Rangers

Hartnett: Mark Messier Might Be Exactly What Rangers Need In A Head Coach

Possibility Of Messier Taking Over Behind Rangers’ Bench Is Realistic
Mark Messier (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Mark Messier (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

After John Tortorella led the New York Rangers to the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the furthest thing from anyone’s mind was the possibility of general manager Glen Sather turning to a raw, inexperienced head coach to replace him a year later.

Yet, the possibility of Mark Messier taking over behind the Rangers’ bench is a realistic possibility.

Sather could be willing to follow the route of the Colorado Avalanche by handing the keys to the bench over to a franchise legend. In Colorado’s case, naming Patrick Roy head coach and vice president of hockey operations has certainly created a buzz among Avalanche fans and could breathe life into a franchise that has gone stagnant in recent years.

Hiring Messier to guide the Blueshirts would have a similar effect, though the Rangers are far from being a stagnant, playoff-barren franchise. They’re a talented group full of experienced players that is expected to contend for the Stanley Cup from the moment the puck drops in the 2013-14 NHL season.

Following Disappointing Season, Rangers Fire Coach John Tortorella

Does the idea of hiring Messier sound far-fetched on the surface? Yes. Then again, Sather hired Bryan Trottier over more experienced candidates in 2002 to replace Ron Low.

TORTORELLA’S ACT WILL BE DIFFICULT TO FOLLOW

Whether you appreciated Tortorella or not, his four-and-a-half-year reign will be remembered as a highly successful era in Rangers history. Tortorella was an abrasive personality and his brand of tough-love coaching may have alienated a number of players, but he qualified for the playoffs in four out of five years, led the Blueshirts to a first-place regular season standing in 2012 and was within an overtime of forcing a Game 7 in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.

When the Rangers hired Tortorella to replace popular, outgoing head coach Tom Renney, the idea was to hire someone entirely different. Renney was a players’ coach and Sather felt it necessary to replace him with Tortorella’s brand of highly-accountable, in-your-face coaching that culminated in Tortorella lifting the 2004 Stanley Cup as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

What the Rangers need now is a personality very different than Tortorella’s. The next coach must rebuild the confidence of this team. Recently-fired Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, Lindy Ruff and Messier are the leading candidates to replace Tortorella, and each bring different attributes to the table.

THERE ISN’T A SLAM-DUNK CANDIDATE OUT THERE

As far as coaching acumen goes, none of the obvious candidates can better Tortorella’s knowledge of the game and attention to detail. It’s really a matter of what kind of fit Sather is looking for.

Ruff is almost a Tortorella clone as far as his style of play and demanding nature on the bench. Brad Boyes admitted in a CBC interview last summer that Ruff was constantly on his case.

“I don’t need someone telling me every game, every minute or every shift if I’ve done something good or bad,” Boyes told CBC.

That sounds a lot like Tortorella, doesn’t it? Considering that a number of players grew disillusioned at Tortorella’s approach, it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to hire Ruff. In addition, Ruff was once hailed for his offensive philosophies that regressed into something resembling Tortorella’s system in his final year as the Sabres’ head coach.

Vigneault would appear to be the most sensible choice given that Sather is building a roster made up of quicker, more offensively-gifted players than in years past. We all know that Vigneault had a track record of getting success out of his stars in Vancouver.

What might give Vigneault the edge is his focus on using advanced statistics and a strategic approach to coaching. Hockey seems to be trending in the direction of Major League Baseball when it comes to advanced statistics, and this makes Vigneault an intriguing candidate.

Though it should be noted that Vigneault tends to put his foot in his mouth in interviews. In this respect, he isn’t an ideal fit for New York. The New York media will be licking its chops whenever Vigneault slips up, and will set traps for him to fall into.

WHY SATHER ISN’T OVERLOOKING MESSIER

While Messier certainly isn’t the favorite to land the gig behind the Rangers’ bench, there isn’t a slam-dunk candidate to choose from. I’d give Vigneault the edge over anyone in most circumstances, though it’s very hard to tell what Sather is looking for given how closely he played his cards to his chest during Wednesday’s 20-minute conference call.

Keep in mind that Sather approached Messier to become the head coach of the Rangers after dismissing Low in 2002, and was a prime candidate to become head coach of the Edmonton Oilers in recent years.

Just the thought alone of Messier taking over behind the bench would generate a ton of excitement among the Rangers’ fan base, and I’d imagine that the media would give him an easier ride than most first-time NHL coaches given what he’s accomplished in this city.

What separates Messier from every candidate is his inspirational, “follow-me-to-the-promised-land” leadership ability. From his playing days, Messier knew what buttons to push as captain of Stanley Cup-winning teams in Edmonton and New York. He famously stood up Mike Keenan during the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. This as much as his Game 6 guarantee turned the tide of the series as the Rangers marched past the Devils and eventually went on to defeat the Vancouver Canucks, ending the Rangers’ infamous 54-year Stanley Cup drought.

Keenan’s methods have been described as even harsher than Tortorella’s. The 19 other players inside the Rangers’ locker room were afraid to challenge Keenan’s authority, and Messier petitioned Keenan on their behalf. Messier made an emotional plea to Keenan to ease off his players because he felt that the Rangers were very close to accomplishing their Stanley Cup goal.

Tortorella’s methods poisoned some of the room and Messier appears to be the type of personality who is capable of bringing everyone together and uniting them to fight for the cause in a remarkable way. His coaching resume lacks the polish of Vigneault and Ruff, but he speaks the players’ language, and maybe that’s exactly what the Rangers need after Tortorella squeezed the confidence out of this team.

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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