John Tortorella is not who you think he is, at least according to his boss with the Blue Jackets.
Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen says the public perception of his 58-year-old coach as a relic stuck in his ways is misguided.
"A lot of times the public conception of people is so different from what it actually is, and that’s why I want to bring up that he’s completely different from some of the public conceptions or what people think that he might be as a coach," Kekalainen said in a recent interview.
"He does not think that he’s got it all figured out."
Tortorella’s Blue Jackets have been the surprise team of the NHL thus far, tied for fifth overall with 32 points.
It’s quite the revival for a coach who looked to be on his last gasps in the league after being fired by Vancouver in 2014, one year after a dismissal from the New York Rangers. He was the surprise choice to replace Todd Richards as the Jackets head coach early last season.
In that short time together, Kekalainen has discovered that Tortorella is much more adaptive than he’s given credit for.
"He wants to learn. He wants to get better. And he’s really tweaked his ideology of coaching, both on the mental side and the system side of hockey too," Kekalainen said. "He does not make the team play a game that’s not up to date and modern."
Events in recent months hinted at the opposite.
Tortorella coached an archaically-built American team at the World Cup of Hockey (they lost all three games) and then spouted off about the limitations of puck possession statistics early last month. Columbus, notably, stormed through November (9-2-3) with one of the best puck possession marks in hockey (52.4 per cent).
MAKING A LEAP
Nikita Kucherov and Vladimir Tarasenko have been pretty good for a while now, but both appear to be making another leap this season.
The Russian duo sit second (29 points) and third (27 points, tied with Tyler Seguin) in league scoring, trailing only Edmonton Oilers’ wunderkind Connor McDavid. Kucherov is on pace for a 24-point jump from last season’s career-high 66-point campaign, while Tarasenko is on pace for a 15-point improvement on his own career-high of 74 points.
What’s behind the jump?
For Kucherov it comes down to a spike in even-strength production. The 23-year-old, who led the Lightning with 41 even-strength points last year, already has 20 such points after only two months this season.
A look at his five-on-five production on a per-minute basis reveals the boom:
Goals per-60 minutes: 1.44 (0.84 last season)
Assists per-60: 1.44 (0.95)
Points per-60: 2.88 (1.80)
The Lightning are shooting an unsustainable 19.6 per cent when he’s on the ice, so there’s some luck involved. Regardless, the former second-round pick continues to furiously produce even as he draws the bulk of opponent’s attention with captain Steven Stamkos sidelined.
Tarasenko’s rise, conversely, has been fuelled by the power play. The 24-year-old, with 11 power-play points, is about halfway to the 24 he managed all of last season.
SURVIVING WITHOUT JOHNNY
Johnny Gaudreau scored a goal and added an assist in his surprise return to the Calgary lineup Sunday night.
The 23-year-old was supposed to miss four to six weeks with a broken finger but returned after less than three. The Flames did just fine without him though, posting a 6-3-1 mark, their 13 points in that span trailing only the Blue Jackets. A big force throughout was surprise No. 1 goaltender Chad Johnson, who posted two shutouts with Gaudreau sidelined.
Johnson is among the league leaders in wins (10), save percentage (.928) and shutouts (3) this season.
THE BEST PENALTY KILL IN HOCKEY
Few teams have been able to touch the Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill this season.
Through 25 games, the Hurricanes have allowed a mere six power-play goals and just two since the start of November (95 per cent). The club recently went 12 straight games without allowing one. Cam Ward, with a .941 save percentage shorthanded, has backed up effective penalty killers like Jaccob Slavin, Ron Hainsey and Jay McClement.
Perhaps head coach Bill Peters is owed some due too. In each of his first two seasons with Carolina, the club has given up the fewest power-play goals in hockey and is on track to do the same again this year.
Phil Kessel’s stock was at a career-low when the Penguins acquired him from the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2015. His start in Pittsburgh was a touch bumpy, but since February Kessel has been back to his old productive self, notably as a key force in the club’s fourth Stanley Cup last season.
Kessel’s last 82 games with the Penguins (including the post-season): 29 goals, 73 points
The 29-year-old is currently tied for ninth in league scoring (24 points) and seventh in assists (16).
NOVEMBER NHL LEADERS
Goals: Sidney Crosby — 11
Assists: Tyler Seguin/Nikolaj Ehlers — 14
Points: Connor McDavid — 19
Save percentage: Pekka Rinne — .949
Goals against average: Rinne — 1.49
Wins: Rinne/Sergei Bobrovsky — 9