John Tortorella was a winner whose abrasive act grew tired
John Tortorella's Rangers were known for wearing down other teams with their tenacious play. Unfortunately, Tortorella ultimately wore down his own players while he wore out his welcome in New York, falling short of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in five seasons and leaving behind a swath of colorful language and unfulfilled promise. This is not to suggest that Tortorella had no successes on Broadway. His teams played an honest game, blocked shots with every bruised bone in their bodies and won more games than they lost. Tortorella's greatest ally, captain Ryan Callahan, was a good fit for the coach, because he is the type of player who will put his head through a wall and then ask where he can find the next wall. Tortorella loved that. But there were also issues and incidents. Some may have been checkpoints along the way to Tortorella's dismissal, but there certainly are images of the coach that stand out, the impression he left behind, and the players who keenly felt his greatest impact on the dressing room:
So maybe the Rangers' power play was the product of bad play rather than bad coaching, but when Tortorella was asked why Carl Hagelin, a talented forward, wasn't used more often with a man advantage, he replied, "He stinks." Typical of Tortorella, he did make some valid points about Hagelin's speed game being a bad fit for the structure of a power play, but he also used the word "stinks" several more times during his answer. Hagelin is an impressionable 24-year-old trying his hardest and there are ways to get messages across in public -- say what you want in private -- without demeaning a young player. And if the power play stinks, does some of the team's inability to fix it hang with the coach? Beyond just the power play, if the team's personnel (smaller, speedier, skilled players) doesn't necessarily match its style of play (winning by doing gritty things such as hitting and blocking shots), does the coach need to adapt that style to match the roster or does the GM need to adapt the roster to match the style?
As a postscript to his original Hagelin comments, and a series in which his team didn't seem to perform for him, Tortorella was willing to accept some responsibility for not getting his front-line players to play front-line games. Rick Nash was largely silent for a number of postseason contests. Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers' meal ticket and Vezina Trophy winner, talked in the past tense about his time as a Blueshirt, saying, "You know, I had a great time here in New York." Had? This was very different from the exit interviews that the players gave last year, when they were quick to compliment the team and, by extension, their coach. Their looks of resignation were very noticeable this time, as if even the team's key stars were thinking that it was time to move on to a new setting.
When Brad Richards, New York's high-priced free-agent center, began slumping this year, Tortorella often defended the player who had won a championship with him in Tampa. Actually, Tortorella's use of Richards -- demoting him to the fourth line and then benching him for New York's last two playoff games -- is completely defensible. However, the coach resented the criticism that was heaped on Richards and let that fact be known in no uncertain terms during a press conference, when he said: "Brad Richards is a helluva hockey player. He has had struggles here. It continues. Me putting him in that role does not help him. So I'd rather have him out and identify how we're going to run our fourth line. None of you, don't put words in my mouth. It's not blaming Brad Richards. I've already heard enough of that crap already. He's a helluva hockey player that's having a helluva time. I need to make decisions for what I feel is right for the team to win tonight's game. That's why I make that decision. This is a Conn Smythe winner, a guy that I've grown up, a guy that I love as a person and as a player. Kiss my ass if you want to write something different. It's not about blaming that guy and I don't want anybody to pile on him. This is my decision and I make it for the hockey club."
In between coaching jobs, Tortorella tore into Sean Avery during a stint as a TSN analyst, saying after the Dallas Stars' troubled forward was suspended for making crude comments about former girlfriends, "He's embarrassed himself. He's embarrassed his organization. More important, he's embarrassed his teammates who have to look out for him. But it's the NHL. He's embarrassed the whole league. Send him home." It a twist of misfortune, Avery returned to New York to play for Tortorella's Rangers and the two men had an uneasy coexistence. Nobody knew what Avery was likely to do next, but Tortorella allowed him to sit on one end of the bench, away from the regular rotation of his linemates, and pretty much keep to himself. Tortorella's explanation: "Sean is his own cat." For all the times the coach put his foot down, he should have done it with Avery and told him to knock off the nonsense.
