Glen Sather has put himself squarely on the line by switching from the even-tempered defensive-minded Tom Renney to the fiery, attack-first John Tortorella in an attempt to save the team that he thought he shaped in the latter image over the past two summers. "I still think that we have a team that’s played very well, that we can get back to playing the way we played in the beginning of the year," he said this evening after announcing the coaching change via conference call. "We were a fast, puck-possession hockey club that was determined, worked hard, and moved the puck well. We’ve gotten away from that. That’s why we made the change in coaching personnel, to help this team move in that direction."
While empahsizing at every turn that he had nothing but respect for Renney, Sather downplayed his own personnel decisions, strongly hinting that Renney reverting back to defensive hockey is what took the life out of his team. "We had a lot of meetings with the players, we a lot of meetings with the coaching staff," he said. "We tried to analyze it the best we could. We spent a lot of time with the films, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. We had lost our zip at one point in time." He named two devastating third period collapses -- a 5-2 loss in Toronto and the 5-4 pre-Christmas loss to Washington. "We have to be more of an attack team rather than a team that’s going to pull back and back in."
Tortorella, he said, falls right into line with his views, contrary to the belief that his independent streak will clash with the strong-willed GM. "He has a reputation that precedes him," Sather said of the former Lightning coach who has a Stanley Cup ring to his credit. "He has a history with [Assistant GM] Jim Schoenfeld, and [Schoenfeld] thinks our attitudes and desires are going to mesh quite easily. Our philosophy is the same. I know that John works hard. He’s very demanding. I like that. He’s going to bring some of those things back to our game on the ice. We need it at this stage. Torts is certainly a lot more fiery and [has] a different approach to the game and to the players [than Renney]. He’s going to bring that fiery attitude -- a lot of games, we seemed to be missing it."
He didn't let his players off the hook, nor himself. "We all have take responsibility for this," he said. "We think we have a better hockey team than we’ve been playing the last ten games. To come out of the gate the way we did and play and perform and move the puck and control the play -- something happened, something shifted. You have to point [the finger] at everyone, the players included, to take responsibility for the way they played." But he refused to point them directly at specific players. "I wouldn’t start to point fingers and say so-and-so isn't playing nearly as well as he can play," he said. "Some of the players that I've brought in are better than they’ve performed up to date. A lot of players here have played well in the past and I expect they’re going to play well in the future." He never considered making a statement by taking action with a player rather than the coach, like Montreal did with Alexei Kovalev. "It didn't cross my mind," he said. "First of all, I'd have a difficult time picking out one guy."
He made it abundantly clear that he believes the coach was the difference. "One guy gets some players to perform really well, and another guy can come in and it doesn’t work for him," he said. "Torts is going to bring a lot more fire to his game, to his approach. f you look at some of the players on our team, the past coaches that they’ve had in their history, a lot of these guys have thrived under that kind of coaching. I felt we needed to get some more fire in there." He included Renney and his assistant Perry Pearn, also fired today, along with himself as being responsible for some of the moves that were made, specifically the signings of Wade Redden and Markus Naslund, who each had a past history with one of the coaches. "You can always second-guess any of the moves and changes we made," he said. "When we do our meetings, certainly everyone has input in these. The coaching staff have more of an input than the scouts do, but we do this as a collective group of people that analyze the players and who we're looking for. Everyone has an equal amount of input, from the coaching staff as well as the managment staff."
As for the mechanics of the process, Sather said he had been considering this move for some time, and that while he finally made up his mind while watching the Rangers' 3-2 loss to Toronto yesterday, that loss in and of itself was not a specific factor. "The overtime loss wouldn't have changed my mind," he said. "I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a few days, but winning or losing that game last night, as painful as it was to lose it, I had come to the conclusion during the game that today was probably going to be the day that I was going to do what I had to do. We've been talking for the last couple of weeks, seeing the team starting its slide. I’ve been thinking about it for probably the last couple of weeks. I could see the team starting to slide and the game just started to erode. Sooner or later, we were going to have to do something. I wish that it hadn’t have come to this, but it did. The last two or three games it was pretty obvious that we had to have something done."
He said other candidates were considered, others were contacted today, but that Schoenfeld himself was never one of those. "Schoeny is going to be an interim assistant coach," Sather said, presumably to smooth the transition process. "There was no consideration in giving him the head coaching job. He really wasn’t interested in it." The transition process will include getting to know the team so that Tortorella can lend his input to any personnel decisions that have to be made as the trade deadline nears. "We have to be careful after a coaching move [when] we start to fool around with the personnel," Sather said. "It’s going to depend on how John sees the team going forward. He’s certainly going to have input into the lineup as well as the personnel. I wanted to give him the opportunity so that he'd know the team and see where he’d like to make some improvements, get his input on where he’d like to see those changes occur."
Whether young players are traded to make immediate improvements is something Sather would not rule out. "Do you want me to state that we're not interested in trading any young players?" he said. "Absolutely -- we don't want to trade any young players. But if someone came along and offered us an opportunity to make the team better with another young player, I'd have to say, 'Yeah, that's certainly a chance I might be willing to take.'" He said he would also consider sending players to Hartford to clear up salary cap space, but that that's not an immediate concern. "There are possibilities," he said. "We're not up against the cap, so there are lots of things that can happen in the meantime." True, in the strictest sense of being up against the cap, but there is certainly no room to maneuvre in a major way without shedding some existing contracts.
Finally, there is the question of Sean Avery. Tortorella has spoken in the strongest of terms about his distaste for "The Grate One", now working his way back into shape in Hartford hoping for the Rangers to claim him on re-entry waivers before the March 4th deadline. "You always have to be cognizant of the fact that coaches have opinions about players," Sather said. "He has no history with Sean like we do. I think that, over time, you learn to love him just like I have. That’s going to be something we’re going to deal with. I’m going to speak to John about it, absolutely. He’s worked hard, his attitude has been great, he’s done what the coaching staff have asked him to do there," Sather added about Avery. "The team has won three out of the four games. He's got one assist in those four games. He's coming along and he’s got a great attitude and we’ll deal with that in the next week for sure," he concluded.
To read more about the changes, see Blueshirts Blog, Blue Notes, Ranger Rants, Rangers Report, Slap Shot, Game On!, the Record, Times, Daily News, and NYR.com. As noted in In the Crease, this move now completes the cycle of all four coaches who started the season in Europe and all three coaches of Staal brothers having lost their jobs. [Note: This article contains quotes that may be slightly imprecise -- they will be corrected and expanded later this evening. But the gist of all quotes is accurate.]