When Brad Shaw chose the Columbus Blue Jackets as his next coaching destination last summer, there were more than a few in the hockey world who thought the respected 52-year-old assistant was off his rocker.
After all, he had two other offers to consider when he decided to depart the St. Louis Blues after nine seasons.
Why the Blue Jackets, an organization that has made the playoffs in just two of its 15 seasons? Why the Blue Jackets, ruled by the volatile head coach John Tortorella?
Sure, Tortorella had won a Stanley Cup with the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning, but he was a disaster with the 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks. Even after taking over the Blue Jackets early last season, Columbus finished a middling 34-33-8 under Tortorella.
And while Shaw flourished with Ralph Krueger and the Team Europe coaching staff in their runner-up finish at the World Cup of Hockey in September, Tortorella flopped with the United States.
But for Shaw and Tortorella there was unfinished business. While running the Lightning, Tortorella had an agreement in principle to hire Shaw as an assistant coach, but the deal fell through because of financial concerns in the Tampa Bay front office.
“There is a comfort level for me with John,” Shaw says. “He may be a polarizing person, but he’s misunderstood. He is about as passionate a person and idealistic as you’ll find in the game.
“Sure, some things set him off and that alienates him with some fans and media. But John is a quality human being, a straightforward person.”
According to Shaw, there are several straightforward reasons as to why the Blue Jackets have the NHL’s best record at 28-7-4, including a 16-game win streak that ended last week, and the online bookmaker Bodog currently has them listed at 8/1 to win the Stanley Cup (right behind Chicago, who is 7/1).
The Blue Jackets’ success has plenty to do with Tortorella, Shaw and the coaching staff. Columbus has the best record but also has one of the youngest teams at an average age of 26.3. There has been a lot of teaching and nurturing going on.
Here are some other factors:
Sergei Bobrovsky has been brilliant
The Blue Jackets did not start the season well. After opening losses to the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks, Columbus went on a 6-1-2 run, thanks to Bobrovsky. He won plenty of games before his teammates got on track, covering their mistakes, and as a result he leads the league with 26 victories.
Sam Gagner is a pleasant surprise
Signed to a one-year contract in early August, the unrestricted free agent has 14 goals in 37 games, just four behind his career high.
Columbus is winning by committee
The hero one night could be Bobrovsky, or right wing Cam Atkinson with one of his team-leading four game-winners. Or captain Nick Foligno, who scored in overtime for a 2-1 win at home against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Or Brandon Saad. Or Scott Hartnell. The Blue Jackets already have seven players with more than 20 points this season,
In addition, the young players have benefited from the leadership of Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky, while Jack Johnson and David Savard have emerged as one of the league’s top shutdown defence pairings.
The power play has been scary good
Columbus is running at a 27.2 (31 for 114) per cent success rate. The next best is the Lightning at 23.5.
The farm team is producing
The Blues Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, won the Calder Cup championship last spring when they were known as the Lake Eric Monsters.
There are five members from that team currently with the Blue Jackets in forwards Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Lucas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen and defenceman Zach Werenski.
The 19-year-old Werenski, in particular, has been quite a find.
Drafted eighth overall in 2015 out of the University of Michigan, Werenski is a Calder Trophy candidate and fourth in average ice time at 21:09 on Columbus behind Seth Jones (23:02), Johnson (21:34) and Savard (21:34).
The Monsters went 15-2 in their championship run and that winning attitude has rubbed off on the Blue Jackets.
“Winning is a habit and a skill,” Shaw said. “When you have a run like [the Monsters] had you feel you can win all the time. There was that feeling during the 16-game win streak.”
It turns out Shaw was not off his rocker, after all.