Blue Jackets' experience with John Tortorella helped them fall into Mike Babcock trap

The most successful coach in Columbus Blue Jackets history had a lot in common with Mike Babcock.

When Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson was asked about those who criticized the Mike Babcock hiring the moment it happened during a press conference on Monday, he didn't mince words.

"Maybe they were right," he said. "It's on us. It's on me."

Similarly, general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen acknowledged that the team knew what it was getting into back in July.

"We understood the dynamics of hiring Mike Babcock before we did so," he said. "And we understand the criticism now that it didn't work out the way we had planned."

The last part of that statement is a bit of an understatement considering Babcock resigned without coaching a single game with Columbus — and even Kekäläinen was willing to admit that it was "obviously fair" to question the team's due diligence in this case.

Mike Babcock's tenure in Columbus is over before it really began. (Jason Mowry/Getty Images)
Mike Babcock's tenure in Columbus is over before it really began. (Jason Mowry/Getty Images)

Davidson and Kekäläinen knew there was risk associated with making a hiring that will do go down as a complete and utter disaster — and they pulled the trigger anyway.

They came away from their meetings with Babcock believing he had changed his ways and was ready to interact with his players in a healthy way. They talked to people around the game and determined he was someone who could be a torchbearer for their organization. They misjudged the man, and their vetting process was not effective — even if Kekäläinen was at a bit of a loss as to where they went wrong.

"I really felt that we talked to enough people with credibility and people who were respected in the hockey world," he said. "We'd probably extend that and do even more of that, but as I mentioned in my statement I can assure you that the due diligence was thorough in talking to several different people in different positions who'd worked with him."

Left unsaid in all of that is why Columbus might've been willing to gamble on hiring Babcock in the first place. The team was clearly hoping for a quick turnaround and made win-now moves befitting that strategy.

Hiring an accomplished head coach meshed with that philosophy, and also echoed the team's history.

After all, the most successful head coach in Blue Jackets history is John Tortorella, a bench boss who came to Columbus with baggage just like Babcock did.

The John Tortorella experience was a positive one for Columbus. (Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The John Tortorella experience was a positive one for Columbus. (Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When the Blue Jackets hired Tortorella, he was coming off a one-and-done stint in Vancouver that was nothing short of disastrous.

It was reported that he didn't even live in the city and would drive in briefly to make an appearance at practice, then delegate everything to his assistants and drive back to his home across the American border.

Throughout his career he'd been fined numerous times, suspended for trying to get into his opponents' locker room, and gotten into it with fans. Being combustible was arguably his best known trait when he landed in Columbus. Although he'd won a Stanley Cup and Jack Adams Trophy, those accomplishments were more than a decade in his rearview mirror.

To be clear, complaints about Tortorella were not the same as those surrounding Babcock. He had difficult relationships with players at times, but he seemed to come by those honestly due to his bluntness as a human being. You didn't hear accusations of Torts doing anything like Babcock's infamous Mitch Marner incident. Tortorella was a similar buy-low proposition to Babcock, not necessarily a similar coach.

During his time in Columbus, the veteran skipper remained a firecracker, but he helped the franchise achieve sustained respectability for the first time in its history.

Of the eight head coaches in Blue Jackets history, Tortorella is the only one who won more than half of his regular-season games — and his efforts in 2016-17 resulted in his second career Jack Adams Trophy win.

He led the squad to four of the six playoff appearances in franchise history, and pulled major upsets over the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs. The other seven Columbus coaches combined to win a total of two playoff games.

There were bumpy moments, like his benching of Pierre-Luc Dubois — and subsequently his replacement Patrik Laine — but giving Tortorella another chance undoubtedly worked for Columbus, and that decision was made by the brain trust of Davidson and Kekäläinen.

Tortorella's name was not mentioned on Monday, or much throughout the entire Babcock debacle, and that's reasonable. The Babcock situation is unique and there's plenty to unpack with its bizarre series of events.

However, when the central question of the day is how this organization could convince itself to hire Babcock in the first place when an outcome like this was always a possibility, Tortorella probably has a lot to do with it.

Any team getting into the Babcock business was going to have to put on some blinders to do so. It was going to take a warped viewpoint to look at a man who'd thoroughly mistreated his players in the past and see him as a central figure in any team's future.

It makes sense that the franchise to do that would be one that had offered a lifeline to a coach whose antics seemed to have him sliding out of the NHL, and saw that gamble pay off handsomely.