Type “fire john tortorella” into Google and you will get nothing. Well nothing relevant. Sure, there are “about 17,800” articles that match those keywords, but none of those 17,800 search results suggest that he should no longer be coaching the Rangers. The majority of the results involve the keywords, just not in that order, and instead commend Tortorella’s job as coach and beg for Glen Sather to be fired. That is actually the solution that makes the most sense to improve the Rangers, but at this point it’s unrealistic.
Since Glen Sather took over as general manager of the Rangers in 2000, he has fired four head coaches including himself. He has used the head coaching position as the scapegoat for his managerial mistakes and in turn built a revolving door behind the Blueshirts’ bench. He has spent his time as GM acting without consequences, and why wouldn’t he? If it took James Dolan as long as it did to fire Isiah Thomas, you’d have to think Sather is safe until at least 2020, no matter what product he puts on the ice.
Last February, after winning just twice in 12 games, Tom Renney became the latest casualty of the Glen Sather era, as he was relieved of his coaching duties with the Rangers sitting in sixth place. At the time, it was the only move Sather could make to shake up a club that he had allowed to go stale. He had cornered himself by yet again constructing a roster of overpaid former stars; stars that made names for themselves by achieving success away from New York. Despite proclaiming to get younger, Sather resorted to his old ways of signing aging free agents with their talent in decline, and his poor decisions from the previous summers were exposed as the level of play heightened in the final weeks of the season.
The Rangers were good enough to make the playoffs last season if Renney kept his job, just like they had been the three seasons prior. But in a state of panic, Sather hit the gong on Renney’s tenure in a last-second attempt to wake up an uninspired team that was simply going through the motions. With Sather’s “superstars” underperforming and the team watching their postseason berth slip from their grasp, a 2-7-3 slump was a good enough reason for Sather to pull the trigger on Renney. If Sather refrained from making a coaching switch, it was likely that blame would fall upon him if the Rangers missed the postseason. By putting a fresh face behind the bench, he could direct the media’s attention at the new coach and use the new coach as his newest scapegoat for his own mistakes if things didn’t work out.
On Feb. 23, 2009, Sather fired Renney and brought in John Tortorella, who went 0-3-1 at the helm of the Rangers on an interim basis in 1999-00. Just five years removed from winning the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, Sather was bringing a big name to Broadway. He wasn’t giving someone their first NHL coaching job like he did with Bryan Trottier in 2002-03, and he wasn’t rolling the dice with an unknown. He was bringing in a proven coach and someone whose in-your-face style and zero-tolerance policies were the anti-Tom Renney. Sather thought that Tortorella would love being back in New York and that New York would love Tortorella back. So far it hasn’t worked out that way.
Tortorella finished what Renney started by keeping the Rangers in the postseason picture last year. But in the first round, the team let a 3-1 series lead slip away to the heavily favored Capitals, and Tortorella became the focal point of the series after some unruly behavior with Capitals fans. A series that was supposed to be about the play of Henrik Lundqvist and Alexander Ovechkin became centered around the coach who was just over a month into his new job, and it looked like Tortorella and New York weren’t going to the be the match Sather hoped for.
With Tortorella in his first full season as Rangers head coach, the team has been everything it wasn’t when Renney was the coach, and it has been everything it was before Renney became the coach. The team is reminiscent of the inconsistencies that defined the organizations from 1997 until the lockout when the postseason was always just out of reach. Trying to predict which Rangers team will show up on a given night has become as challenging as predicting which Knicks team will show up. And like the Knicks, the “good” Rangers rarely show up two games in a row.
The team has been treading water all season, managing to stay in the thick of things in the playoff race, but really just prolonging their inevitable mathematical elimination, which is now creeping up fast with the recent success of the Flyers, Canadiens and Bruins.
So, my question is this: What has John Tortorella done to this point to remain as head coach of the Rangers?
I am certainly not a believer in changing coaches every season and giving coaches only one season to get their feet under them in a new city. But then again, I don’t decide who coaches the Rangers, and going by the history and the standards of the man (Sather) who does decide, it seems like a fair question.
Sather fired Renney – the Rangers’ winningest coach since Mike Keenan – for going 2-7-3 despite still being in playoff position. Renney had brought the Rangers to the postseason three times in three years and had them in sixth place in his fourth season before he was let go. He coached four Rangers teams that went to the postseason, which happen to be the only four Rangers teams to go to the postseason during the Glen Sather era.
In Tortorella’s first full season with the team, they have been chasing the Top 8 for most of the winter and the last time they had at least a 50 percent chance of earning a spot in the playoffs, according to Coolstandings.com, was Jan. 22 – well over a month ago. The team relies on success from two players – Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist –and despite outstanding seasons from both, the Rangers are still closer to be in 13th place in the East then they are sixth.
Hope is not yet lost, though it’s getting close. The Flyers, Canadiens and Bruins aren’t losing and even when they do, they don’t in regulation. Seven points separate the Rangers and the Flyers, five points separate the Rangers and the Canadiens and three points separate the Rangers and the Bruins. The Rangers have 16 games remaining and a possible 32 points available for grabs if they were to finish the season with a historical 16 wins in a row.
Since 2000, the lowest point total an eighth seed has gotten into the playoffs with has been 83 (2002-03). At that rate, the Rangers would need to average one point a game the rest of the way, and that certainly won’t be good enough this year considering the teams they are trying to catch are well ahead of that pace and aren’t slowing down.
Maybe John Tortorella’s work isn’t done in New York even though he has done little to nothing to earn another season. There is still a chance he can extend the Rangers’ consecutive postseason appearance streak to five, but time is running out on their ability to control their own fate. Coolstandings.com gives the Rangers a 21.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason entering Wednesday’s game, which is surprisingly up 5.1 percent since the league resumed play after the Olympic break. The odds are against them, but the schedule favors them in that they play Philadelphia three more times, Montreal once and Boston once with a chance to steal points from their direct competition.
During the Knicks-Hawks game the other night, Mike Breen told Clyde Frazier that he wished the Knicks could celebrate the team’s 1969-70 championship every year. Now he probably said it because it was enjoyable to talk to and be around the players and personalities from that memorable team, but he definitely also said it because that season was one of only two winning memories – the other being the 1972-73 championship – that the franchise has to live off of from the last 40 years.
This June will be 16 years since the Rangers’ last Stanley Cup celebration. The team has run out of ways to milk the memories of the 1993-94 team and run out of numbers to retire and players to recognize from the last Cup winner. After it looked like the franchise was headed in the right direction post-lockout, this season has set the Rangers back and erased any confidence Rangers fans had of returning to the finals in the near future.
It doesn’t look like the organization will have any new memories to remember and relive with Glen Sather leading the way, as his time in New York continues to be an epic disaster despite his illustrious career in Edmonton. It might not be John Tortorella’s fault that the Rangers are in the position they’re in, but eventually he will take the fall for the team’s failures, not Sather. The same thing happened to Tortorella’s predecessor and the same thing will happen to his successor.