I have waited to write this column for a long time. I have dreamed about what I would write. I have rehearsed what I would write. And then when Tortorella was actually fired I didn’t want to write anything. I felt like my personal mission to have him fired had been completed (which is the way I felt when A.J. Burnett was traded) and after picking him apart for four-plus seasons in New York, including in postgame press conferences following losses this season, I didn’t have anything left to write or say about the man who helped steal four-plus seasons of Henrik Lundqvist’s prime. But when I heard a rumor that the Dallas Stars were looking at Tortorella as a possible replacement for the recently-fired Glen Gulutzan, I just couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
The year after college (2009) I was still living in Boston and listening to Mike Francesa when Tom Renney was fired. The Rangers were 31-23-7 with 21 games remaining in the season when they made their change and Glen Sather gave the following reason for firing Renney, who had brought the Rangers back to the postseason for the first time since 1996-97 and the first time during Sather’s Rangers tenure.
“We had lost our zip at some point. We were a fast, puck-possessive hockey club that was determined and worked very hard and moved the puck well. We’ve gotten away from that and that’s why we made the change.”
(Side note: Does that seem familiar?)
When the speculation started that John Tortorella could be Renney’s replacement, people glowingly talked about Tortorella for the job in a way that Scotty Bowman must have been thinking, “How the eff will they talk about me if I want to get back into coaching?” You would have thought that Tortorella brought the Lightning to Tampa Bay before creating an Oilers/Islanders-esque dynasty and winning four Cups in five years. But Tortorella’s time in Tampa Bay actually wasn’t as successful as many people seemingly misremembered it to be, the way an artist or actor is praised posthumously for a spectacular career despite only making one huge song or album or movie. Here’s how Tortorella’s Tampa Bay tenure actually went.
2000-01: Took over team halfway through year and missed playoffs
2001-02: Missed playoffs
2002-03: Lost in second round
2003-04: Won Stanley Cup
2005-05: Lost in first round
2006-07: Lost in first round
2007-08: Missed playoffs
Tortorella came to New York with a Cup, a second-round exit, two first-round exits and three missed playoffs on his resume and acted in a manner that he thought he had won the Conn Smythe during the 2003-04 playoffs rather than Brad Richards. He felt entitled from the minute he was named Rangers head coach and in his mind I think he felt the following thought process was justified: “I won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2003-04. The Rangers haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993-94. I’m more successful than the New York Rangers.” Without ever being able to go inside his head or without giving him truth serum or a polygraph test, I know that’s what he was thinking.
Tortorella has the type of cockiness about him, which exuded the idea that he couldn’t believe he was fired by the Lightning following the 2007-08 season, even though his team went 31-42-9, finished in last place in the Southeast and missed the playoffs. “I’m John Tortorella! I won this franchise a Cup five years ago! How could they fire ME? But they did and unfortunately Sather and the Rangers were there to get Tortorella back behind a bench, and back behind the Rangers bench for the second time after his four-game stint coaching the team to an 0-3-1 record in 1999-00.
The Rangers finished the season 12-7-2 after firing Renney and hiring Tortorella, earned the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, held a 3-1 series lead over the top-seeded Capitals in the first round and blew it. That’s how the John Tortorella era began.
The following year, the Rangers missed the playoffs despite having a chance to clinch the 8-seed if they could beat the Flyers in a shootout in Game 82, but they couldn’t and the Flyers clinched the 8-seed. How did the Rangers lose? The way the John Tortorella Rangers always lost: scored the first goal and couldn’t make it stand despite 46 saves from Henrik Lundqvist before losing 2-1 in a shootout.
The year after that, the season came down to Game 82 and playing for the 8-seed again with the Rangers needing to beat the Devils on the final day of the season and have the nothing-to-play-for Lightning beat the Hurricanes, who were also playing for the 8-seed. The Rangers did their part and the Lightning helped them out to complete the two-team parlay and get the Rangers into the playoffs at the 8-seed to face the 1-seed Capitals for the second time in three years. Five games later the Rangers’ season was over.
So after three seasons, two first-round exits and one missed postseason, John Tortorella would coach the Rangers again in 2011-12. And then came the problematic 2011-12 season. And the 2011-12 season was problematic because the Rangers weren’t nearly as good as their 51-24-7 record and 1-seed in the Eastern Conference would have you think they were, but because it was the most success the organization had experienced in 15 years, Tortorella appeared to be a coaching hero.
