[Note from Nick Montemagno: As you all know, Michael Spinner (@MichaelSpinner) has been doing the weekly 'This Week in Hockey' write-ups here on The Rangers Tribune for a while now. Well, his plan for this weekend's column was to talk about the Jack Adams race in the NHL, and in the process discuss the job John Tortorella has done with the Rangers. After what occurred last night in Pittsburgh, with Torts sticking up for the team in his postgame presser, I decided it would be best to go ahead and post Mike's article today. Mike did an amazing job of collecting all of the thoughts he and myself have of Torts, and combined them into one piece. So without further ado, Mike's column on why Tortorella is the best coach in hockey....]
There was a moment two weeks ago when the New York Rangers were preparing to square off against the New Jersey Devils, and Rangers head coach John Tortorella reached a point of his career that every coach wants to attain, but few ever actually do. We all remember the moment. Devils Head Coach Peter DeBoer elected to start the game with three forwards who have limited hockey acumen other than the ability to clench a fist and throw a punch. Three seconds after the puck dropped, so did the gloves, and the NHL was suddenly center-stage for all the wrong reasons.
DeBoer was thrust into the spotlight because the fact that the NHL failed to discipline or censure DeBoer in any way proved a growing sentiment that the league’s desire to make the game safer for its players is little more than smoke and mirrors. Tortorella entered the spotlight as well, but for more important reasons. The moment the NBC Sports Network showed clips of Tortorella screaming at DeBoer from across the benches, and upon realizing that Tortorella chose to fight fire with fire, start defenseman/pugilist Stu Bickel to take the opening faceoff, and literally stand up to DeBoer’s antics, Tortorella did something truly amazing among Head Coaches at the professional level.
At that moment, John Tortorella became a New York Ranger.
Of course, Tortorella’s proverbial weave into the fabric of the New York Rangers identity happened a long time ago, perhaps even before the current season ever began. But between Tortorella’s prominent role in the 24/7 series that predated the Winter Classic, that night at Madison Square Garden before the Rangers-Devils game, and Friday night’s media session after the Rangers 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, we all have seen Torts’ true colors in person for the first time this season. We have not seen this side of Tortorella until this point during his tenure in New York. As a result, it’s safe to say that Tortorella’s status among Rangers fans is far different than it was a year ago today.
Obviously, all coaches are ‘members’ of their respective teams. It’s part of any sports program. However, there is also a clear difference between the role of a coach who is merely leader of a team, and when a coach has truly become a team member. In this case, John Tortorella has established himself as a member of the New York Rangers in a way that few coaches at this level of sport ever do … particularly in a city like New York. It is not only the case that over the course of the 2011-2012 hockey season, Tortorella has become a Ranger, but he has also led the team to – at the time of the writing of this column – the second-best regular season in the history of the franchise, a regular season Eastern Conference Championship, and worst-case, home ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Finals.
For all of this, John Tortorella should be the clear and obvious choice for the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League Coach of the Year.
How difficult is it for a coach to become the kind of leader that John Tortorella is for the Rangers? Put it this way: Do New York Giants fans identify with Head Coach Tom Coughlin as strongly as Rangers fans presently do with Tortorella? Doubtful, even after two Super Bowl Championships for Coughlin, while Tortorella has yet to win as much as a playoff series with the Rangers. Is Coughlin part of the fabric of the New York Giants? To an extent, yes, but certainly not the way Tortorella is less of a coach and more of the ‘lead Ranger’ when the timing is right. Coughlin is a fabulous football coach, and will likely be in the Giants Ring of Honor one day. Tortorella may never be a good enough coach to reach such heights with the Rangers, but at the same time, his role with the New York Rangers is unlike anything this franchise has ever seen.
In many ways, New York City has not had a coach like Tortorella since Joe Torre managed the New York Yankees, albeit with less success for Tortorella thus far. Unlike last season or the year before, unlike Tom Renney’s days on Broadway, or any other failed coaching tenure for the New York Rangers since Mike Keenan, the identity of this franchise starts with their coach. The Yankees had that with Torre – his calm, cerebral demeanor regardless of the situation was perfect for a line-up full of All-Stars. During an era when so-called ‘Dream Teams’ are put together all the time, and almost always fail, Torre was able to guide the Yankees to one of the most productive stretches in the history of the most accomplished franchise in sports.
