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Hartnett: Tortorella Nearly Tasted Sweet Success With The Rangers

Had Torts Dialed Back His Demanding Nature, He'd Still Be Rangers Coach
John Tortorella (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

John Tortorella (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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

Under John Tortorella, the Rangers were an uncompromising team on the ice, matching Tortorella’s fiery personal demeanor.

The Blueshirts played with a relentless spirit throughout Tortorella’s time in New York. They were foot soldiers who gave everything for the cause — embracing Tortorella’s demanding blue-collar system that required players to chip, grind and constantly throw their bodies into the fray.

Tortorella had his share of critics. A large collection of hockey writers and analysts viewed Tortorella’s brand of hockey as a step toward the devolution of the sport. Torts plugged his ears and tuned out such criticism. He was a true maverick, unwilling to bend his philosophies for anyone.

His penchant for no-nonsense, straight-ahead, aggressive forechecking nearly culminated in a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Who knows how history would have changed had Adam Henrique not delivered that memorable Game 6 series-clinching overtime winner that sent the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals…

If the Rangers somehow reached the finals, they were probably far too worn down physically to prevent the Los Angeles Kings from lifting the Stanley Cup. Yet, you can’t say it with a complete certainty.

Imagine for a moment — had Tortorella’s Rangers forced an Eastern Conference Finals Game 7, advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals and perhaps toppled the Kings on the path toward Stanley Cup glory. He would still be presiding over the home bench at Madison Square Garden today, rather than standing behind the visiting Canucks’ bench as Torts makes his highly-anticipated return to the Garden on Saturday.

Had Torts lifted the Stanley Cup in New York, he would’ve been untouchable and his power would have been unchecked. He would have wielded an even greater sword over his players.

Fate wouldn’t have it that way, as Henrique and the Devils celebrated widely on the Prudential Center ice and Tortorella’s leash was shortened. That did not stop Tortorella from pushing on with his beliefs, even if they would eventually lead to his downfall.

TORTORELLA’S DEMANDING NATURE LED TO HIS DOWNFALL

In his final season with the Rangers, it all came apart for Tortorella. He wasn’t able to open his eyes and take a step back to observe the damage he was inflicting on his own team. What he was demanding of his players was both physically and emotionally unsustainable.

General manager Glen Sather pulled the plug on Torts in late May.

“Every coach has a shelf life,” Sather said. “I’ve told every guy that I’ve hired that at some point in time this is going to change.”

Tortorella should have dialed his demands back. He needed to loosen his obsession with mistake-free hockey and allow his star players to express themselves.

His wearing down of players resulted in injuries piling up late in the season. Ex-Ranger Marian Gaborik played through a torn labrum in the 2012 playoffs. Current captain Ryan Callahan and winger Carl Hagelin pushed through the same injury during the 2013 playoffs.

“I think we needed a change in style,” Sather said in June. “If you look at the injuries we had over the years, a number of guys really got the crap kicked out of them in our end because we constantly had to defend our own end. That style was perfect here for a couple years, but I think it started to wear our team out. With the injuries that we had this year, it started to take a toll on our hockey club.”

Most of all, Torts should have been fairer with his players.

He made a major mistake when he called out Hagelin during the 2013 playoffs, especially as Hagelin was playing through a torn labrum.  Hagelin always rose to Tortorella’s challenge, yet Torts sat there in front of the cameras and said that Hagelin “stinks” on the power play.

That kind of thing can turn allies into enemies.

It wasn’t right when Torts humiliated Gaborik in full view of the media and teammates at a March away practice in Ottawa by calling out the Slovakian winger and having a 12-minute discussion — after making it clear to all in attendance that Gaborik would be demoted to the fourth line.

Tortorella and Gaborik butted heads throughout their time together in New York. It was somewhat of a love-hate relationship. For the most part, Torts was doing the right thing as he was able to get Gaborik to modify some of his bad practice habits and successfully pushed Gaborik into fitting into the team concept.

Although both are gone, Gaborik is the prime example of Tortorella’s shortcomings as head coach of the Rangers. Tortorella would have been rewarded if he gave back a little of his power. I know that goes against everything in Tortorella’s nature, but he had he tweaked his system slightly, allowed offensively-gifted players to express themselves and not pushed them through the gauntlet — he might’ve lifted the Stanley Cup down The Canyon of Heroes and been universally loved by Rangers fans.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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