In 2011-12, Tortorella led the Rangers to one of the best seasons in franchise history, and he can improve on that performance.
Tortorella has all the qualities fans and players want in a coach; he is intensely loyal to his players, yet demands maximum effort from them at all times. He also brings the credibility of being a Stanley Cup champion and a coach who has brought his team to the playoffs six times out of nine full seasons.
The Rangers have improved every year under Tortorella. The only way to improve on a stellar 2011-12 season in which the team had the best record in the Eastern Conference and lost in the conference finals is to bring the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012-13. While they are there, they might as well win it too.
One of the main reasons Tortorella was hired by the Rangers is because of the success he had in Tampa, a small market that is better suited for waterskiing than hockey.
In his six-and-a-half years in charge of the Lightning, Tortorella led them to the playoffs four times and brought Tampa a Stanley Cup in 2004 behind now-household names like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and current Ranger Brad Richards.
There’s lots of talent around the NHL, but getting that talent to jell as a unit while convincing them to play hard on defense is essential for coaching success, and even more difficult in the playoffs.
Part of optimizing team talent is adjusting to personnel. Coaches lose the trust of players when they try to install a system that doesn’t fit the players’ strengths, and they build player confidence by exploiting those strengths. Tortorella did this in Tampa by playing a fast and open style, and he’s doing it again in New York by emphasizing tireless skating and shot-blocking.
Tortorella faces two main criticisms: his emphasis on shot-blocking and his relationship with media. The criticisms against shot-blocking seem uninformed. The Rangers happen to be one of the best shot-blocking teams in the NHL, and this is perceived to be a bad thing because of the injury risk.
Let’s remember that these guys are playing the world’s fastest sport at the highest level possible; risk of injury is intrinsic to the profession. Blocking shots is an essential part of team defense and all teams have to do it, especially during the playoffs. Shot-blocking is like any other fundamental of the game—you can either do it sloppily or do it well.
As far as the media relations, fans love the sound bites and players appreciate the reduced attention. The victims here are members of the press, particularly Larry Brooks of the New York Post, but that comes with the territory.
I actually think that Tortorella’s interactions with the media show honesty and a deep respect for the game. A lot of coaches give generic answers in press conferences that aren’t particularly revealing but can be long-winded. Tortorella doesn’t want to lie to the media or the fans, so he often simply won’t answer a question.
With this approach, you know that when he does answer a question, it will at least be an honest response. His approach to the media is focused on protecting or defending his players against unwarranted criticism and honoring the sanctity of the locker room.
Many Rangers fans view the 2011-12 team as one of the best in Rangers history. This was a team led by a 26-year-old captain and had eight players who were 25 or younger average more than 15 minutes of ice time per game in the regular season. The Rangers' core of young players will improve under Tortorella’s guidance, as they have the past three seasons.
Tortorella’s ability to lead men, combined with owner James Dolan’s bottomless checkbook, will ensure that the Rangers are competing for a Stanley Cup next year and for years to come.