep decline in the standings this season.  His challenge was to convince a team that already had an identity for playing a hardworking, grinding style of hockey; that they needed to work even harder and continue grinding their way to make games as tough for opponents as possible.  And it worked.  Almost beyond comprehension, the Blue Jackets were still in a Wildcard spot when the season was postponed, and had to scratch and claw for every point in the standings that they could get.  Like a maestro, Tortorella seemed to know exactly what notes to hit at just the right times in order to motivate his team to perform to the best of their ability.  He knew when to lay off his team after tough stretches, especially considering that at one point down the stretch the Blue Jackets had injuries to Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Riley Nash, and Elvis Mrzlikins in the month of February alone.  He also knew how to grab the attention of the media to take the pressure off of his players as evidenced by the video below.

This video is from the postgame press conference after an overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.  Video is courtesy of Fox Sports Ohio.

Both coaches have won the Jack Adams Award before, and they both share many similar qualities that are present in great Head Coaches.  So, what distinguishes them from each other?

What separates them is the level of talent available on both respective teams.

Vigneault did get more from his players this season.  Scott Laughton and Jake Voracek elevated their games, Sean Couturier played his way into Selke Trophy consideration, Travis Konecny led the team in scoring, Ivan Provorov returned to form, and Carter Hart’s dominance on home ice all propelled the Flyers to 2nd in the Metro.  There is a bevy of candidates for who should be the MVP of the Flyers this season.

Who was the MVP of the Columbus Blue Jackets this season?  Pierre-Luc Dubois led the team with 49 points (Konecny had 61 and played in 4 less games), Zach Werenski had 20 goals and 41 points, and Seth Jones was a vital cog in the wheel although he only finished with 30 points in 56 games due to injury.

One could legitimately argue that John Tortorella could be the MVP of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Think that is far fetched?  Some may point out that the Blue Jackets got exceptional goaltending and that the goaltenders were the biggest factor in keeping Columbus in the playoff race.

That is partly true.  There is no question that the Blue Jackets did get bailed out by their goaltending at times.

That being said, pinning the Blue Jackets success on Elvis is a bit over the top.  While he should get some consideration for the Calder Trophy, he is not getting nearly as much buzz as frontrunners Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks.  In fact, Elvis’ record this season was not as impressive as his other goaltending stats as he finished with a 13-9-8 record (a below .500 record).  Korpisalo actually had a better record than Elvis as he went 19-12-5 in 37 games.

With the Blue Jackets struggles on offense (a very predictable outcome due to the overall talent level of the squad); Tortorella had no choice but to employ a defense first strategy that not only fit the playing style of previous Columbus teams, but also had to shelter his inexperienced goaltending as much as he could.  While this style is not the most pleasing to the eye, Tortorella acknowledged as much after a narrow 5-4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in November by saying “We’re a boring hockey team that’s .500”.  In other words, the end absolutely justified the means.

He really had no choice but to employ these tactics and despite the lack of talent in comparison to the opposition on any given night, the Blue Jackets remained competitive as is evidenced by their 15 overtime/shootout losses this season.  It was ugly but it was necessity, and at the end of the day that translated into a vital 15 points in the standings that was the difference between being a playoff team and a lottery team.

Then there is the issue of the standings.  Both coaches outperformed expectations for their respective teams prior to the start of the season.  For Alain Vigneault, most people had the Flyers pegged as a bubble playoff team that was going to be in the hunt for the Wildcard by the time the regular season ended.  Without the benefit of hindsight, many fans questioned the additions of Braun, Niskanen, and Hayes.  The common belief was that the Flyers were a better team, but the question remained how much better they actually were going to be.  Most likely, they would be jockeying for position with the New York Islanders for 4th or 5th in the Metro (the Isles finished with 80 points in 68 games).  The Flyers ended up 2nd in the Metro with 89 points in 69 games).  That’s an improvement of give or take 7-10 points in the standings.

