John Tortorella was fired as coach of the Rangers after four years on the job. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
John Tortorella is many things – proud, prickly as a cactus-turfed football field, relentless in his drive to succeed, prone to fits of rage that would make late comedian Sam Kinison look like Little Miss Sunshine – but after this year’s playoffs, one thing he no longer qualifies as is a modern-day NHL coach. Sure, the man has earned a Stanley Cup ring and the attendant accolades, but as it is with all coaches, he has a shelf life and it’s clear that shelf life is now long past its“best before” date.
All the evidence you need to confirm Tortorella is a relic can be found in the failings of his former New York Rangers team during the Blueshirts’ second round series loss to Boston. The Rangers lineup was significantly re-jigged by GM Glen Sather at the trade deadline, but Tortorella’s charges couldn’t conjure up any more offense against the Bruins than they were able to before the trade deadline.
And what did Tortorella do for a strategic answer toward the end of the series? He made former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards (with whom he’d won a Cup in Tampa Bay) a healthy scratch for the final two games of his career as Rangers coach. He humiliated one of the game’s most accomplished veterans and doubled down on an offense designed entirely around the defensive skills of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. And the sum total of those efforts didn’t make a lick of difference against a clearly superior Bruins squad.
When Rangers GM Glen Sather fired Tortorella days after the Blueshirts were eliminated, few were surprised – especially NHLers who have endured his tough-guy routine in previous years.
“Very knowledgeable coach, bad manager of personnel,” one former Tortorella player told THN after the Rangers fired him May 29. “All players are motivated differently, none by disrespect, and when the players smell the phoniness, the coach loses the team.”
That message lends credibility to the philosophy of Maple Leafs assistant GM Dave Poulin, who in 2011 told me he believes coaching now is more about the managing of players and their personalities than it is about straight-ahead Xs-and-Os.
“In some ways, I think we should call our coaches ‘managers’ like they do in baseball,” Poulin said at the time. “Players today are more prepared and don’t react the same way as players from my era. You can’t deal with them in the same fashion.”
Can you imagine a touchy-feely Tortorella, trying to delicately tweak the personas of his players and gently nudging them toward the organization’s ultimate goal? Of course you can’t. He has a rusty bulldozer for a personality and is only comfortable with the sneer-and-fear approach to handling talent. Asking him for nuance is like asking Sean Avery for humility: there’s an extremely slight chance you’ll get what you’re asking for, but it’s practically impossible it ever will come to be.
We shouldn’t downplay the role of GM Glen Sather in the mess that is the Rangers. Indeed, Sather deserves at least as much blame as the coach; his penchant for doling out preposterously-exorbitant contracts (think Scott Gomez, Wade Redden and now Richards) because owner James Dolan has the financial wherewithal to do so is a key reason why the Blueshirts have become a patchwork collection of players who don’t make for a cohesive unit. Sather has won five playoff rounds in his 12 years as GM and that alone is sufficient cause for his dismissal.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t excuse Tortorella’s sub-par job in Manhattan. Some NHL team probably will give him another coaching job, but those who do should have no illusions as to what they’re getting. Tortorella’s presence may work in the short term, but the longer you leave him in the position the more he is exposed as a dinosaur, his Jurassic snark a form of three-card monte street hustle fewer and fewer players fall for anymore.
There’s a reason why Mike Keenan, another famous Cup-winning bench boss with a hard-ass style, has likely coached his final NHL game and will work in Russia next season. The Grumpus Emeritus approach favored by Tortorella and Keenan is best left to hockey anthropologists, not active head coaches.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.