By Allan Muir
It wasn’t just another disappointing loss in the playoffs, the inability to adapt to a new-look lineup, his gong-show press conferences or even his benching of $60 million free agent Brad Richards that led the New York Rangers to fire coach John Tortorella today.
It was the kiss of death from the one player he couldn’t win without.
After much speculation, the Rangers finally dismissed the abrasive 54 year old just days after the team was eliminated from the Eastern Conference Semifinals in five games by the Boston Bruins.
It was only a year ago that Tortorella led New York to 51 wins and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals with a group that played like it was willing to take a bullet for him.
But the 2013 Blueshirts looked meek and even disengaged at times as they struggled to match the intensity and creativity of their old rivals from Boston. The elements that had made them so dangerous in the past — the tenacious forecheck, the willingness to sacrifice their bodies to block shots — just weren’t there this year, at least not to the same degree. Then again, neither were some of the players who made it work in the past, like Brandon Prust and Brandon Dubinsky.
That’s on GM Glen Sather, who made the decision to add Rick Nash to improve the team’s offense at the expense of its heart-and-soul depth. But the inability to adapt his approach to a different mix of players, one that cried out for a more aggressive, offensive-minded game plan, was on Tortorella. So was an overbearing personality that slowly ate away at his support in the room.
Committing to his system comes at a high price and this group looked unwilling to pay it, especially when they saw a respected teammate like Richards banished to the fourth line, then to the press box, or heard Tortorella say over and over that Carl Hagelin “stinks.”
Whatever the Rangers gave during the playoffs, they gave for themselves and each other. Not for Tortorella.
But even that betrayal might not have been enough to cost him his job, if it not for an interview given by Henrik Lundqvist. The Hall of Fame-bound goaltender all but turned his back on the team when he was asked about working on a potential contract extension over the summer.
“I’m gonna talk to my agent, and we’ll see,” Lundqvist told the New York Daily News. “I had such a great time here in New York. From day one they treated me really well and have given me an opportunity to play a lot of hockey. It’s been a lot of fun. I have one more year on the contract. I’m just focused on — well, right now, I’m trying to get over this year — but we’ll see. I’ll talk to my agent and take it from there.”
It’s not just the use of the past tense that chilled the team’s fans and, apparently, management. It’s that he said it all with so little passion. A guy who bled Ranger Blue in the past all but said he was willing to walk away.
Though he didn’t mention Tortorella by name, it was clear the two weren’t on the same page as the season wrapped up. Lundqvist characterized the year as “a step back.” Moments later, Tortorella loudly offered a different perception, calling it, “a step sideways.” That might seem like a minor difference, and on the surface it is. But to Lundqvist, the subtext probably spoke volumes. If Tortorella didn’t see a problem, then Lundqvist couldn’t see a future with the team.
The Rangers can handle upheaval and discontent in the room. They can’t survive the loss of Lundqvist. Without him, they’re a lottery team.
Short of staging their home games in Stockholm, they’ll move mountains to keep the Vezina Trophy finalist happy. Booting Tortorella was the least they could do.
It’ll be interesting to hear Lundqvist’s reaction to the news. Odds are he’ll remain respectful and low-key at first. But look for contract extension talks to get underway in early July.
What’s next? Well, the timing of this dismissal couldn’t be any worse for Vancouver or Dallas, two teams in the midst of interviewing for their own head coaching positions who just became the fall-back option for all the top candidates who probably view New York as a more desirable destination.
Former Ranger Lindy Ruff is sure to get a long look, although his style (on-ice, not personal) might be too similar to Tortorella’s aggressively defensive posture to be a good fit at this moment. What about Alain Vigneault? He preaches a more up-tempo game and he’s more than capable of handling a veteran room. Would the Rangers take a look at another Tampa Bay Lightning hand-me-down in Guy Boucher?
Dave Tippett would seem to be another attractive option, but Sather said today he’d like to have the new man in place by the draft. Tippett, whose contract with Phoenix expires on June 30, won’t be available until after that point. Still, he’d be an intriguing choice and might be worth the wait.
There’s certain to be some attention paid to Next Big Thing-types like Dallas Eakins and Scott Arniel, but odds are they’ll go with a vet. Look for Vigneault to get the nod.
There’s no word yet on the fate of Tortorella’s assistants, but Mike Sullivan, the architect of the team’s dreadful power play, is unlikely to return. There’s a chance one of the team’s front office-based legends like Brian Leetch, might be a fit for that role.