The Rangers have been eliminated short of the Cup again. The time to look at why is now, and as is frequently the case in sports the first place that gets looked at, and all too often the last is the coaches office. The case against Tortorella is seemingly damning. Last year he had a Eastern Conference finalist a bounce or two from the Stanley Cup finals. The Rangers roared through the regular season and played strong hockey until getting beat by a slightly more cohesive team of wily veterans. This year with some significant changes in the forward group, they struggled all of the abbreviated season to even make the playoffs. They got into a slugging match with the Washington Capitals, and were just short of run out of the building in successive games by the Bruins. Not because, aside from game three, the team didn’t show up. Not because of overhyped problems with the powerplay, but because they lacked that winning attitude, you can call it elan, machismo, or swagger and not be wrong.
The Rangers as a whole have too many nice guys and creme puffs to own their own space. They aren’t quite the Speed Bag Sedin twin seen in the finals not so very long ago, but they are close. For all that Hagelin’s willing to play with an edge here and there, its not consistent, and I really doubt he’d make a list of the top 50 most intimidating forwards in the eastern conference. Derek Dorsett is a bad dude, he’s quite capable of ruining someones whole week when the gloves come off. But he’s not playing first or second line minutes. Derick Brassard played his heart out, he was a point per game player on a very defensive minded team. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was his first taste of the NHL playoffs, and while his contribution was heartening, in six NHL seasons he’s never even cracked 60PIMS.
When you look at the biggest names, you begin to see the problems. Rick Nash is not, and has never been a power forward. He’s not Alex Ovechkin in either skill or willingness to hit or be hit to make plays. He’s not got the snarl of David Backes, or even the much smaller Wayne Simmonds. Rick Nash is a big, skilled forward. But he’s exactly as much a power forward as Erik Karlsson is an elite shutdown defenseman. Brad Richards is ordinarily a pretty good player. This year he was awful. Maybe it was the lockout throwing off his training schedule, maybe there were some off ice issues he was dealing with that sapped his energy. Whatever it was that caused him to deviate from being a nearly point per game post season player, it is unlikely to last.
Clearly the construction issues of this team are paramount, but before pushing a coach out the door you have to ask a couple vital questions:
- Is the coach a bigger problem than the construction of the team?
- Is the coach the right coach for the team we intend to have after changes?
- Is there a better coach available for the we have or want to have than the one we have now?
For the first questions, that’s an unequivocal no. This team lacks the bloodlust to win. That is not a problem with a fairly combative coach, it is one that can be covered up by it in some regards, but no in this case, the coach isn’t a bigger problem, unlike say Alain Vigneault who always had an excuse for his teams failure.
For the second, you have to decided what team you’re building. The Kings are hardly the most combative team in the league, but they will still hit you every chance they get. The Bruins have to play highly combative teams like the Flyers and Leafs and were equipped to win playing that style. The Kings won with an ultra-balanced, ultra-deep team we’re unlikely to see a reprisal of anytime soon. They Kings and Bruins aren’t that dissimilar from the Rangers except in depth. If the direction going forward is to more strongly emulate one of them, then removing a coach doing most of what they do with a far smaller toolbox is probably foolish. If however they choose to go in the opposite direction and play a more smooth skating, high end passing, offensively overloaded style like the Penguins, he might not be the best choice
For the third, there are some similar coaches like Guy Boucher, and arguably Mike Keenan, but are they actually going to be better? After those two you’ve got Lindy Ruff, an then you’re dipping into the AHL and looking at guys like Bruce Cassidy of the Providence Bruins, or Gordie Dwyer of the PEI Rockets of the QMJHL, a guy who has been there and done that. There is a good case for bringing in someone who isn’t an NHL retreat, especially with a team that has a lot of youngsters, but the questions remains; are they better? The answer is maybe.
For me, if I’m the team owner, dropping the coach isn’t going to fix the problem, and if that’s the general manager’s solution, he’s not the man to fix the problem either.