Tortorella has a completely different approach than Torre, of course. He is not afraid to call out a player, bench a superstar, or take other measures that will reassert that he is the man in-charge of this team. Remember Sean Avery? That whole saga was not as much as the Rangers demotion of a player perceived to be inferior as it was a coach maintaining dominion of control over his team. Torre would have done the same thing had a Yankee been perceived to put himself above the team, using different methodology of course.
Regardless of methods and measures, Tortorella has – like Torre – earned and kept the respect of the Rangers locker-room, in this case by having his players’ backs in a way we almost never see in sports. The brawl against New Jersey only happened because Tortorella refused to put a regular in harm’s way, and fought fighter with fighter. He probably would have made DeBoer look foolish by not starting fighters, and called out DeBoer’s antics without every actually saying a word, but that would have also been a cop-out. Tortorella stood up for his players by fighting back - literally - and the Rangers locker room became stronger that night. After the Pittsburgh game this past Friday, Tortorella drew a proverbial line in the sand as to what he will and what he will not allow his players to endure. He literally called the Pittsburgh Penguins, “one of the most arrogant organizations in the league” and called out Pittsburgh’s, “two f****** stars.”
Why did Tortorella do this? Because this is a coach who will support his team before anything else that sports etiquette dictates. The Rangers are a team that are asked to sacrifice themselves for the system, that includes grinding out pucks along the boards, blocking shots and skating hard regardless of the situation. These Rangers are put to the test like no other team in hockey, and when a coach is willing to stand up in public the way Torts has done routinely this season, it makes it that much easier to grind, hit and block. When Tortorella essentially called out the Devils by fight back, and then literally called out the entire Penguins organization, he had an entire locker-room standing right behind him, legions of fans doing the same, and a franchise that right now is defined by a head coach who has established an identity that could last a generation for this team.
Will Tortorella have the remarkable run as Rangers Head Coach as Joe Torre did with the Yankees? That is a tall order. However, regardless of how long or successful Torts may be on Broadway, there is now a ‘New York Rangers way,’ and Tortorella is the man who made it happen. The blue-collar, grinding, fore-checking, shot-blocking Blueshirts are the way they are because John Tortorella has led … and the Rangers have followed.
On top of all of that, during the 2011-2012 regular season, Tortorella did a better job coaching his team than any other coach in the National Hockey League. There are a lot of experts who think the Adams Award is all but guaranteed to go to either St. Louis Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, or Nashville Predators leading man Barry Trotz, but the truth is that neither coached their respective teams as well as Tortorella coached the Rangers this season. The Blues began the season a disappointing 6-7, and Hitchcock has done masterful work turning the Blues into a President’s Trophy contender. The Blues are the best defensive team in hockey, and have the right scoring balance to not only win the Western Conference tournament, but to do so convincingly.
However, what about the St. Louis Blues has exactly surpassed expectations from the beginning of the season? Granted, the St. Louis Blues of recent memory prior to 2011-2012 have not exactly conjured up images of Stanley Cup glory, but this team was built to be elite this season … which is precisely why Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne about a month into the season. All Hitchcock has done was lead the Blues to do exactly what they were expected to accomplish in the first place. Excellent work, yes … but it’s not exactly Coach of the Year material despite the poor start for St. Louis when Hitchcock merely did an amazing job helping a team to meet its expectations.
The same line of logic exists for Trotz, who has quietly built the Predators into one of the most consistently solid teams in hockey. The Predators and the Rangers have a lot in common, and a Stanley Cup Finals series between the two teams would be outstanding. Both play in arguably the best Division in the NHL since both the Atlantic and Central Divisions are pretty darn strong this season, and both broke the 100-point plateau, which makes their Head Coaches natural candidates for the Jack Adams Award. However, the simple fact is that Nashville is to the Central Division what the Philadelphia Flyers are to the Atlantic Division … a consistent playoff contender with big expectations that surpassed 100 points this season to finish third, maybe second, in their own Division. Nobody would suggest Peter Lavoilette is in the running for the Adams Award, so why is Trotz considered such a favorite when there are better candidates?
Don’t get me wrong, Hitchcock and Trotz are very worthy ‘candidates’ for Coach of the Year honors, but both were excellent at doing that which was expected of their teams. John Tortorella, on the other hand, did his job better.
