Rangers Coach John Tortorella
The time, ladies and gentlemen, is fast approaching. If the New York Rangers' organization expects to realize the full potential of a host of young and talented players and capitalize on an all-world, in-his-prime goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, John Tortorella, their feisty, brusque, irreverent and stubborn coach, simply must go.
This is not about being down two games to none against Boston. This is not about what has happened in this playoff season or about what is to come, really, short of a Stanley Cup championship, of course. If the Rangers' win the Cup this year, well, forget you ever read this article, and, more importantly, forget who wrote it.
In the end, it’s about a coach who values his rigid view of how hockey should be played over the qualities of his personnel. It’s about a coach who lavishes trust on those who repeatedly fail to earn it, enter Brad Richards, for example, while showing little patience for those who have the ability to one day carry this organization, for example Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Michael Del Zotto and others.
Yes, American sports is a win-now proposition, and, yes, this is even more so the case in the spotlight of New York. With that said, though, Tortorella is not making decisions based on any fear he has over potentially losing his job, but rather based on his relentless adherence to a self-created doctrine that he will not sway from, regardless of how sensible it would seem to do so.
Much has been made over these past two seasons of the Ranger's identity. They are often billed as a blue-collar team that typically works harder than their opponents, a team that has little margin for error because it lacks the talent level to do anything other than plod along.
As any Rangers observer would tell you, though, there are some significant problems with this assessment as it relates to the 2012-2013 team, so much so that this notion that the Rangers have little margin for error has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In reality, it is Tortorella's penchant for under-utilizing and stifling talent that has led to the margin of error being so unbearably small. It is always system above substance, and so we see, time and again, young players struggling and established players being forced out of their respective rhythms.
Whether you are an athlete or not, you know from experience that having someone over your shoulder at every turn tends to diminish your individual performance, specifically as it concerns out-of-the-box thinking. While structure is important, it is also by definition limiting, and when your career is on the line you’re less likely to look beyond the box that's been provided for you.
Such is the case with talented young forwards like Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, and in the case of Marian Gaborik, the recently departed winger, the box proved not only limiting, but suffocating as well. What's more, Gaborik's personal box, so to speak, included a shift to the opposite wing with no latitude granted for creativity.
Alexander Ovechkin, you may remember, was also famously shifted to the opposite wing this year, however he was also trusted enough by coach Adam Oates to improvise on the fly and create as he saw fit. The result, after an adjustment period, of course, was an MVP-caliber regular season that saw Ovechkin return to his all-world form. His return to form also coincided with a dominating run for his team, and there was nothing accidental about that.
Gaborik, on the other hand, found himself in Columbus. As time has seemed to show, of course, Gaborik going to Columbus has actually benefited the organization in terms of the assets received in return. It stands to reason, though, that had Gaborik been producing at his career norms, and had assets like Miller and Kreider been given some oxygen, the need for outside resources wouldn't have been there.
Moreover, being paired with Brad Richards this year was akin to Gaborik being asked to skate with cement in his boots. Richards, though, was out there game after game during the regular season, logging critical minutes despite being slow of foot and mind, and still Tortorella wasted the opportunity to develop younger players, specifically Miller in this case.
It wasnt until recently that Richards found himself at the bottom of the rotation at center, and so a season was wasted waiting for him to produce while younger, more physically capable players were seemingly expected to play what amounted to mistake-free hockey.
Tortorella was, of course, trying to get Richards out of his funk by playing him regardless of results. Richards' body of work over his career would seem to indicate that time and opportunity would result in better performance, but it became clear to any interested observer that Richards' struggles should have resulted in diminished ice time sooner rather than later.
Tortorella's stubbornness regarding Richards, however, prevented the development of J.T. Miller, a captain-like presence that the Rangers chose to keep on their roster and not send down to Juniors at the start of the season. While Miller was not ready to assume the mantle of a first or second line center, he was unquestionably capable of contributing more than he was permitted to.
Instead, Tortorella moved him back and forth from wing to center, changed his linemates for what seemed like every shift and ultimately chose not to utilize him at all even after he was ready to return from a wrist injury. Short season or not, this is not how you handle a player who projects to be your top-line pivot.