During Game 5 of the Rangers' playoff series againstWashington in 2009, Tortorella got into it with a heckling Capitals fan, squirting water, throwing the bottle, and jabbing a stick between panes of glass. A beer was tossed on the coach and Rangers assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld came in to play peacemaker, taking the stick from Tortorella's hands. Event staff fixed the glass and the league suspended Tortorella for the next contest, which the Rangers lost at home before being eliminated by the Caps two nights later.
If his team's games were ever dull, Tortorella's postgame scrums would often make up for it. While coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning, he developed an ongoing verbal feud with New York Post hockey writer Larry Brooks, telling him to "Get the f--- outta here. I'm not going to answer any questions from you" while they were live on Canadian TV. He also asked Brooks if he had ever fought before. "You challenging me?" Brooks asked. When Tortorella became coach of the Rangers in 2009, the two men were able to exchange such pleasantries on an almost daily basis.
This was the picture of a frustrated and beaten-down player who, it should be noted, often defended Tortorella. Brian Boyle was having a tough game in the face-off dot against the Bruins in this year's playoffs. A lot of opposing centermen do. Boston has the best record in the league at taking face-offs. But after whiffing several times against Patrice Bergeron and company, Boyle sat by his locker room stall and tore into himself for not being "able to win one friggin' draw." At one point, he began talking about Tortorella and then cut himself off in mid-sentence. It wasn't the first time. The coach had benched him earlier in the season and Boyle seemed to take the demotion extremely hard, telling people that the coach had a right to expect better of him. Sure, he felt he had let down his coach and his team, but it left you wondering if Tortorella had done enough to enable Boyle to succeed, if there enough details about how to improve to go along with the coach's mandates to improve. Boyle wasn't the only young Ranger who worked but struggled to find his game. Brandon Dubinsky was dealt in the trade for Rick Nash after falling from 24 goals in 2010-11 to 10 the next season in the same number of games.
It takes two to tango, but was there ever a more entertaining dance than the one staged by Tortorella and Devils coach Peter DeBoer? The two had words while leaning over the ends of their benches a couple of times. Whether New York's Mike Rupp was jabbing Marty Brodeur when passing through his crease or whether the teams engaged in three fights just three seconds after an opening faceoff, just how many fans were wishing for DeBoer and Tortorella to drop the gloves, too?
Did he really say that? OK, of course he was kidding, but his disclaimer was a day late and many dollars (as in a fine from the league) short. Tortorella's Rangers won the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia despite the penalty shot that was awarded to the Flyers in the closing minute. Said Tortorella after the game: "I'm not sure if NBC got together with the refs to turn this into an overtime game ... There are two good referees. I thought the game was reffed horribly. I'm not what happened there. Maybe they wanted to get it to overtime. I'm not sure if they had meetings about that ... In that third period, it was disgusting."
In Marian Gaborik, Tortorella had one of the game's greatest natural offensive talents on his roster. Gaborik twice posted 40-goal seasons for the Rangers, and the other parts of his game that the coach tried to get him to improve certainly got better as time wore on. But picture the mild-mannered Gaborik breaking his stick in the midst of a scoring slump this season. Tortorella tinkered with Gaborik's minutes, but the star forward could only manage to score nine goals in 35 games, and he was clearly frustrated before he was traded. The stick-breaking was only a snapshot. What did it mean? Whatever tough love Tortorella tried to impart to his players in the name of making the team better just wasn't working.
In the end, Tortorella set a high bar that he and his team weren't able to reach. The coach said it himself after the Game 6 loss to the Devils in 2012: "I just don't want us -- and you hear it so much and I won't accept it: 'You won a couple of rounds. You got into the third round.' That isn't good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there. I just don't want this organization to sit still."
Now it will move on without him.