In his remarks upon being honored with a number retirement last night, Harry Howell said that Emile Francis, his longtime coach and general manager (who could not attend due to illness in his family), always told his team, "If you players do not do what I tell you, I will send you so far away that the Hockey News won't be able to find you." "That got everybody's attention," Howell added. Never mind the Hockey News -- the Rangers are so lost that not even Stanley (the one who located Dr. Livingstone in the wilds of East Africa) could presume to find them. So the Rangers took the drastic but inevitable step of firing head coach Tom Renney along with assistant coach Perry Pearn and his futile power play.
Renney brought this upon himself by refusing to take steps to motivate his players. In an era where the conventional wisdom is that you can’t fire a team so you fire the coach, the Montreal Canadiens sent their offensive star, ex-Ranger Alex Kovalev, home for two days, and he responded with a highly motivated return. Renney just gave his underachieving veterans more ice time. I asked him before what would turn out to be his last game as coach, "Are you nearing the point where you might consider taking some drastic action like Montreal did with Kovalev?" It was a lifeline, but he refused to take hold, responding, "I'm not sure we have that sort of dilemma. Drastic action for me might be different than drastic action for someone else. There's different ways to make that statement -- I can do some things." Asked if adjusting players' ice time was one way to get their attention, he said, "Only to try to get some people even more ice, and that's obviously at the expense of others -- try to get guys going and feeling good, get them out on the ice more."
Wrong answer, obviously. More than 25 minutes of ice time couldn't get Chris Drury going, his goalless streak extending to 15 games and his gamble costing the team a goal just 25 seconds after they tied the game at 1-1 in the third period, ultimately a 3-2 overtime loss to the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs. Just shy of 23 minutes of ice time couldn't get Wade Redden going, his goalless streak extending to 57 games, his last 30 games yielding just five assists and a -10, and his selfish penalty in the Leaf crease standing as a stark counterpoint to his unwillingness to hit Jason Blake seconds earlier during a rush. Giving any ice time whatsoever to Aaron Voros, let alone 1:47 of power play time to a player who hasn't scored in 26 games (with just two assists), didn't help either, not with the third line of Ryan Callahan, Lauri Korpikoski, and Fred Sjostrom, who scored six of the Rangers' last 15 goals, getting half the ice time the non-scoring veterans got.
So after the game, I asked Renney, "Are you any closer now than you were five hours ago to considering taking any drastic steps?" He bristled and said, "How well did you think we played tonight?" Outshot 13-2 over the final 11 minutes of the first period (16-2 really, but they only credited the Leafs with three shots on one flurry where they had at least six). Falling behind 2-1 over a span of nearly 30 minutes from the second to the third periods despite outshooting the Leafs 20-3. Allowing the go-ahead goal immediately after scoring the equalizer, a season-long problem. Two too many men on the ice penalties, another season-long problem. The worst roll of the Boggle lines yet, with all four lines changed up, almost all of them nonsensically. Another o-fer on the power play followed by a power play winner for the opposition. And an All-Star goalie who, after holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in regulation for the seventh time in the last eleven games yet seeing his record in those games drop to 1-3-3, said, "Frustration? You know what. It would be very strange if I didn't feel frustration." No, I didn't think the team played well at all.
Renney disagreed. "I thought we played hard," he said. "We outshot this team significantly. Anything drastic is outside what the needs are right now." Well, refusing to make the drastic on-ice moves that were necessary, Renney brought a drastic move upon himself. Showing the veterans too much respect, more than they earned, and getting performances that were tantamount to disrespect in return, Renney becomes the fall guy. All of the problems he could not rectify now fall onto his successor, who will be chosen by the architect of this mess. The GM thinks he covered his butt with this move but he will be exposed fully if the new coach cannot win with this bunch either. "You talk to some players, you try to get your finger on the pulse of how they’re doing, watch the body language, watch their practice habits, how they’re interacting," Renney said before the game. "Generally speaking it’s good. There’s some trepidation, but the guys still have their eye on the ball and understand that it’s completely up to them to get corrected." Up to them now -- no longer up to Renney.
As of this moment, John Tortorella is the frontrunner to take over, according to radio reports. But will he be able to motivate the moribund Redden, or find a pulse in Drury? On the night he helped get his coach fired, a night where the general feeling was that the team had to win to save the coach's job, all Drury could offer up was, "Toskala played good. We couldn't get anything by him. A couple of mistakes, and we lose in OT." I said to Drury that the games were all starting looking the same -- what could be done to change that? “Keep working hard," he said. "Keep showing up -- if we keep getting 35+ shots a night, we’ll get some wins." I asked him if the team needed a shake-up a la Kovalev. "Our guys are focused, working extremely hard on and off the ice," he said.
Drury's response to Renney's termination was just priceless. "We clearly didn't play well enough for him certainly in this last month," he said to reporters today. "But on the bright side, I guess, there's 21 games left and we're right in the thick of things." Yes, in the thick of things thanks to that valuable point salvaged in blowing a 4-0 lead to Washington just before Christmas, not that that was anything to worry about over the holidays. Good luck to the next coach, whoever he is, trying to find any signs of life in this guy or in Redden or in [insert the name of your favorite underachieving veteran]. As fans, we have to just hope that the new coach's win-now mandate does not result in any damage to the young core of players as he focuses, as Renney did, on getting something out of his top guys.
To read the initial reports on Renney, see the Record, Post, Times, Ranger Rants, Rangers Report, Blue Notes here and here, Blueshirts Blog, Blue Seats Blog, Game On!, and NY Sports Day. Game reports: Newsday, Record, Daily News, Post, Times, NY Sports Day, NYR.com, AP, Toronto Star. More from the Post, Inside Shots, and the reporters' blogs -- Ranger Rants here and here, Rangers Report here and here, and Blue Notes here and here. On the number retirements: Newsday here and here, Record, Daily News, Post, Journal News, Slap Shot, NYR.com, AP, Toronto Sun, and Globe and Mail. The Wolf Pack won their third straight, their longest winning streak of the season, and another quiet night for Sean Avery -- see Howlings, WP.com, and Beyond the Blueshirts. Prospect Park recaps an otherwise slow Sunday.