How many Rangers fans, NHL experts, and hockey fans in general expected the Rangers to threaten to win the President’s Trophy and border the greatest regular season in the history of the franchise? Exactly zero. This Rangers team, who needed help to merely make the playoffs a year ago, only to lose to Washington in five games, did not make the playoffs as recently as two years ago. Heading into the 2011-12 season, the Rangers made a major off-season addition by signing Brad Richards, but apparently failed to address perceived holes along the blue-line, and at forward depth. Their Captain from a year ago (Chris Drury) retired, a fixture on their top forward line (Vinnie Prospal) departed by free agency, and their best defenseman (Marc Staal) went down with a concussion that ultimately kept him out of action until January. There was the Avery distraction, and then a seemingly endless stretch of away games in three different countries to begin the season. Oh, and by the way, the injury bug hit the Rangers early as well.
Add to the mix that fellow Atlantic Division foes Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Philadelphia began the season as Stanley Cup contenders. In addition, the remainder of the Eastern Conference provided the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins – who did not lose much from that team , and the Washington Capitals – who just so happened to win the Eastern Conference during the regular season a year ago – and returned everybody for a team that appeared to be ‘loaded.’ Very few people within hockey circles expected the Rangers to finish much better than where they did a year ago.
And don’t forget one fact that seems to elude many: On an individual basis, this Rangers team was not very good overall this season. If anything, their incredible success came despite their individual play at times since not many Rangers enjoyed what could be called stellar campaigns. It took Richards nearly ¾ of the season to get his game going, and up until late March, Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky were visible only in spurts. The Rangers defense needed free agent signee Anton Stralman and minor league prospect Stu Bickel in order to solidify itself. Forward depth? Early in the season, it came in the form of Wojtek Wolski and Eric Christiansen, both of which are now gone in favor of rookie sensation Carl Hagelin and newcomer Carl Hagelin.
There were scoring droughts, power play issues, and late-season inconsistency that would plague many teams. If Henrik Lundqvist were not the best goaltender on the planet for much of the season, this team could have fallen apart repeatedly.
Yet, despite some major on-ice adversity, the Rangers overcame even the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins and return of Sidney Crosby to earn top-spot in the East. They played admirably even-keel hockey, stayed the course at every turn, and every time the team needed a crucial win, they found a way. And when the regular season conference title was on the line and the Penguins were on the verge of overtaking the top spot in the east, the Rangers turned their collective game on and enjoyed one last winning spurt to earn top-spot in the East.
Tortorella is as much of a factor in the Rangers success as anybody associated with the team, including Lundqvist himself. Sure, Tortorella is tough, and a yeller, and the ultimate accountability coach. Some might even say that he is unfair … that is, if you believe certain NY Rangers beat reporters. However, say what you want about John Tortorella; the man is the perfect coach for this team and their fans. When he called out Peter DeBoer before that game a couple of weeks ago, Rangers fans screamed with him. A few days later when a reporter asked a ridiculous question regarding the presence of assistant coaches, and Tortorella replied, “What the hell kind of a question is that?” Rangers fans asked the same thing, and enjoyed quite the collective laugh. Friday night, when the Penguins decided to play deplorable hockey, Torts went on the offensive, and his team and fans were right behind him.
In other words, the New York Rangers entered the 2011-2012 season with the expectations to be a 'good' team at best. In so many ways they underperformed, while playing in arguably the best Division and Conference in hockey. At no time was this team close to being dominant. But all season long, Tortorella implored his team to play with (insert expletive here) ‘jam,’ the Rangers responded, and Madison Square Garden has not buzzed like this since, dare I say, 1994. They won their Division, they won their Conference, and as far as the regular season is concerned, they entered the final weekend of play in position to win the whole league. There is nobody with hockey expertise anywhere who expected this.
If the measure of success by a coach is the ability to instill a system that leads to wins, and bring the most out of a team, then John Tortorella, during the 2011-2012 NHL season, was the best coach in hockey. Despite what could be a litany of 100+ point teams league-wide by season’s end, no coach in this sport did a better job this year than him. Whether or not the Rangers finish the job and win the Stanley Cup this spring is irrelevant for the overall success of this franchise this season. Nobody coached their team the way John Tortorella did the New York Rangers, and for that, he deserves to be the league’s Coach of the Year.