By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
John Tortorella has created a high-pressure environment around his team.
There are indications that his contentious attitude may be starting to weigh on his team as it settles into its second-round series against the Washington Capitals.
Tortorella’s tightly wound personality did not have any adverse effects during the regular season when the Rangers won the top position in the Eastern Conference and ripped up rivals like the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins on a regular basis. But that approach may be making things more difficult on his players as the postseason moves along.
When Tortorella refuses to answer questions in pregame, postgame and off-day media sessions, he is sending a message to his players. It’s as if he is saying, “I don’t trust these guys and you shouldn’t either. Don’t waste your time answering questions or explaining things to these people.”
He has every right to do that, but how is that helping his players prepare for the grind of playoff hockey? The story of a team with championship potential trying to climb the championship mountain gets clouded by a coach’s fears, smugness and disdain. Tortorella wants to go at full speed forward all the time and taking the time to answer questions from the media is not his idea of preparing for the next game.
That’s a lack of maturity that could hurt the team at one point or another. It’s as if the role of playoff favorite is too heavy a burden for this coach and that the expectations of the fans and media will eventually sink them. Nobody is saying that Tortorella needs to be effusive with the media and give long, expansive answers to every question, but taking the opposite approach may distract his team.
For example, if a former NHL felon like Dale Hunter can answer media queries on off-days without turning into an ogre, why must Tortorella turn every question into some kind of morality play? By taking that kind of sullen approach he is placing even more pressure on his players.
Take a look at recent Stanley Cup winners like the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Coaches like Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville and Dan Bylsma did not clam up when their teams were in the early rounds of the playoffs. They managed to get the message across to their players without the ever-present hostility that Tortorella brings to the fore in almost every media session. The us-against-the-world scenario that coaches often adopt is the most overdone scenario in sports. It certainly doesn’t work when most observers believe a team is an overwhelming favorites, as is the case when the Rangers line up against the Capitals.
The Rangers were in a pressure-filled situation in round one against the Ottawa Senators, and they were pushed to the limit before they responded in Game 6 and 7. Washington doesn’t play with Ottawa’s offensive flair but the Capitals are a physically stronger team that can trade hits with the Rangers. It might be better for them to get in more of a skating game with a team that doesn’t match up in that area with the exception of a few players like Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin.
Bringing up any strategic issues with Tortorella is a lost cause. As anyone who has seen one of his media sessions on local television, the NHL Network or You Tube can report, Tortorella gets an incredulous look on his face when asked a question that he deems might give his opponent some information.
Skilled coaches almost always know how to use the media to its advantage. Hunter was not afraid to tell the Washington Post that he knows the Rangers will always send out Dan Girardi when Ovechkin is on the ice. Hunter knows it’s part of his job to get Ovechkin away from the Rangers’ best shutdown defenseman.
A statement like that will find its way into Tortorella’s head. Why can’t he return the favor by giving the Capitals’ coach something to think about?
The Rangers are a better team than the Capitals and they have the best goalie in the world in Henrik Lundqvist. However, when the coach’s anger and arrogance becomes an issue, it can distract the team and keep it from playing the kind of hockey fans have seen all season and have a right to expect.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).