The job of a coach is to keep a team on track. In sports like football and baseball, the coach has an in-game role, adjusting to schemes and shifts, and actively guiding players to victory and defeat.
In hockey, the job of the coach is a bit more amorphous. There are things that can be done in-game to change the flow of a period, things like line-matching against opponents and shifting players to different lines, but for the most part, an NHL coach uses practice to instill a system and then executes what's been practiced.
A good NHL coach gives his players the tools to succeed during games. Players know what they should be doing in certain situations and merely need to focus on converting the knowledge into action.
Coaches who can't do this soon find themselves out of a job, as their teams are doomed to fail.
And this is where Rangers coach John Tortorella finds himself today: a coach who can't seem to coach him team.
The Rangers 6-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Sunday really shouldn't have been that surprising. In a lot of ways, it was an archetypal Rangers defeat.
Typically this season, the Rangers have put together a few strong games, notably with the defense chipping in some offense. These games have been followed by shut-outs, with the defense pressing to score, and instead yielding scoring chances.
Toward the end of December, the Rangers had a five-game, 16-goal stretch that ended in a 6-0 loss to the Flyers. The streak began with the benching of defenseman Wade Redden, who eventually was re-inserted into the line-up.
The Rangers rebounded from the Philadelphia loss with just six goals in their next three games. They exploded for five goals against the Dallas Stars and then scored five goals in their next five games, including getting shut-out in back-to-back games.
Then, true to form, the Rangers rebounded with 14 goals in their next two games, only to be shut-out in the following two games.
The pattern is profound.
The Rangers' offense gets rolling, everyone gets cocky, defensive hockey grinds to a halt, and opposing teams take advantage.
The issue isn't talent or effort. Instead, it seems to be preparation.
Tortorella, it seems, isn't getting the Rangers ready for games. Seeing how they've typically fallen apart after high-scoring wins, Tortorella needs to be preaching defense. He needs to see the pattern and warn his team.
They need to know to play more conservatively coming out of wins, because when they don't, they yield goals, they press to catch-up, and then yield even more goals. It's what happened in Montreal and it's what will continue to happen until Tortorella makes his team understand their major weakness.
There's no doubt in my mind that if the Rangers don't have a big game Monday against the Penguins, then they'll have one Wednesday against the vulnerable Hurricanes. And they might even carry the momentum out West when they play the Coyotes Saturday night. But then, confident from a win or two, the defense will once again become porous, the offense will once again refuse to forecheck, and the Rangers will find itself mired in another losing streak.
The pattern will repeat until the team is properly prepared. If Rangers GM Glen Sather is waiting for an extended losing streak before firing Tortorella, he's going to have to wait a long time. The team has just enough talent to avoid a long-term slump. But if Sather is hoping for a long-term winning streak to solidify the Rangers position in the playoffs, he's never going to see that either.
Tortorella is coaching just enough to win sometimes, but not enough to win consistently. And until there's some consistency within the organization, the team will never be a real playoff threat.
In fact, there's no guarantee they'll even be a playoff presence.