John Tortorella addressed the media from Columbus this week, discussing his ice time management in a best-of-five series versus the Leafs, leaning on his top players, the importance of team speed in the qualifying-round matchup, the decision as to who starts in net for Game 1, and the opportunity with his team finally reaching full health after an adverse season.
What do you think the team gleaned from finally winning a series last year? Just knowing you accomplished that, is there underlying confidence that is there, having tasted that success, as limited as it was?
Tortorella: I think they understand how you have to play to be competitive in a series in the playoffs. I look at both of our series, and I thought we played really well in both series last year. I look at the first series, and there are a lot of momentum swings in that series, even though we won four straight games. I think we went through a learning experience in how we have to play, and when we are not playing the way we should, how you get back to it. I thought that was very important in that first series.
We’re an organization that hasn’t won in the playoffs a whole bunch. It’s always good to win a series and see how it feels. They should feel good about that. As I said last year, when we won that series, you still have three series to go. There a number of things we are going to have to live through to really understand total playoff hockey.
Nick Foligno has said that when he tells his kids he is going away to this type of event, he promises he is going to try to bring home a Cup given he’s going to be away from his family. What do stories like that and experiences like that tell you about what you guys are sacrificing just to be a part of this?
Tortorella: That’s a dangerous word: sacrifice. I will answer it this way: With what is going on in the worldwide health situation, there are a lot more people than us that are sacrificing a whole hell of a lot more with some of the things they have to go through to stay healthy. I am not going to compare that, with all respect to Nick’s family.
We are all concerned about the health of our athletes. We want our families taken care of and healthy. But we are very fortunate to be in the situation we are in to go play. We have a lot of people looking out after us in terms of our health as we get ready to play this.
There are people in today’s world that are fighting just to figure out if they’re healthy right now. That is a tough question for me to use the word sacrifice. I am not going to use that. We are athletes. We are a team. We have people taking care of us to go play in this tournament. I’ll answer it that way.
Any time you have to take time away from your family to go do your job, that in itself is a sacrifice. When you are spending time away from your family to do your job, that is a commitment on your part. Maybe commitment is a better word. What level of commitment does it speak to that you have to be away from your families to go play?
Tortorella: This is what we do. This is what we do. We get paid pretty well, too, for doing it. You are not going to get me to go down that road. No disrespect to anybody’s family. If the family is healthy and the athlete is healthy, they’re in. As you’ve seen, some athletes are a little bit concerned about that. They can opt-out. But as I told our group as we started this, if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, opt-out. We are not going to get involved in a situation of the drama and talking about it and worrying about this, that, or the other thing.
We have so many people looking out after us. You are not getting me to go down that road. You asked me two different ways, but I am not going down that road. We are fortunate.
If it does end up that we see Zach Werenski and Seth Jones on the same power-play unit eventually, with Jones potentially on the wall there, what is the logic about putting those two together? Zach was saying they can interchange — one guy can play the point, one guy can play the wall. Is that part of it?
Tortorella: Yeah, they read off of one another so well. We want to try them on the same power-play unit. They are going to be on the ice. It is a best-of-five series. It is going to be me putting them on the ice and filling them with ice time if I think they can help us win that particular game. If you don’t win that particular game, you’re in trouble in a five-game series. We are going to get them on the ice as much as we possibly can.
Good things happen when they are on the ice together, so we want to look at them as far as the power play. We haven’t made final decisions as to what our group is going to look like, but we certainly want to take a look at it early in camp here.
How much does the best-of-five change ice time management versus a best-of-seven in terms of getting your best guys out there?
Tortorella: This is a play-in. We are trying to get in. On top of that, it is a best of five. It is doubled up. With how crazy this situation has come about and where we are at, I am going with my guys that are going to give us the best opportunity in certain situations in the game. As you go along and hopefully if we are successful, you certainly have to look at the knicks, bumps, and bruises that go along with players. We are not even looking at that right now. We are looking at a very good Toronto team and trying to be the best we can as soon as possible in this series. That is what brings out your best guys getting a ton of ice time.
You are going to play in empty arenas with no fans. You are a man of passion. Sometimes it leads you to use words that are better muffled by crowds. Do you have to take that into account that people might hear everything you say?