The 2011-12 Rangers were an offensively-challenged and defensively-flawed team that relied on the best goalie in the world to win the East by one point over the Penguins, who were without Sidney Crosby for 60 games. If the season was 83 games, the Rangers would have lost the conference and the division to the Penguins and been the 4-seed in the East. But the season is only 82 games and therefore John Tortorella looked like the man who had gotten the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals through system development and progress. But really John Tortorella’s wasn’t about progress, the 2011-12 season just happened to be an aberration. John Tortorella’s Rangers tenure wasn’t following natural progression the way that Claude Julien’s had in Boston. Instead, John Tortorella’s Rangers tenure mirrored Daisuke Matsuzaka’s Major League career. How? Here are Matsuzaka’s record and ERA for his six seasons in the majors.
2007: 15-12, 4.40
2008: 18-3, 2.90
2009: 4-6, 5.76
2010: 9-6, 4.69
2011: 3-3, 5.30
2012: 1-7, 8.28
In 2008, everyone thought Matsuzaka had adjusted to the majors after a so-so rookie season. But in the four years to follow, everyone realized this wasn’t the case. Matsuzaka had won 18 of his 29 starts in 2008 despite averaging under six innings per start. This was made possible by the Red Sox offense, which scored five or more runs in 19 of the 29 starts. Matsuzaka had a 2.90 ERA despite having a 1.324 WHIP and leading the league in walks (94) and hits per nine innings (6.9). This was made possible by his ability to somehow get out of a bases-loaded jam seemingly every inning.
The 2011-12 Rangers and their 51-24-7 record defied logic, math, science, the law of odds and the laws of everything. This was made possible by Henrik Lundqvist’s Vezina-winning 39-18-5, 1.97 GAA, .929 SV% season. The 2011-12 Rangers played in 33 one-goal games and won 21 of them (64 percent). They went a combined 12-7 in overtime and shootouts came from behind in seemingly ever game and tied and won games in the actual final seconds (or in the actual final second as was the case in Phoenix). In the playoffs, they needed seven games to survive the 8-seed Senators and seven more games to survive the 7-seed Capitals and won both Game 7s 2-1. Their luck finally ran out in the Eastern Conference finals against the Devils, losing in six games. The only two games they won? Two shutouts from Henrik Lundqvist.
The 2008-09 through present day Rangers have been built on getting a lead and sitting on it. They aren’t built like the Blackhawks or the Bruins or the Penguins. They can’t sustain Lundqvist giving up two or three goals in a game because they have no way of scoring two or three goals in a game. (The 2011-12 Rangers gave up three or more goals 33 times. They lost 24 of those games.)
If you believe in progression, which Tortorella made clear doesn’t exist from year to year in the NHL in several interviews this season with Mike Francesa, then the 2012-13 season was supposed to be about building off the Eastern Conference finals loss to something bigger. And when Sather fleeced Scott Howson and the Blue Jackets in the overdue trade for Rick Nash, progression made sense.
The Rangers caught a break with the lockout after playing 102 games the year before and having their season last until May 25. Gaborik would need surgery to repair a torn labrum and would be out until after the New Year anyway, so no hockey until the middle of January and a condensed 48-game schedule made sense for a team with scoring troubles.
But the 2012-13 didn’t have anything to do with “progress.” The Rangers started out slow, got hot, got cold, got ice cold, nearly missed the playoffs (again), clinched a playoff berth in the final days of the season and got lucky to get the 6-seed when things broke right. The team that come within two wins of a Stanley Cup Final appearance the season before was now relying on outside help to reach the postseason the way they had two years ago and it all finally fell apart for John Tortorella. It wasn’t just the team’s record, their 6-seed or their second-round embarrassing exit. It was the three majors things that caused those things that led to John Tortorella being currently unemployed.
1. Mistreatment of Media
I don’t care how John Tortorella treated the media or the beat writers since I’m loosely part of the first and I’m not the second. Stupid questions deserve stupid answers in every aspect in life, including NHL press conferences, so I don’t feel bad for media members belittled by unnecessary and poor lines of questioning. But not every question is stupid and not every question deserves a stupid answer or in Tortorella’s case an a-hole answer, which is how MSG Rangers play-by-play man Sam Rosen was treated for no reason. But even though I don’t care if Tortorella wanted beat writers to go home feeling humiliated, it clearly played a part in his firing. It’s one thing to act like that if you’re winning since someone like Bill Belichick isn’t exactly media-friendly, but how many times has Belichick’s job status been in question? Zero.
