John Tortorella needs to trade some fire in for some flexibility.
When the dust settled on the Friday night of May 25, 2012 in Newark—after the initial sting of a season of destiny being ripped away on one fell swoop of Adam Henrique's stick wore off—what remained was exhaustion and questions. Eighty-two regular-season games, 20 playoff games, 30 cities and three countries later—a team built on grit, defensive responsibility and an all-world goalie was left to pick up the pieces.
The style that led them to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and within six wins of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup, was also what led to their ultimate demise. Head coach John Tortorella's defense first, "pack the paint," shot-blocking philosophy dragged a team with just not quite enough talent about as far as it was capable of getting. For that, he should be commended. It was a season no Rangers fan will forget any time soon.
But for all of Tortorella's motivational fire—the best in all of hockey, and right up there with the best in any sport—that made his players run through brick walls for him right up until Henrique's shot hit twine, it is matched only with a stubborn, thick-headed attitude that I fear will be this group's undoing.
Right now the rangers are ahead of schedule. Their core is young and they have transitioned from the Jagr days smoothly while maintaining a competitive team. But an ahead-of-schedule team becomes behind schedule and ultimately an underachiever very quickly when you consider that virtually the team's entire young core hits the free-agent market after next season, including aforementioned all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Tortorella's system dragged a team light on talent to the Conference Finals last year, but the problem this season is that the team is no longer light on talent. Tortorella has put hand cuffs on a team that now has enough offensive fire power to open up their style of play and rely on the creativity of its best players, rather than the grit of its hardest workers.
Specifically, Tortorella's system entails shot-blocking in the defensive zone. If you are a forward who doesn't sell out and get in front of shots on the defensive end, you need not apply to Tort's School of Hockey. Just ask Scott Gomez, Sean Avery, Nik Zherdev, Nik Antropov, Alex Frolov and the slew of other one-way players that have come and gone during Tortorella's time behind the bench at Madison Square Garden.
As a result, against offensively-talented teams that can possess the puck in the offensive zone, the Rangers frequently find themselves trapped in their own end for extended periods of time defensively. The domino effect that this has on the offense is that they become too gassed to chase down pucks in the offensive corners against teams that also have some bruising defensemen.
That's the other hand-cuffing aspect of Tortorella's philosophy—that he wants the puck deep in the opponent's end at all times offensively. The Rangers are taught to cycle below the goal line until something opens up in front of the net. When you're too exhausted from blocking shots in your own end to chase down pucks in the corner, it doesn't take much for a mistake to be made and the puck to go the other way.
There are three main issues here. The teams that New York needs to beat have both skilled forwards and bruising defensemen. New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Boston come to mind right off the top. Already this season, the Rangers are 2-4 against those opponents—including a shoot-out win Tuesday night in Boston after they blew a three-goal lead with about 10 minutes left in the game. It resembled an NFL team deciding to take a knee with five minutes left in the third quarter. The losses to those teams haven't really been that close.
The second issue is Tortorella's reluctance to trust many defensemen beyond Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. That trio all played over 25 minutes per game in New York's 20 postseason contests in 2012.
With his grinding defensive style, it takes a special type of defensemen to be trusted for big minutes, but those guys were totally run into the ground. Go back and watch that winning overtime goal by Henrique. You're bound to find about four Rangers scrambling on the ground searching for the loose puck. By that point, to say the defense was running on fumes would be a colossal understatement.
The third issue is the fact that with the acquisition of Rick Nash—the most-skilled forward the team has had in decades—and the progression of players like Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, JT Miller, and Derek Stepan coupled with productive mainstays Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the team is as talented top to bottom as any team in the Eastern Conference. If they were set free from this shot-blocking, cycling slog of a brand of hockey, they have enough talent and creativity to be a high-powered offensive team.
Granted, if the team were to play off the rush offensively more and gamble in the defensive zone to try and create some more odd man rushes, the defensive soundness would suffer. But in those instances when the defense would break down, you still have the best goalie on the planet to clean up your messes far more times than not.
Not only is the offensive personnel more suited to play this way, but you could argue that this group of defensemen would thrive in a more wide open system as well.
Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal are all-star-caliber puck-handlers, skaters and passers on the back end. Michael Del Zotto has the potential and the skill set to be that good one day as well. If you also consider that the current system results in lots of chances for big shots from the blue line (which is not the strength of any of those guys), and you add it all up, it's no wonder that such a talented team has so much trouble year after year putting the puck in the net. And everything I just said goes double for the teams perpetually, laughably-atrocious excuse for a power play.
History tells us a few things.
Since John Tortorella took over as the Rangers Head Coach in February of 2009, the Rangers score 2.771 goals per game. Since 1990, only two teams have scored less than that per game and gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
The 2002-03 New Jersey Devils scored just 2.634 goals per game, but they were a product of Jacques Lemaire's patented neutral-zone trap which was a gimmick that has been all but outlawed since the 2004 lockout by the institution of more hooking and obstruction penalties.
The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings scored a shockingly low 2.366 goals per game, which looks more like an anomaly then a trend when you consider Jonathan Quick allowed just 1.41 goals per game in the 2012 playoffs.
In fact, only three other Championship teams over that span scored less than three goals per game: the 1994-95 Devils (Lemaire's trap), the 1998-99 Dallas Stars who gave up the fewest goals in the league that year and the John Tortorella lead Tampa Bay Lightning from 2003-04 who scored 2.988 goals per game.
That total was good enough for third in the league and again, lead to a year-long lockout which brought about offensive minded rule changes. That team also didn't exactly resemble this iteration of the Rangers stylistically as much as you would think. That team lead by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards played a slightly more up-tempo style that would suite this Ranger club.
So the solution at this point is not to fire John Tortorella—not yet at least. But Torts needs to prove that he can be flexible and change his philosophy slightly at some point to create more offense and ultimately more goals.
If he doesn't and this team doesn't win the Cup in the next three years, then the John Tortorella era will be deemed a failure in New York. Period.