John Tortorella can be a jerk. Maybe he hugs kids and pets dogs and supports charities away from the rink, but that doesn’t make him misunderstood. Far too often he chooses to represent himself and his organization as curt, condescending and profane. He intimidates and embarrasses not just reporters, but players and officials and goodness knows who else. That makes him understood all too well.
That is why so many people are piling on now that he has been fired as the coach of the New York Rangers. It’s like the bully on the playground just got his comeuppance, and suddenly the schoolkids are unafraid to express what they really feel as he sniffs and wipes the blood off his nose. It’s even sweeter that general manager Glen Sather said Tortorella was “a little bit shocked.” What a punch to the gut it must have been.
But that is not why Tortorella was fired. He might be a bully, but he will be back as soon as another team decides it needs a bully – a bully with a Stanley Cup ring and a Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year. You don’t need the media to like you. You don’t need the players to like you. The conventional wisdom is that you need the players to respect you, and that certainly helps, but you might not even need that.
However you do it, you need to get the most out of your players, and you need to win. Bottom line: Tortorella wasn’t getting the most out of his players anymore. He wasn’t winning enough anymore. He wasn’t trending toward the Cup anymore, and there was reason to question whether he was the best man for the job going forward, especially when the Rangers might be able to hire Alain Vigneault, Lindy Ruff or possibly Dave Tippett – all Jack Adams winners themselves.
“Every coach has a shelf life,” Sather said.
Every GM has a shelf life, too. Sather will turn 70 before next season and is far removed from his glory days, when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier won him all those Cups in Edmonton. He has led the Rangers since 2000 and has made his share of bad decisions. But this isn’t one of them.
[Watch: Did Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist have a hand in coach's firing?]
After years of collecting big names and failing to generate big results, the Rangers have built the right way in the salary-cap era. They have drafted and developed a core of young players. They have supplemented it through trades and free-agent signings. Tortorella was right for the Rangers when they needed to build an identity and a hard-working, shot-blocking style fit their personnel, with gritty guys like Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi leading the crew in front of world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
It’s not like Tortorella didn’t know how to play high-tempo hockey. When he won the Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, his motto was “safe is death.” It’s not like scorers didn’t want to play for him and couldn’t put up numbers in his system. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards both signed as free agents while he was the Rangers’ coach. Gaborik had 41- and 42-goal seasons under him. Richards had 25 goals and 66 points last season. It’s not like young players didn’t respond to him, either. The Rangers finished first in the East last season with 109 points and went to the conference final. Tortorella was a Jack Adams finalist.
But then the Rangers changed their look in the off-season, trading for Rick Nash to add offense, losing pieces like Brandon Prust in the process. With Nash and up-and-coming scorers like Derek Stepan – and with less depth and grit – the Rangers should have shifted from sitting back and blocking shots toward attacking and taking shots. They didn’t, and as it turned out, safe was death. Tortorella either would not change because of stubbornness or could not change because of the lockout. He had a week of training camp, no exhibitions and little practice time during the season, not exactly ideal conditions for an overhaul.
It didn’t help that expectations were higher than ever before, that Gaborik and Richards struggled, and that Marc Staal suffered an eye injury. Tortorella was partly to blame for Gaborik’s problems, benching him, moving him from right wing to left wing and back again, alienating him. Gaborik was traded at the deadline – to Columbus, in exchange for depth pieces, like the Nash deal in reverse. Richards just didn’t show up ready to play and made himself a candidate for a compliance buyout.
The power play ranked 23rd at 15.7 percent for the second straight season, and the Rangers scored less (2.62 goals per game) than they did in 2011-12 (2.71), giving Lundqvist even less margin for error. Most alarming, they didn’t outwork everyone consistently anymore. Their identity was gone. They looked worn out. It all added up.
Though they made the playoffs and won a seven-game series with the Washington Capitals in the first round, they were no match for the Boston Bruins in the second round, losing in five games. Youngster Chris Kreider added a spark when finally given an opportunity, but that made Tortorella look bad because he had kicked him around and buried him in the minors. Nash was a bust. Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player under Tortorella in 2004, was scratched from the final two games – an “organizational decision,” in Sather’s words. Lundqvist, with one season left on his contract, made headlines with non-committal comments about his future with the team.
[Related: Rangers GM Glen Sather: 'Every coach has a shelf life']
“It’s a trying job,” Sather said. “It’s something that you just have to take day by day with every coach. You never know how long it’s going to last or how long it’s going to work.”
Tortorella’s fatal error was not his failure to adjust his personal style; it was his failure to adjust his playing style. But nobody likes a bully, and it’s harder to tolerate one when you’re not meeting expectations. Being a jerk makes everyone turn on you faster, inside and outside the room. Maybe with a full training camp, a full exhibition season and a full 82-game regular season, Tortorella could have had a fair chance to change. But if Richards is gone and Lundqvist is uncertain, if good candidates are available, it’s easier and cleaner just to change coaches.
Sather said he couldn’t predict what the new coach’s system would be like, but he’d like to take the best elements from the best teams in the league. In other words, not too soft or too hard, not too offensive or too defensive, not too veteran or too young. Sather needs to find someone who can do what Tortorella didn’t. Let the talent shine and the grinders grind. Fix the power play, score more, keep playing defense and take pressure off Lundqvist.
And, yeah, show some class, too.
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