No one in New York cared about what Tortorella did in Tampa Bay and he never figured this out. New Yorkers want the Rangers to win and don’t care when the Lighting won. They don’t care about championships, accomplishments and accolades achieved in another city with another franchise. Tortorella spoke down to everyone to he was forced to speak to and acted in a manner in which no coach in the major sports should act, but if someone is going to, it should be someone with a much more impressive resume than Tortorella’s, which finished in New York like this:
2008-09: Lost in first round
2009-10: Missed playoffs
2010-11: Lost in first round
2011-12: Lost in conference finals
2012-13: Lost in second round
2. Misuse of Stars
Somewhere, I’m not sure where, Marian Gaborik was smiling when it was announced that John Tortorella had been fired. Well, maybe Gaborik wasn’t exactly smiling since he will spend at least one more season in Columbus with the Blue Jackets, but he had to be happy knowing that the man responsible for him being sent to Columbus would now be viewed as a loser and not a savior in New York.
If there hadn’t been a lockout this season, Gaborik would have missed close to the half the season recovering from the torn labrum he suffered during the 2011-12 season when he scored 41 goals and played through the playoffs with the injury. A lot of people seem to forget this and these people certainly forgot it when they booed Gaborik at the Garden and called for him to be traded, which he eventually was.
No one wanted to talk about how he was unfairly treated in comparison to players of lesser talent on the team or that he was moved from the position he has played his entire life or that he was asked to change his game away from being one of the league’s elite and pure goal scorers to someone willing to bang bodies and muck it up in the corner and block shots. All anyone knew was that Gaborik wasn’t scoring at the rate he used to and that he was being benched and having his playing time reduced by Tortorella. Everyone gave the benefit of the doubt to the coach who had won nothing in New York and not to the two-time 40-plus goal scorer for the Rangers who, along with Lundqvist, was the sole reason for the team’s marginal success since 2009. So Gaborik was shipped to Columbus to create depth (but not depth with people who could score goals) and the team who couldn’t score goals lost their second-biggest scoring threat.
The Rangers started the season with Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards. Entering their final game of the year (Game 5 in Boston), only Rick Nash was in the lineup. Gaborik was gone and Richards had become a healthy scratch in consecutive games, nine years after he won the Conn Smythe, giving Tortorella his lone Cup and the one thing on his resume keeping him employed behind a bench in 2013.
What happened to Richards? He certainly didn’t forget how to play hockey or “lose it” overnight. Maybe the 48-game shortened season had something to do with the 33-year-old center not looking like himself? It’s more likely that Richards was out of shape, which would absolutely be his fault, in January prior to the start of the season and never caught up over the five months that the Rangers season lasted.
Even for as bad as Richards looked at times and how lost he was running the power play, he still finished with 34 points in 46 regular-season games. If he deserved to be benched or scratched, he deserved to benched or scratched long before the final two games of the season with the Rangers’ backs against the wall, trailing 3-0 in the conference semifinals. Tortorella tried to back Richards when he told everyone to “Kiss his ass,” but by then it was too late. Richards started his own potential amnesty process with his play and Tortorella put the potential finishing touches on it with his lineup.
3. No Accountability
John Tortorella always made sure to ask the media if they had asked his players the same questions following losses when he would get testy usually right before or after he would take out his frustration of not being a good coach on Sam Rosen. Tortorella wanted to make sure his players were owning up for their sloppy play or poor effort, but he never once took the blame for a loss. For someone who felt so entitled for his one truly successful season in the NHL, he never once thought he could be the reason for a loss. It was always someone else’s fault in Tortorella’s mind and it most likely was his players’ since he rarely would credit the opponent for their performance either.
Tortorella’s players turned on him following the Game 5 loss to the Bruins and after looking immune to being fired before the 2013-14 season, he was gone the day after reports came out that Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t sold on signing a long-term deal with the Rangers. Lundqvist’s play had been responsible for Tortorella keeping his job as long as he did and Lundqvist’s play had been responsible for any of the team’s post-lockout success, so it was fitting that it was Lundqvist who ended up being the one to end Tortorella’s time as Rangers head coach.
I’m not sure why the Dallas Stars or any other team looking for a head coach would want Tortorella behind their bench. But I get it. Like a campaign manager with at least one election win on their resume, Tortorella has the 2003-04 Cup on his and he will always be mentioned in potential jobs until he has another one.
As for the Rangers, I’m not sure who will coach the team next season, but it won’t be John Tortorella. And that’s all that matters.