In the case of Chris Kreider, Tortorella had at his disposal a 6'3", 230-pound winger with a cannon shot who skates as fast, if not faster, than Carl Hagelin, his teammate that just so happened to win the speed segment at the 2012 NHL All Star skills competition. Despite expressing concern over damaging the psyche of his young player, though, Tortorella seemed to have about as much patience for Kreider as would a toddler strapped in a car seat for a long trip to grandmas.
Every blown assignment, it seemed, led to long stretches on the bench or in the stands. There were multiple demotions to the farm and, moreover, Kreider's ice time when he has been in the big club's lineup is reminiscent of the ice time granted to Mike Rupp throughout his brief tenure with the team. Simply stated, six to eight minutes a game does not encourage growth.
Again, there are pressures associated with being the coach of any professional sports franchise. Additionally, in a lockout-shortened season the need for playoff revenue is heightened tremendously. The team did struggle to find its way for long stretches, only really establishing momentum after the trade that saw Gaborik leave and the signing of free agent Mats Zuccarello. Making the playoffs, then, was of paramount concern and certainly no foregone conclusion.
With this said, though, the struggles the Rangers encountered early on this season were not the result of poor performance from their promising rookies, Miller and Kreider, but rather from a lack of performance from established veterans such as Richards, Gaborik, Brian Boyle and even Rick Nash early on.
For his part, Richards was slow on his feet from day one, made horrific decisions with the puck in virtually every game and circumstance and stunted the performance of Gaborik, if only because Gaborik was forced to learn a new position with a center who was always several steps behind.
When 18-20 minutes of ice time are being stubbornly granted to a pivot who cannot skate with speed, pass with precision or be trusted to run the power play, it doesn’t matter what your 20-something year olds are doing.
Perhaps the most glaring manifestation of Tortorella's stubbornness, however, is his decision-making process as it relates to power-play personnel. It is no secret that the Rangers' power play is tactically deficient; they don’t shoot, they don’t create traffic in front and they don’t support the puck enough to win the battles along the boards.
It is the personnel decisions by Tortorella, however, that cause the most concern. He has repeatedly stuck with players who under-perform while ignoring assets that can contribute. Additionally, Tortorella has a mind-numbing inability to realize that off-wing shooters are critical components of every power play.
Despite this etched-in-stone reality, though, we repeatedly see lefty-shooting Brad Richards on the left point, righty-shooting Dan Girardi on the right point and in a shocking example of poor decision-making, there are at times five lefty shooters on the ice at the same time.
There is simply no excuse for the level of ineptitude displayed by the Rangers' power play, especially during these playoffs, and the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the head coach. When a component of your game is suffering you need to find new solutions. For a moment, think about where the Boston Bruins would be in their series against the Rangers if Torey Krug was nailed to the bench.
While it’s true that Krug is in the Boston lineup solely due to injuries to veteran defensemen, it cannot be denied that Boston coach Claude Julien could have chosen any number of assets to man the point on his power play.
Instead, Julien chose to trust a young player, so much so that Krug has become a staple of a Bruins power play that contributed virtually nothing to the team's 2011 Cup run and very little to its victory over Toronto in this year’s first round.
The Rangers organization, full of talented young defensemen and forwards, is at a turning point. They have a 31-year-old goalie who can carry them when need be, but who is asked to do so far too often. They will also face personnel decisions in the coming seasons that could see their core dismantled before it has the chance to reach its potential.
There is a window, though, perhaps two seasons wide, where they should be expected to seriously contend for the Cup. If they are smart, they do with Brad Richards what they did with Wade Redden, banish him from the big club with a compliance buyout and eat some dollars. This frees up ice time for pivots Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller and perhaps even Brian Boyle if they choose to keep him in the fold.
Most importantly, though, the Rangers need a new skipper. Tortorella's brand of hockey simply doesn’t fit the assets he currently has at his disposal. His stubborn need to force a system on personnel that can rise above that very system should be his undoing, just as his ability to extract performance from lesser talent has been his calling card for years.
Tortorella has achieved much in his tenure behind the Rangers bench, and along with Glen Sather, he's created an organizational credibility that simply didn’t exist prior to his arrival. In every way, John Tortorella has earned whatever praise he's been given and then some. If the Rangers want to reach that next level, though, Tortorella is not the man to get them there.