Why John Tortorella landed another NHL job before Randy Carlyle

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

The last time we saw John Tortorella behind an NHL bench, he was tuned out by a veteran Vancouver Canucks team as they faded down the stretch and missed the playoffs by a mile. Following the dismissal of a coach who was suspended for five games that season for basically trying to fight a rival head coach on national television, the Canucks promptly returned to being a 100 point team the next year.

The last time we saw Randy Carlyle behind an NHL bench, he was getting the most – at least from a results perspective – from a Toronto Maple Leafs team that promptly fell apart dramatically after his dismissal. 

So how exactly did Tortorella get a job before Carlyle? And might it have something to do with a deeper understanding of variance and the underlying numbers? 

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Are you of the opinion that it’s preposterous to imagine that Carlyle might land another NHL job after what went down in Toronto? You may want to reconsider your opinion.

The rumblings are beginning in earnest, reaching something of a crescendo as this week went along. Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, for example, suggested in his Sunday column that many executives around the NHL are miffed by the Blue Jackets’ decision to enlist Tortorella rather than Carlyle:

So, what next for the Columbus Blue Jackets? Coach Todd Richards, with the club sitting at 0-7-0, was given his walking papers and replaced with John Tortorella, who usually wears out his welcome in fairly short order with the players. Many sitting in NHL offices can’t believe GM Jarmo Kekalainen chose Tortorella over former Maple Leafs bench boss Randy Carlyle, who is biding his time and waiting for a job. Many believe Carlyle is firm but fair while Tortorella is tough and unpredictable.

Garrioch isn’t the first or the only media guy hearing Carlyle’s name echoing around the NHL’s head coaching carousel. TSN’s Gary Lawless wrote at length early last week about how the struggling Anaheim Ducks would strongly consider Carlyle if they ultimately decide to fire Bruce Boudreau. Lawless even suggested that a familiar face may be key to playing Yente on such a match:

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The Ducks don’t need a coach to grow with their group. They need a boss that can come in and get them over the top. Carlyle is in many ways a perfect fit.

There are some intangibles that stand in the way. Carlyle is a proud man and getting fired by Murray stung. They had been peers for a long time. First as players and then in hockey ops with both the Vancouver Canucks and Ducks. They won together. And then they fell out.

[Former Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis] could play an interesting role in putting together a match between Murray and Carlyle. It was just last season when Nonis, then Leafs GM, fired Carlyle under duress. Nonis knew what ailed Toronto wasn’t at the coaching level. But he needed to make a move to try and save his own job. That’s hockey sometimes. Great game, crappy business.

Nonis knows what Carlyle can do as a coach and might be the perfect voice to remind Murray of those skills.

Lawless’ TSN colleague, Darren Dreger, caught up with Carlyle this weekend and the former Leafs bench boss was unequivocal about being up for a new challenge (though he reportedly turned down a job offer in the KHL). 

“My goal is to coach 1,000 games because I played over 1,000 games,” Carlyle told Dreger. “That milestone would mean something to me personally.”

For Maple Leafs fans, you’ve got to be rooting for the Ducks to tap Carlyle as the guy to right their rapidly sinking ship. After all, he’s still under contract with the Maple Leafs for the balance of the season. So if the Ducks hire him in-season and prior to the NHL changing the executive compensation rules (which is expected to happen early on in the new year), the Maple Leafs would accrue a valuable second-round pick in exchange for Carlyle’s services.

It’s not actually all that simple. The Canucks reportedly had to negotiate pretty hard with the Blue Jackets in order to pry a second-round pick out of Columbus for Tortorella’s rights, even agreeing to continue paying an undisclosed portion of Torts’ salary. The Ducks are a very cash-conscious organization, though, which could give the Maple Leafs some negotiating flexibility if Anaheim’s interest in Carlyle is remotely serious…

Anyway, this has all been a large digression. It would seem that, unlike on Twitter, Carlyle’s coaching ability is still rated around the league, but obviously Columbus preferred Tortorella – even after Tortorella’s tenure in Vancouver went about as well as the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Why is that, exactly?

One thing worth noting about the Blue Jackets is that they have a member of their front office, Josh Flynn, dedicated exclusively to analytics and managing salary cap issues. And Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has spoken on the record about using data to inform his decision making and player evaluations.

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“You’re always looking for more information,” Kekalainen told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch in the summer of 2014. “And you’re always trying to keep up with what other clubs are doing, make sure that you’re the team with the advantage. “It’s something we’ve looked at more and more. It’s something we talk about now whenever we’re looking at players, not just within our organization but players who are free agents or trades that we may have discussed.”

So if the Blue Jackets are looking at data when making player personnel decisions, why wouldn’t they consider them when evaluating a replacement head coach? 

And here’s the thing about Tortorella. Everything went south for him in Vancouver, but the club actually did pretty well by the underlying numbers. The Canucks’ forecheck was too aggressive and they couldn’t break out of a paper bag, but they successfully controlled play at 5-on-5 and were phenomenal on the penalty kill. Really though, Tortorella’s Canucks were mostly bitten by brutal shooting luck and the injury bug.

Carlyle in Toronto is a different story. He was completely reliant on the performance of his goaltenders. The Leafs were pummelled on the shot clock at 5-on-5 at a near historic rate during his time in the centre of the hockey universe.

If you’re just looking at the results of their respective teams during and after their tenures, Carlyle would seem to be a much stronger head coaching candidate than Tortorella. If you’re paying attention to some of the data that underlies those results, though, Tortorella would seem to be the better bet.

It’s possible that the Blue Jackets just wanted a task master and Tortorella fit that bill better than Carlyle. You’d think, or certainly hope, that their decision-making processes are more sophisticated than that (though, I guess they didn’t get Nathan Horton’s contract insured so maybe not). 

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The most likely scenario, I think, is that it was a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. It’s worth noting, for example, that Kekalainen specifically mentioned territorial play at Tortorella’s introductory press conference this week.

“The team was not responding the right way, the play wasn’t going in the right direction,” Kekalainen said at a press conference this week, by way of theScore. “We did what we thought was needed, and by no means does this let anyone off the hook, including management and the players. We’re all in this together.”

Carlyle may yet get another look behind an NHL bench. Though the Ducks have a pair of recent former head coaches in the organization already in Paul MacLean and Dallas Eakins, and neither would cost the club a second-round pick in the next three years, the Orange County club may be a candidate to pursue Carlyle’s services. There’s certainly a lot of smoke surrounding that possibility.

Still, you have to wonder if the NHL’s increasing awareness about and understanding of some key hockey analytics principles – that productive puck possession leads to wins, that percentages are relatively fixed and that in the big picture you’re a more formidable team if you can consistently tilt the ice than if you’re relying on ‘bearing down on opportunities’ – have dented Carlyle’s attractiveness as a head coaching candidate. At this point, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it probably has.

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  • SEER

    Wait…Canucks retain some of Torts salary and get a second? Geez, Leafs can pay all of Randy’s and Dave’s salaries and get two seconds, a third and a seventh! Go MLSE!

  • SEER

    I think Columbus hired Torts because he’s got that ‘superstar’ attitude that sells tickets – they are ways looking to get the fans excited in a small market.

  • SEER

    Or could it be that the expectations were very high for the Blue Jackets and the owner is so angry with his team’s efforts or lack thereof, hence the choice to bring in Tortorella?

    I’m pretty sure with the season underway, the choice to go with Torts was a an extremely short term. The only way Torts is still there next summer is if he can whip these boys back into the playoff contention.