Columbus on the other hand, was predicted by most to be a bottom dweller in the Eastern Conference.  Taking the historically bad Red Wings out of the equation, even the most optimistic Blue Jackets fan could only hope to be in the position that the New Jersey Devils were in this season (and they by all accounts underperformed).  The Devils finished last in the Metro with 68 points in 69 games.  The Blue Jackets finished with 81 points in 70 games.  Many would not have even projected that Columbus would have hit the 68 points that the Devils had.  But for the sake of argument let us assume that was the case.  That means that the Jackets finished at least 13 points farther ahead in the standings compared to where they were expected to be.

With the discrepancy in the talent levels of both teams, the amount of points achieved this season by Columbus was a monumental achievement.  Both coaches outkicked their coverage this season impressively.  Vigneault’s improvement was heroic, but Tortorella’s was superhuman.  After all, the Flyers finished 8 points ahead of the Blue Jackets (with 1 less game played than Columbus) and 8 more total wins.  Columbus only had 1 less regulation loss than Philadelphia did, and as mentioned earlier had to pick up points with 15 overtime/shootout losses compared to the Flyers who had 7.  Those 8 overtime and shootout extra points were the difference between the two clubs and the two coaches this season.

It would have been so easy for Tortorella to blame management for the exit of so many key players after last season.  It would have been so easy for the players on the Blue Jackets to resign themselves to a long season.  Both were not options, and that is a testament to John Tortorella’s relationship with his players and the pride with which he executes his plan to squeeze blood from a stone and make the Blue Jackets as competitive as possible to the degree that he did.

Advantage:  John Tortorella

 

Conclusion

Still think that John Tortorella is not the Blue Jacket’s MVP?  Consider this: can you name another coach in the NHL that could have replicated the results that Tortorella did with the Blue Jackets this season?  I can honestly say I cannot.  How about if both of these coaches switched teams?  Granted if Tortorella was the Flyers bench boss, I do not think that the Flyers would have made it to the point where they would be fighting for a division title.  However, I do think that Tortorella would have made the Flyers a playoff team.  I do not believe the same can be said of Vigneault if he were coaching Columbus.

And that is kind of the point.  Dave Hakstol was so completely inept as a Head Coach (ask any Flyers fan) that literally any competent coach would have improved the Flyers.  The Flyers were a team that had talent (most of it on the younger side) and needed someone with structure, personality, and coaching credibility to move them along.  With he additions that Chuck Fletcher made to the roster, those chances for improvement increase significantly.

Conversely, think about the big names that left Columbus and the lack of reinforcements that were brought in.  Imagine if the Blue Jackets had managed to even keep one of those players.  How much higher in the standings would Columbus be if they were able to add another 20 goals to their roster?

Some may argue that the Blue Jackets injuries down the stretch along with the rise in play from the Rangers may have knocked Columbus out of the Wildcard had the season been allowed to finish at 82 games.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Alternatively, maybe the Flyers would have won the division had the full season been played.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  There is no way for us to be able to accurately predict those two things with certainty.

The Jack Adams Award cannot be awarded based on maybes and uncertainty.  The season played out as it did and there is no changing that.  Both coaches did a heck of a job this season and both should be deservingly recognized by the hockey world.  In a perfect world, John Tortorella should be enjoying a nice glass of Tuscan Chianti red wine while Alain Vigneault enjoys a nice stiff martini while discussing the nuances of coaching in today’s NHL and to celebrate their exceptional seasons.

But in my opinion, I think that John Tortorella should be feted as the toast of the coaching fraternity for this season and win his third Jack Adams Award.

***

Do you agree with the article?  Do you still think Alain Vigneault should win the Jack Adams?  Is there any possible way that someone other than Vigneault or Tortorella wins the award?

Feel free to leave any comments or feedback via twitter or at www.brotherlypuck.com.  Unless you think that Mike Sullivan of the Penguins should win.  In that case, I really don’t want to hear from you.

Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,

I remain,

Manny Benevides

@mannybenevides

 

photo credit: thesportingnews.com

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