John Tortorella was relieved of his duties as New York Rangers coach this week just a few months after signing an extension to keep him in the job.
While that decision might be enough to make you wonder just what he did to lose his general manager's confidence — one suspects it has everything to do with the disgruntlement of one teary-eyed, handsome Swedish goaltender who shall remain nameless — it also heralded two things for the general hockey world that should frankly be a source of embarrassment for anyone who espoused these beliefs.
The first was that Tortorella being fired was something to celebrate because he was hardly ever accommodating with the media, preferring to conduct most of his day-to-day duties shrouded in as much secrecy as possible. This decision about how to do his job rankled many in the media because it ostensibly made it harder to do their jobs (because his, "I'm not going to discuss the player's injury," is apparently an appreciably worse quote than other coaches', "He has an upper-body injury and we'll reevaluate him going forward.") and therefore led to a lot of particularly shameful grave-dancing about what a terrible jerk he was.
Michael Grange of Sportsnet went so far as to categorize Tortorella as a "bad human" in a since-deleted tweet, and many of his colleagues joined him in throwing around digital confetti because their archnemesis had finally been vanquished by his having "lost the room." Others, who didn't actually have the gall to show up wearing red to the funeral, happily cheered on those who did anyway.
This from the crowd that normally couches all other opinions related to firings, no matter how deserved — and if you're ranking things in that way, Tortorella's falls somewhere in the "didn't deserve it but it had to be done" category — with the qualifying, "You hate to see anyone lose their job, but…" nonsense designed to make sure everyone is mollified even when someone as worthy of being canned as Scott Howson is shown the door.
It's shameful stuff, really, from a group that found it slightly easier to do their already easy jobs when they got chucklefest quotes from guys like Paul MacLean, who had all the time in the world to deal with the media's often insipid questions.
I admit that I had very little patience for Tortorella in certain instances, such as when he would go on F-bomb-laced tirades after his team lost to shield them from game stories and columns about their occasional lack of quality, and instead draw the attention to himself. I saw his desire to dive on the grenade so headlines read "Can you believe he said that?" instead of "Can you believe how awful the top line was?" as being pretty bush-league diversionary stuff, but hell if it didn't work every time.
In the end, really, all of it goes back to Tortorella not liking to tip his hand, and not being willing to entertain suggestions about what he should do with such-and-such a line on any given night as a means of boosting scoring.
"Stop coaching," was a regular answer in Tortorella pressers because, much like hockey writers wisely take absolutely no stock in anything an Internet commenter says, coaches likewise probably have little time for someone who is not an NHL coach trying to tell them how to do their jobs.
A few games before the Red Wings were eliminated, Pierre McGuire asked Mike Babcock a question that wasn't very good, and the coach replied with something along the lines of, "That's not what I saw out there." Oh, how the hockey world laughed. Stupid Pierre, always getting things wrong. So great to see Babcock put him in his place. Why, exactly was that better that what Tortorella did on a regular basis? Because it was Pierre McGuire? Ah, okay, it's funny so as long as it's not you.
Of course, that was only one side of the argument about why Tortorella is a horrible monster who never deserves to work in the sport again despite being one of the five or six best coaches in the league the last few seasons. (Put it this way: Only he and Darryl Sutter have advanced out of the first round in each of the last two playoffs, and the reason why wasn't all luck).
The second reason Tortorella is bad for the sport is that the kind of hockey he espoused as being conducive to winning; a style the Rangers allegedly quit playing to spite him. It's believed to involve the blocking of shots and the complete abandonment of all offensive aspirations.
But the problem isn't the hockey itself, it's the perception of the hockey.
Yes, Tortorella's teams blocked shots — they led these playoffs in the category with 249 in just 12 games, as well as a top-of-the-charts 365 in 20 last postseason; they also finished fourth and sixth in the regular season in 2011-12 and 2013, respectively — but they also scored goals more than anyone really gave them credit for.
They finished 15th in goals for per game this season, but 11th over 82 in the last campaign. Not great, but certainly not Devils dynasty level either.
