In the midst of a five-game winning streak, the New York Rangers sit in second place in the Eastern Conference with their stock rising. The team’s young core of players is starting to blossom as they continue to build chemistry with the free agents that have been brought in over the past few summers. So naturally, of course, it seems like the right time to question the stability of head coach John Tortorella’s job—it’s funny the way a sports fan’s mind works.
I do not mean to propose or even imply that Tortorella is anywhere close to losing his job. The success that the Rangers have had to begin the season—despite a trip to Europe, a four-game swing in Western Canada and the absence of Marc Staal, arguably the team’s most important player—is a true testament to the job done by Tortorella and his staff.
I simply want to bring the question to the forefront: What does Tortorella have to accomplish this season in order to cement his job security going forward into next season? Where do we draw the line? Is it simply at making the playoffs or does Tortorella have to win a playoff round? Does he have to win multiple rounds? Is the decision dependent on how well the team plays and not just the end result?
Tortorella’s coaching style made him an instant fan favorite in New York. On those nights when we as fans want to jump through the television screen and into the locker room to vent our frustration to the players following a bad loss, we can take comfort in the fact that Tortorella is probably screaming and yelling even louder than we would have done ourselves. He has never been shy about calling out a specific player for making a bonehead play or putting forth a poor effort.
In fact, just this past week he reamed into Brandon Prust, one of the Rangers most consistent all-out energy players, publicly on the bench after he cleared a puck blindly into the middle of the defensive zone.
Tortorella has never been afraid to speak his mind, recently telling San Jose Sharks superstar Joe Thornton to “shut up” after Thornton referred to the Rangers as “soft."
Tortorella has always preached team-oriented values that resonate with the die-hard fans that have followed this team their entire lives. His policy that players must walk around, rather than step on, the Rangers logo on the floor in the center of the locker room and his infamous skating-only grueling workouts to begin training camp further stress that not one single player is more important than the team as a whole. After watching the Rangers crumble around the failures of one high-priced free agent after another over the past decade, Tortorella’s gritty, hard-nosed and accountable group of players has allowed Rangers fans to once again take pride in the team they root for.
For all the positive aspects that have accompanied Tortorella’s instinctive coaching style, there have also been a fair amount of questionable tactical decisions and unwarranted explosions from the fiery coach during his time in New York.
After taking over for the recently departed Tom Renney in 2009, Tortorella helped orchestrate a late-season surge to earn a playoff berth. In the team’s first-round matchup against Washington, however, Tortorella was suspended from a decisive Game 6 by the NHL after he whipped a water bottle into the stands at the Verizon Center, expressing frustration during an embarrassing shutout loss.
I think that most fans would also take issue with the constant mid-game line juggling. Tortorella, to a fault, as exhibited zero tolerance for ineffective play, to the point where one bad period, or even one bad shift, can relegate a top forward like Artem Anisimov to fourth-line duty. Just six games into his tenure in New York, Brad Richards was moved away from a line with all-world sniper Marian Gaborik.
In past seasons, Tortorella has gone as far as to experiment with new line combinations in the midst of playoff games. If you ask this writer, or most Rangers fans for that matter, I like to hearken back to the joy of watching trios like Michael Nylander-Marty Straka-Jaromir Jagr, Theo Fleury-Eric Lindros-Mike York or even as far back as Mark Messier-Adam Graves-Alexei Kovalev dominate on a nightly basis.
Tortorella has never seemed to have the patience or willingness to let chemistry develop, something that has had an adverse effect on the Rangers players’ familiarity with one another come playoff time.
Further contributing to the enigma that is John Tortorella is his unapologetic hatred for Sean Avery.
Avery, one of the most polarizing figures in all of sports, has been the subject of Tortorella’s ire since he stepped into the job three years ago. Unfortunately, most Rangers fans find themselves on the other side of the Avery debate, which has resulted in a tension between coach and fanbase that climaxed earlier this season when the collective voice of the fans, in response to a string of poor play and two straight defeats at home, essentially demanded the return of Avery from the AHL.
Fortunately for Tortorella, injuries to Wojtek Wolski and Mike Rupp have rendered the decision to leave Avery on the NHL roster a non-issue in the short term. Over the course of the season, however, Tortorella’s treatment of Avery will go a long way towards cementing or further weakening his relationship with Rangers fans.
It’s no secret that Brad Richards was brought in this summer to put the Rangers in the Stanley Cup conversation. Ownership, Glen Sather and Rangers fans are no longer going to be satisfied with playoff berths and first-round playoff exits. Having said that, Tortorella has proven that he can get the best out of the roster he has been given.
In three-plus seasons behind the Rangers bench, he has compiled an impressive 101-76-21 record and has propelled the team into two playoff berths and a fantastic start to the 2011-2012 season. More importantly, he has made it clear that the youth movement, with pieces added as necessary, is going to be the driving force that will eventually help lead the Rangers to playoff glory.
Tortorella’s commitment to the draft and the development of young players leads me to believe that he needs to be given more than just three-and-a-half seasons to live up to the promises he made when he took this job. Even if this season results in another first-round playoff exit, Tortorella has earned the right to continue to mold a team around emerging scorers (Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan) and the best young defensive core in the NHL (Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer and Michael Del Zotto).
With all that said, one thing should be made clear: It would be inexcusable for this team to miss the playoffs.
Potentially losing in the first round to a powerhouse team like Pittsburgh, Washington or Philadelphia is nothing to be ashamed of, but failing to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference is not an option if Tortorella wants to keep his job.
Yes, I love his demeanor, the way he deals with the media and the personality he brings to this organization, but the fact remains that this his team has been boosted by two marquee free agents over the past three seasons, he has an all-world goaltender in the prime of his career and he has the backing to go out a pick up players at the trade deadline that can help fill the holes that he, along with Glen Sather, have assessed.
Torts, we love you, but when you coach in New York, failure is not an option.