Last May, John Tortorella had the New York Rangers within an overtime of forcing a potential winner-take-all Game 7, nearly guiding the Blueshirts to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since their magical year of 1994. That was until New Jersey Devils stud rookie Adam Henrique crashed their plans.
We’re less than a year removed from Henrique’s series-winning Game 6 overtime goal, and suddenly Tortorella is toast?
It’s easy for disheartened fans and out-of-town columnists to call for Tortorella’s dismissal as the Rangers are failing to meet expectations. Their heads are barely above water at 8th overall in the Eastern Conference. If you’re in the anti-Tortorella camp, last night’s 5-2 victory over a dilapidated and spiritless Philadelphia Flyers team probably didn’t shift your opinion. You’re either pro-Torts or anti-Torts. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground to be found.
I ask Rangers fans to carefully examine which side of the fence they’re on. Ridding of Tortorella before season’s end or in the summer would probably set the Rangers back a decade. Remember the dark, playoff-less spell between 1998 and 2004? Be careful what you wish for Rangers fans. It could return if the Blueshirts’ brass suddenly decides to pull the plug on Torts.
The primary job of an NHL head coach is to leave the position in better shape than before he arrived. Tom Renney was able to make huge amounts of progress following the disastrous tenures of John Muckler, Ron Low and Brian Trottier. Renney built a solid platform for Tortorella to improve on and Torts has taken the baton and ran with it.
Tell me, who’s the hot candidate out there with the resume required to build upon what Tortorella has achieved since taking over from Renney in February of 2009? I’m not seeing an obvious, outstanding candidate — and it’s certainly not former Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. Rangers fans who openly criticize Tortorella for being overly defensive-minded and who disagree with his team-first philosophies would beg for his return should Ruff eventually succeed him.
Do you want to see boring, unwatchable “goon hockey” every night on the Madison Square Garden ice? Then Ruff is your man. Once hailed for being an offensive-minded coach, Ruff’s Sabres de-evolved into a goon squad during his final years in Buffalo despite having gifted forwards in Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson and Nathan Gerbe on his roster. On top of this, the last time Ruff won a playoff series was 2007.
For Tortorella, Wednesday’s victory in Philadelphia was his 400th career win — an impressive mark for any NHL head coach. Tortorella is just the 30th coach in the history of the league to reach the milestone, and the first ever American-born coach to do so.
Not counting the four games he served as interim Rangers head coach in 1999-2000, he’s spent 12 years as a head coach in the NHL. Three of those weren’t full 82-game seasons, either. There is the lockout-shortened schedule this season, of course, and Tortorella took over the Lightning and Rangers at midseason.
What impresses me most about Tortorella is his attention to detail and readiness to tear something up if it isn’t working. He’s a tremendous self-corrector. This part of his repertoire was on full display in Philadelphia when he moved struggling centerman Brad Richards to the third line and switched underperforming winger Marian Gaborik to his favored left wing.
The new Rangers lines looked as such: Hagelin-Stepan-Nash, Gaborik-Miller-Callahan, Kreider-Richards-Boyle, Pyatt-Newbury-Asham.
It seems that Tortorella has finally found the perfect balance, as Rick Nash exploded for two goals and an assist against the Flyers and Richards found his first goal since March 10. The Rangers’ assistant captain looked like an entirely different player than the one who described himself as “lost and confused” two games earlier.
“It’s a constant battle in the NHL, trying to find combinations and chemistry,” Richards said after Tuesday’s victory.
The Rangers are now 7-0-1 in games that Hagelin-Stepan-Nash begin on the same line. Maybe Tortorella will stick with a winning formula as Derek Stepan, Nash, Richards and Chris Kreider benefited greatly from the shakeup. And most importantly, the Rangers’ four lines looked consistent as a whole.
“This is a game where I think a lot of guys felt good about their game and what they did out there,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stated. “So hopefully it can continue this week.”
Having studied the Rangers up close over recent years, there isn’t any swaying in their belief in the system or Tortorella’s philosophies between now and last season. Whether they’re in first place or hovering around the final playoff spot, this team places the same amount of trust in their coach regardless of the standings. They’ll follow Tortorella like prideful soldiers taking orders from their superior.
That’s why the notion of players tuning out Tortorella comes off as a ridiculous theory. There’s a great deal of mutual trust between Tortorella and his roster. To brand Tortorella entirely as a strict disciplinarian is missing about 90 percent of what he’s about. Tortorella is extremely careful in how he handles his players and is very protective of younger players, especially in front of the media.
He’ll fight for his players, he’s certain in his philosophies and he’ll fight for this team and this city. Tortorella knows his team inside and out. He recognizes when to kick them in the butt and when to take a player aside to have a quiet word. I cannot think of a man who could step into his shoes and immediately produce better results.
It’s not Tortorella’s fault that key defenseman Marc Staal suffered an unfortunate eye injury and is out indefinitely, or that Brandon Prust is making a major impact in Montreal rather than MSG, or that Brad Richards has spent the majority of the season coughing up the puck. These things happen in hockey, and Tortorella isn’t the type to complain about his circumstances. He simply marches forward with a belief that his players buy into.
Simply put, the Rangers are far too wise to consider dumping Tortorella after two-thirds of a season. Even if this team falls short of the playoffs, the Rangers will not be replacing Tortorella any time soon.
Are you in the pro-Torts or anti-Torts camp? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.