John Tortorella led the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals last season for the first time since 1996-97.
With a laundry list of problems, which include a shortage of offensive production, inconsistency on the blue line and an overall lack of desperation, it's no surprise that coach John Tortorella's job security is under fire.
This was, after all, a team projected to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
There's no question the players are underachieving, but after roughly five years behind the Rangers' bench, there's been a growing contingent of the Blueshirts faithful that feels Tortorella's tactics are getting old. Even former Ranger Sean Avery agrees:
His constant line juggling, power-play struggles and insistence on playing a defensive style has left fans frustrated. This year's shortcomings are just the icing on the cake.
But, despite all the complications and disappointments this season has presented, firing Tortorella now would be a mistake, even if it's what the reactionary New York fans want.
Yes, this team was supposed to contend for a Stanley Cup this year, but let's be real, this has not been a typical NHL campaign.
After a four-month lockout, the season began in mid-January after just a week-long training camp with zero preseason games. That's hardly enough time for Tortorella to round up a team filled with new faces and ensure that they are prepared to play in his system.
The argument here is that every team was short on preparation, yet some of them, like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks, jumped out to record-breaking starts, so the Rangers don't have an excuse.
But I think they do.
A Tortorella team needs full preseason preparation. Players need to know the ins and outs of the system, and they need to be conditioned to perform well in it. Five days of formal preparation put this team in a hole before the season even began.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rangers had a fair amount of fresh faces in the locker room when they reconvened post-lockout. Teams like the aforementioned Blackhawks, Ducks and even the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins did not.
This whole "on the fly" season has hit the Rangers harder than it has most teams.
Yet fans still call for Tortorella's head. They don't care about the team's lack of structured prep because they don't like the system he's instilled.
The system, mind you, that was used when the Rangers finished first in the conference last season before their march to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's a system of high forechecking and defensive collapsing. Most of the offense is generated below the goal line, and back in their own zone, the players are encouraged to organize in fortress-like fashion to stonewall enemy attempts at goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's net.
It's boring hockey, they say. But it worked, and it still can.
I say this because I've seen it work this season. Streaks in February and March saw this team pick up points in six of seven and wins in four of five. True, both are not overly impressive runs, but during both, we saw the team play Tortorella hockey.
They couldn't sustain that level of play, though, because the team has been wildly inconsistent from one game to another. For example, after their impressive win in Philadelphia on March 26, the Rangers laid an egg, quite literally, in Ottawa, losing to the Senators 3-0 two days later in miserable fashion.
It's frustrating because it's really quite simple. If they get their forecheck going, they're going to win more times than not. That's Tortorella's biggest thing, and if the players can't do that, then these struggles are on them.
Then there are those who believe that just because this team's got a load of talent up front, it means they need to play puck-possession hockey. Can they? Yeah, definitely. They'd probably score more goals, but is it worth sacrificing team defense for more offense? Certainly not with the way the blueliners have been performing.
Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards played this system last year—with a great deal of success, might I add—so it's not like it's foreign to them.
As for Rick Nash, there's no reason a guy with his size, speed and skill can't play in a system that gets the puck deep and creates offense from beneath the hash marks, and he's proven that.
Should John Tortorella be fired before season's end?
Puck-possession hockey is fun and exciting, and at times I too believed that maybe that's the hockey this team should play. Can Tortorella open things up a bit and allow his players to be more creative? I think he can and probably should, but I would not be so quick to blow up the whole system just yet. Last year's successes and this season's flashes make me believe that it can still work.
I think it's the players who aren't catching enough flack for failing to execute a fairly simple system.
But let's just say Tortorella is fired, then what? Does anyone really think a new coach is going to come in and lead this team deep into the playoffs, if he can even get them there? There's 13 games remaining. The chances of a new boss, with an entirely different system, drastically improving this team at this stage is wishful thinking.
They're best off staying the course. There's no reason to make a major change with only a month to go. The players should assume responsibility for their failures and work to correct them; that's how this team makes the playoffs. And if they don't, this debacle can be used as a learning experience.
But there's no way Tortorella, the most winningest American coach in the history of the NHL and a Stanley Cup champion who helped this team reach the conference finals for the first time in 15 years in 2011-12, is going to get fired in an abbreviated season.
I just hope that the Rangers' president and general manager, Glen Sather, agrees, because if Tortorella can tweak his offense a bit while staying within the limits of the system, he will help this team get back to the top of the conference next season. That is, after he has the opportunity to properly prepare his hockey team for an NHL campaign.