The New York Rangers enter Monday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, looking up at both the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders in the standings.
It’s an underwhelming season based on expectations – the conference finals appearance, the Rick Nash trade, James Dolan materializing in a press conference to talk about the Stanley Cup – but perhaps not within the context of what this team has been under Coach John Tortorella and before him Tom Renney: a bubble team that finished no better than third in its own division once since the lockout, defensively sound but offensively challenged.
It’s not exactly a coincidence that the Rangers’ best offensive season – 11th in the NHL in 2011-12 – was also their most successful under Tortorella. But this season, they’re 27th in the League at 2.33 goals per game. That’s Florida Panthers bad.
Where did the scoring go? Why isn’t there more of it with Nash on the roster?
[Related: Where are the 'real' New York Rangers?]
Look to the stars for the answer. And wonder if John Tortorella’s the one that’s turned them into black holes.
“I don’t think we played long enough where we figured each other out,” Nash said. “As I said before, you look at some of the good lines and they’ve played together for years or months, whatever it might be. But I did think early on we were having some success and each game we were getting better.”
In his superb dissection of the Rangers on NHL.com today, Dave Lozo diagnoses their offensive woes as the product of a punch-less supporting cast – 9 goals in 27 games for skaters outside of New York’s top six – and the inability of Richards and Gaborik to lead the attack.
Richards had two goals and four assists in his first five games; he has two goals and six assists in his last 20 games. Gaborik had five goals and three assists in his first five games; he has three goals and six assists in his last 22 games.
Tortorella has said that the Rangers need their best players to be their best players, and he has benched Richards and Gaborik on separate occasions for their poor play. Shuffling lines hasn't worked, either: Tortorella has used Richards with a slew of forwards to no avail and even has used Gaborik as a third-line forward for a few games.
… Richards has looked slow and unsure of himself at times, especially when carrying the puck in the neutral zone. Gaborik's once-deadly snap shot seems to have less steam on it than it had when he first arrived in New York as a free agent in 2009, and the 31-year-old has just one goal in his past 14 games.
Larry Brooks sees Gaborik’s struggles as a burden shared between player and coach:
Tortorella’s postgame diatribe in Buffalo during which he smeared his team’s most important players was conduct unbecoming. Beyond that, it failed to produce the desired effect. This group had deaf ears.
It doesn’t compute that Marian Gaborik can’t thrive playing under Tortorella’s defense-oriented, hard-on-the-puck philosophy; not when the winger scored 40 or more goals in two of his first three seasons playing for this coach.
But it also does not compute that Tortorella would have shifted Gaborik, who had spent his entire career at right wing, to left wing ... and moreover, would have stranded him there for more than two dozen games even after it had become painfully obvious the move was detrimental to the winger’s performance.
The aforementioned “Buffalo diatribe” was last week, when Tortorella said the Rangers “sucked” against the Sabres and called out his best players more starkly than he ever had as Rangers coach:
“I couldn’t be more disgusted and disappointed with the way our top guys played, with the way we handled ourselves through it.”
It was the moment when the hockey world’s ears perked out, and chatter about Tortorella’s message falling on deaf ears started to proliferate. Not only because of the Rangers’ place in the standings, but because he’s burnt out his star players before, during his waning days with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On the fly, the coach had rejiggered the Rangers' power play the way he had temporarily redecorated the Lightning dressing room in 2007--08, his final season in Tampa. Tortorella removed pictures of defenseman Dan Boyle with the Stanley Cup, returning them to the walls within a day after a heated dispute. Boyle, a former All-Star now with the Sharks, declined to discuss the specifics of the incident. "He was hard on everyone, but especially his top guys," says Boyle. "You have to have thick skin, but he gets guys going."
(Wait, this doesn’t mean no Dan Boyle with the Rangers, does it?)
Of course, he’s demanding of all players. As Vinny Lecavalier said upon Tortorella’s exit in Tampa:
“He's very demanding on young players, and I don't think everybody takes him the same way, which is normal. Everybody reacts differently to different situations. Some guys don't react well to that."
(Somewhere, Chris Kreider nods in agreement.)
But problems with the young supporting cast aside, it’s Gaborik and Richards that have let down the Rangers this season. The former has a points-per-game average of 0.63, which would be his lowest total since 2004 with the Wild; the latter has a points per game average of 0.60, which is by far the lowest of his career.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins are near the top of the conference thanks to Sidney Crosby. The Chicago Blackhawks set NHL records thanks to Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. The Anaheim Ducks kept pace with them thanks to Ryan Getzlaf.
Blame Tortorella for their swoon, or blame the players. But blame their lack of production on the Rangers looking at the Islanders’ taillights right now. Who, by the way, are getting the kind of performance out of John Tavares that the Rangers are paying Brad Richards to give them ...
I don't support the idea of firing Tortorella if the Rangers continue to struggle, but I'm willing to accept the possibility of this premise: That if a coach loses his stars and scares the bejesus out of his kids to the point of non-production from both, what is he left with?
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