"Henrik Lundqvist was probably sick of winning games by one goal," was a common refrain in the immediate wake of the firing, and that might be true. But the fact of the matter is that he was winning them.
Again, only one other coach has had as much postseason success in the last two years as Tortorella in terms of the ability to advance out of the first round, which we're routinely told is an important thing. Moreover, though, the system the Rangers used the last two seasons put them No. 4 in the league in points behind only Chicago, Vancouver, and St. Louis.
Interestingly, I guess, the Canucks already fired their coach, that being a result of a second consecutive first-round bounce-out, with just postseason win to show for it. Tortorella, by contrast, had 15 times that amount.
So you know who thought the Rangers played boring hockey? No one who wanted the Rangers to win. As Mark Spector noted the other day: Kings fans whose team was and still is routinely criticized for being boring — just like the Darryl Sutter-coached Flames before them were — don't particularly care because of that big trophy Dustin Brown got to skate around with at the end of the season.
Tortorella got farther than most over the last two years in nearly realizing that same goal. This year especially it seems like he should have gotten a pass because broken-down Brad Richards and out-injured Marc Staal were two gigantic holes in the lineup he had to trot out. As with any coach firing, you have to ask yourself: "Who would have done better?"
The media has, in the last two years, once again found itself being the appointed-by-no-one arbiter of what does and does not constitute aesthetically pleasing hockey therefore worthy of attention beyond derision. This is somehow Tortorella's fault as well, because it must have been he, in his maleficence, who convinced the world that this type of hockey was a way to win. All the argument needs is a note that Martin Brodeur is a systems goalie who only succeeds because of The Trap and we're living in a pre-2005 lockout world once again.
The harumphing over how terrible it all was giving way to cheers because one of the league's foremost practitioners of what the fourth estate would call anti-hockey was ousted, while teams like the Penguins (second in blocked shots in this postseason, 10th in the regular season) are celebrated seems a little silly, if you think about it. Perhaps that's because blocked shots are not in and of themselves an indicator one way or the other of what constitutes boring hockey.
The Penguins have the personnel to both score a lot of goals and defend well. The Rangers don't. It really is that simple.
Let's put it this way: Until that bonkers finish on Wednesday night, could anyone sit there with a straight face and tell you the Red Wings/Blackhawks Game 7 was in any way attractive? These are two teams with a wealth of skilled forwards, both better equipped to play up-and-down hockey than Tortorella's Rangers ever were, and when their playoff lives were on the line, they dove for the trenches and tried to keep things as ugly as possible lest they get into a slugging match that could necessarily leave them more vulnerable to defeat.
As it turns out, winning 2-1 gets you exactly as far as winning 5-4 does, without all that pesky worrying about who's going to get back on any play in particular.
The thing Tortorella always used to say in Tampa is, "Safe is death," which flew in the face of the way his teams played hockey. Safe, far more often in the post-lockout world, was life, because the Rangers lived on far longer than most other teams and succeeded where others often failed. You can say he didn't change with the times all you like, but that just isn't true.
No, Tortorella didn't win the Stanley Cup with the Rangers, as he did with an underwhelming Lightning roster in 2004, but the amount of luck that goes into any run to that prize is considerable. Having a record anywhere near as good as his in the postseason (six games below .500 despite the fact that the Rangers' roster was bad for all but the last two season) shows that his teams were at the very least competitive most of the time.
You can't put it on Tortorella that his general manager -- in his voracious, unending quest for a world-beating sniper to save his team that might not exist -- gutted the team that had just been to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Coaches like Tortorella have a shelf life. That's what Glen Sather said in talking about why yet another team he built inadequately shuffled out of the playoffs earlier than he would have liked. That's true, too. Gruff guys, who aren't easy on the players, don't survive long in any one job. Ask Pat Burns about that. But they also tend to succeed when they have those jobs, boring hockey or not.
Which is why Tortorella is going to be on the beach for a very short period of time, and why boring hockey and confrontational press conferences aren't going away, no matter what the media wants.
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- John Tortorella
- New York Rangers