New York Rangers

John Tortorella and Mike D'Antoni: Learning the Joys of Defense

NEW YORK - JANUARY 02: Chris Drury #23 of the New York Rangers is checked by Aaron Ward #4 of the Carolina Hurricanes during their game on January 2, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
S BCorrespondent IJanuary 6, 2010

It's really not easy being a big name coach.

When you're a big name, you assume you're being hired for your coaching philosophy, so the tendency is to go straight into your signature coaching style, without really thinking about what's best for the team.

The New York Knicks and the New York Rangers have both fallen victim to this Big Name Coach trap and both teams, and their coaches, seem to be figuring ways out.

Starting with the Rangers, coach John Tortorella was brought in to be the antidote to previous coach, Tom Renney. Renney was all about defense while Tortorella was all about offense.

Knowing he was brought in for his offensive style, that's all Tortorella worked on for much of the season, even as the losses piled up for the Rangers. And why wouldn't he keep pushing for offense over defense? He was thinking he was brought in to coach an offensive system, somehow forgetting he was also brought in to win.

The Knicks were in a similar predicament. Coach Mike D'Antoni was brought in for his uptempo, explosive coaching system. And he stuck to that system, even as the losses piled up. Until, one day, he realized he was also being paid to win, and shifted to a defensive system that wasn't as exciting as the one he ran in Phoenix, but worked for the players on his roster.

D'Antoni let himself forget he was Mike D'Antoni and coached to win, rather than to expand his offensive legacy.

A few weeks ago, I suggested Tortorella learn from D'Antoni , putting aside his reputation as a high-risk, offense-driven coach, and figuring out a system that would work for the players he has.

Tortorella has started to embrace defense, and he's seeing results. The Rangers are 6-2-2 in their last 10. The second half of December, the Rangers only gave up more than a goal in just three of their last seven games. Sadly, for the Rangers, one of those games included a brutal 6-0 loss to the Flyers.

Watching the Rangers recently, you see a lot more action in the neutral zone and more of the third forward staying behind for defensive purposes. It's not Tortorella-style hockey, and it's not always exciting, but it seems to be working for the Rangers.

Coaches, like Tortorella and D'Antoni, can become prisoners of their previous successes. They become defined by systems that worked for them in contexts different from their current ones.

Coaching in New York City is no easy task. You're under a tremendous amount of scrutiny and fans and media are both ready to catalog every misstep. Coaches, like D'Antoni and Tortorella, often feel pressure to prove they're right, so when their initial coaching style didn't work out, rather than moving into something that suited the team, they kept sticking with their style. Something as simple as coaching defensively came to look like a sign of weakness to the two coaches.

Luckily for the Knicks and Rangers, both men are learning to put aside their reputations and to focus on doing what it takes to give mediocre teams a chance to be relatively competitive.

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