It’s crazy to think that 18 games removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance we’re talking about John Tortorella’s job security.
But it’s been that kind of year for the New York Rangers.
Goals have been hard to come by, the defense has been more susceptible to turnovers and there’s a significant amount of grit missing from this club.
Fingers can be pointed in many different directions.
But, in this league, it’s usually the coach who inherits most of the blame, and this case is no different.
The good news for Torts is that there’s still more than half a season to go, and if he wants to keep his job, he’s going to have to take a Rangers team that had Stanley Cup aspirations and lead it into the playoffs.
Failure to do so could result in his release.
Here are the three reasons why Tortorella finds himself sitting in the hot seat.
We’re 18 games into the season and the Rangers have 41 goals for; that’s good for bottom-five in the league.
That statistic is unacceptable for any NHL club, but when one such as the Rangers, who employ players with the skill level that Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Rick Nash possess, it becomes more of a concern.
It seems every year since John Tortorella has been behind the Rangers’ bench we end up having this conversation. Granted, some of those teams were lacking in the skill department, but this consistent lack of goals year in and year out has many thinking he’s the problem.
Since day one he’s pounded the philosophy of grind-it-out hockey into the heads of his players, telling them that this is their identity and this is how they have to play on a nightly basis if they’re going to be successful in this league.
Now, because of that, the only time the Rangers generate any type of scoring chance is when they get it into their opponent’s corner, cycle it a bit and then get the puck to the net. Some offense also comes from neutral zone takeaways that turn into odd-man rushes.
But this team has no offensive creativity at all because they aren't allowed to play that way.
Well guess what, Torts, sometimes when opposing teams play a stingy defensive game where they load up the neutral zone with bodies, it’s hard to force turnovers and even more difficult to get a forecheck going. But some offensive creativity might just do the trick.
Frankly, this team should be lighting it up. There’s no excuse.
You have three world-class forwards who've either put up 40-plus goals or 90-plus points in a season. You've also got three young players oozing with skill (Stepan, Hagelin and Kreider). Let them open it up a bit and good things will happen.
It’s true the NHL is in an era in which team defense has become highly successful, but this is getting ridiculous now. If you’re going to force your players to play such a strict defensive system that handicaps three superstars to the point where you’re nearly last in the league in goals for, then you’re not implementing a Stanley Cup-winning system.
Everyone wants to see this team work hard, but some sort of balance needs to be found, because if Torts can’t find a way to get his players to score more goals, this could be the last season he calls Madison Square Garden home.
It seems like every week I have to mention special teams, but nothing seems to change.
Special teams have become a monumental concern for this team. It goes right back to the fact that this team has too much talent to be 29th in the league on the power play.
As for the penalty kill, it looked like it was getting better with the arrival of Darroll Powe from Minnesota, but he goes down with a concussion and the Rangers allow power-play goals to be scored in the two of the three games he’s missing, one of which came off the stick of Mika Zibanejad, who tied the game for the Senators late. Ottawa went on to win the game in a shootout.
But the power play is the main concern.
Initially, the problem was they were looking for the perfect play and passing too much. This resulted in a multitude of turnovers and short power play, if you will.
Currently, they are certainly passing much better. There’s much more speed and intent in every movement of the puck, but still, shoot the puck already. Michael Del Zotto and Brad Richards look like they’re petrified to make an attempt at a goal.
Nash being out d doesn't help matters, but still, before he was injured, he didn't have a power-play goal this season. Gabroik and Richards don’t have one either. Ryan Callahan, though, has three, and guess what? They’re all ugly.
And that’s what the Rangers need to do on the power play: Keep it ugly.
They have an extra skater on the ice, find a lane, shoot the puck and get to the net. Without a doubt they’ll create more opportunities to score that way as opposed to passing the puck constantly before it’s taken away and sent down the ice, killing a solid 20 seconds.
John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan need to address this issue, and from the looks of it, they haven’t yet. We've seen what a successful power play can do for a team in the modern era of the NHL, and considering the talent this team has, it’s appalling that the Rangers’ is ranked 29th.
This has to fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff because we really haven’t seen a change in philosophy, which means Torts and company aren't completely dissatisfied with what they see.
If the power play was as dreadful as it is solely because of the players’ performance, you’d at least see a difference in philosophy or shape of the power play. But we haven’t and that tells us Torts is just allowing his players to bang their collective heads against a wall.
You’d think the winningest American coach of all time would be able to tinker with a failing power play; after all, he’s worked with world-class players before and he’s won a Stanley Cup. But right now, the Rangers’ struggles on the man advantage are just showing the presumed stubbornness of Tortorella’s reign as head coach.
Last April, the Rangers entered their first-round series versus the Ottawa Senators with one problem: scoring goals.
Luckily for the Rangers, general manager Glen Sather was able to sign college hockey star Chris Kreider to an entry-level deal fresh off a national championship with Boston College.
After sitting out the first two games of the series, Kreider finally made his debut in Game 3 in Ottawa. From then on he impressed, enough to remain in the lineup for the remainder of the playoffs. When it was all said and done, Kreider registered five goals and two assists in 18 games.
Not too bad for a kid who jumped right into the most grueling and intense hockey on the planet, the NHL Playoffs.
So how was he able to do it? And why has he struggled so much this season?
Last April he literally just jumped right in. He’d never worked with Torts or the Rangers before and he wasn't familiar with the system; he just went out there skated hard and took advantage of a sublime opportunity.
Torts even insisted he wasn't going to barrage the youngster with systematic jargon because he just wanted Kreider to go out and play.
But for whatever reason, Kreider struggled to find his footing in his first pro season, which began in Connecticut where he laced up for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate the Whale. In 34 games, he only scored five goals and 12 points.
Any hockey person would tell you a dropoff such as that is probably mental. He may have thought going from the NHL Playoffs to the AHL would be a breeze, found out it wasn't and struggled before he began doubting himself.
Of course this is all speculation.
When the NHL lockout finally did come to an end and training camp began, Kreider was one of only two players from Connecticut invited to camp, Matt Gilroy being the other.
It’s safe to say what’s happened since then is somewhat of a disaster. He suffered an injury early in the season, while his two reassignments back to Connecticut are just two more setbacks in a season that’s seen him scratched by Tortorella on several occasions.
He’s appeared in 11 games and only has a goal and an assist to show for it. Most nights he’s invisible and only a fraction of the player he was last spring.
In my opinion, John Tortorella should be held somewhat accountable for Kreider’s current developmental free fall.
First of all, Kreider does not belong on the third or fourth lines; he needs to be playing with players who can create. Playing him in a bottom-six role is setting him up for failure.
After Torts sets the youngster up for failure, he punishes him, with a benching or a scratching. Many Rangers fans would tell you it seems like Tortorella has guys who could be considered his “favorites” and others who seem to catch the brunt of all his frustrations.
This, combined with his early struggles in Connecticut, most certainly have Kreider clutching his stick way too tight. It’s obvious he doesn't look comfortable out there, and it’s because he knows the smallest mistake he makes could result in him being sent back to the AHL, and nobody wants that.
Torts is going to have to lengthen Kreider’s leash and just let the kid play again, just like last spring. Because if you look at this team’s prospect depth in the “skilled forward” department, it doesn't run too deep.
The Rangers need Kreider to be a stud.