Tortorella: No. I really feel, once the game starts and all of the talk about the empty buildings… Once the game starts, quite honestly, when we have fans in the building, I am locked into what is going on on the ice and I don’t even know what is going on in the stands. I think the same thing is going to happen with the players. I think the intensity is going to be there.
As far as me, no. I will be locked in and doing the best job I can on the bench.
How about what the microphones might pick up for the audiences at home?
Tortorella: I really don’t give a shit, quite honestly. I’ll put it to you that way. I am not even thinking about it. I really feel that it is one of many distractions or things going on that are different and we have to handle. It is not going to change how I coach. It is not going to change the players as far as once they get into it.
I am sure there is going to be a little bit of, “This is really different,” at first. Once we get going, I think it is going to be business as usual.
How much of a challenge was it to coach this team this season with all of the injuries and all of the adversity you went through?
Tortorella: It was probably one of the more enjoyable seasons I’ve had. I was a bit of a spectator watching a team play as a team. We’ve talked about this when it was happening and we were finding our way with all of the injuries — it was a real wake-up call to me how important it is to play as a team versus that star power. Every team is looking for star power. I think eventually when you get to the end and win it, you need to have a game-breaker to find a way to lead a team. But I lived it and watched it from the bench how important it is. It was really good to see how by playing as a team, you can overcome so many things.
It wasn’t difficult, quite honestly. The guys kind of took it upon themselves. Sometimes, because of such a lineup of players we didn’t expect in there, we were throwing lines out there. We weren’t worrying about matchups. We were throwing the lines out there. They kind of ran with it. It was nice to be part of.
Your two guys in net had a rare opportunity to really carry the load for you in two separate spans. How fortunate do you feel to have both of these guys — young goalies who look like they’re both on the way up?
Tortorella: You ask me that question before last season, and we had a lot of questions marks when we talked about our goaltending. We are not one of the 12 teams in the East playing now in the summer if our goaltending doesn’t carry us. They were the backbone of our team. Each one of them took a part of the season and really stood in there for us. It is exciting to see.
I am not sure who is going to start this series because they are both deserving of it. I have to go on what they look like now when we play an exhibition game and some scrimmage games. I am going to lean on Manny [Legace], our goaltending coach. I have to go on that because right now it would be a coin toss who would play. We will come down to that decision as we come close to August 2nd.
How excited are you to see how these two do in a bigger microscope knowing neither has played playoff hockey before?
Tortorella: That is a question that is unanswered. It is going to be fun to watch. I was worried going into the season. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. If someone else in this organization says they weren’t, they’re lying to you. I am not questioning how they’ll handle it; I am anxious to see who steps up and takes it. It is not going to be my decision; it is going to be their decision as far as who carries the ball here in the playoffs. I am sure they are both very excited about this opportunity.
I feel a lot better about this situation — new to them — than when it was new to them coming to play a regular season. I think they have grown mentally. I do think both of them pull for one another. It is a really healthy situation for those two guys. I am anxious to see how it plays out.
How much shorter does the leash have to be in a best-of-five than in a best-of-seven?
Tortorella: It is a long playoff. We’ve got to get in it. We have to win the best-of-five. It is a very tricky series because you can’t allow many things to get away from you for too long or you are done. I’ll answer the question that way. There are going to be some quick decisions made. There is going to be some ice time laid on people who we may have more trust in than other guys in certain situations. We are going to lay it out there. It changes really quickly. You lose the first one, and you are behind the eight-ball right away in a best-of-five.
What are your thoughts on having Josh Anderson back and skating? Do you have any sense of a timeline here?
Tortorella: No information at all. I have no idea. He is in Phase 3 with us here rehabbing.
How much does it mean to have your full arsenal back when you get back to playing?
Tortorella: I am excited about how, although the break nobody wanted to happen, it certainly helped this team get some guys healthy. We are really excited about that opportunity to play with a full team.
The speed of Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson — how does it help you guys and what do you really like about what their speed is able to add to the lineup?
Tortorella: It is an obvious question — it is a fast game. It is played with pace. The game has changed to that. The team we are playing is a very fast team. I’ll tell you this: I am looking at guys that can bring that pace versus some other guys that may bring other things to the table. I am certainly looking at the guys that can skate. In this series here, I think that is a very important thing we need to see [as to] whether we can plug them into the lineup.