With just 21 games left to turn around a team that has gone 2-7-3 in the last twelve, new head coach John Tortorella doesn't have much time to figure out what he has to work with and what he wants to do with it. So his plan is to let his best players do what they do best and slowly bring them up to speed. "How much do we give them in such a short period of time?" he asked rhetorically after his first practice. "I don't want to confuse them. I haven't seen them play that much. I'm trying to figure out who they are. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you I know what they're about -- I don't. I know how I want them to play. I need to be cognizant of what you have as personnel -- can they play your style? After one practice, I don't have a clue. We have three games in four nights and that's where we'll see what they're about and how they grasp some of the little things we're going to change."
The big things Tortorella wants to change are confidence and philosophy. "We do have a philosophical difference," he said about his initial conversations with players about what he plans to change. "So we touched on that, where we're gonna go to try to get back in the win column. There's no question [we want to be an attack team]. We're not gonna trap. I've always liked the pressure game. We're gonna try to pressure, and we'll see how our guys handle it." The Rangers started the season trying to be exactly that kind of team, the kind of team GM Glen Sather tried to shape them into over the summer. But when other teams started scoring in bunches after a record-setting start, ousted coach Tom Renney started to rein the team in defensively. Tortorella had do the same thing in Tampa last season. "I've gotta be careful," he said. "I made a major mistake in Tampa last year when I was too aggressive and our D couldn't handle it and it cost us. I made a huge mistake in not changing that -- I waited too long. I need to see what these guys can handle in terms of the style we want to play."
First, he just wants to see what they can do, so he will let them play their game, mainly to help them get their confidence back. "Listen, I'm going to push them," he said. "But you also as a coach have to understand when you need to be with them. As a coach, you better understand what your team is right now. This is a time to get them to feel decent about themselves. They need to get some confidence. We're going to allow them to work through that. It's my job to allow them to express themselves. They're beat up. The most important thing for a hockey team is, what is your identity? That's what's difficult, in such a short span, creating that identity and not giving them too much [to do]. Because we need to win -- we're in a dogfight. I gotta wait and see how they accept some of the things we're trying to do, and then we'll slowly go about crafting that identity."
One of the things we can expect him to do toward that end is ride his best players, as he did in Tampa. "I'm not a four line guy," he said flat out. "Your best players need to be your decision makers. They're going to get every opportunity to win hockey games for us -- they're gonna be put in those situations. As long as they show me that they're going to compete hard, I'm going to give them every opportunity. There may be some tough times, but if they're playing hard, I'm going to get them right back out there to allow them to work through it." In theory, great -- but as we've seen recently, that doesn't necessarily work, with slumping players like Chris Drury, Markus Naslund, and Wade Redden not responding to increased ice time. But Tortorella brings with him a willingness to hold players accountable for a lack of effort in a way that Renney never did. "If a player can't control his work habits," Tortorella said, "if there's a problem there, that's when it gets dicey. We gotta start getting up the hill, not keep going down the hill."
Tortorella tried to recast the reputation he brings with him of being confrontational. "This reputation that I just kick the hell out of people takes on a life of its own," he said. "Tough's the wrong word -- just being honest is what I try to be. I'm not going to stand behind the bench and calmly go about it -- I'm just not built that way. But honesty is something the players want. It is my job to be honest, it's my job to coach them to be the best they can be. They're going to be held accountable, and there may be some bumps in the road, there may be some conflict along the way. But I don't think we should be afraid of conflict -- conflict is a good thing in developing relationships, as long as it's done in a respectful manner and it's done for what's best for the hockey team. It tends to get blown out of proportion, but players I've coached, you can ask them, they know where they stand at all times, and I think they want that and respect that."
Nevertheless, he insists he has learned from past mistakes, especially in between jobs, sitting in a broadcast booth watching other coaches, just as a player has to sometimes go to the press box to watch a game from above. One thing he has learned is that one-on-one meetings don't work. "I don't want to overload them," he said. "I had some major one-on-one battles in an office off the ice with a number of players along the way. And it turns into some conflict. [This time] I'm going to do it slowly but surely, sometimes on the ice, sometimes on the plane -- when I think it needs to be done. I want them to be themselves. I talked to a couple of players today just in a more casual way -- they're willing to talk to you better that way. Put a player in an office and he tends to clam up. So it's going to be a two-way street. You know I'm going to be speaking to them and I'm going to push along the way. I want them to feel comfortable to talk to me."
One thing he has to correct right away is the power play, the thing that has dragged this team down more than anything -- over 61 games, add ten power play goals when they were really needed and we're talking first place, not coaching change. Renney delegated the power play to assistant Perry Pearn, fired along with him. Tortorella will take that responsibility himself. "I'm going to do the power play," he said. "I think it's important that the head coach have the power play. You're dealing with your top people, and that's a very important aspect of a head coach is how to get the most out of your top people. On the power play you get to deal with them quite a bit. Obviously if we're going to win, it's going to have to produce better than it has." He will also handle the forwards. "I'm going to give Schoeney the penalty killers and he's going to handle the D during the game," he said of Assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld, who agreed to be interim associate coach at Tortorella's request after Sather was unable to pry his Tampa assistant, Mike Sullivan, away from the Lightning (Sullivan played in Phoenix when Tortorella was an assistant to Schoenfeld).
The new coach believes that it will be healthy for the team to start afresh, even with so little time left in the regular season. "It's good for them mentally to wipe the slate clean," he said. "I had the trainers take down the standings in the locker room and the stats and all that. A fresh slate is good. And it really is a total fresh slate here other than Paul Mara, who I had in Tampa, Dubinsky in the World Championship. I really have watched this team from afar. I'm excited about getting to know them, them get to know me. It will help some of the players that they're not going to be pigeonholed because I don't know what the role's going to be yet. I've gotta let them play and see what they are. I don't even know what the lines were -- I have some lines [of my own]." Those lines were Gomez centering Naslund and Zherdev, going back to the obvious first line that Renney abandoned due to lack of chemistry in pre-season, Dubinsky on the left wing with Drury and Ryan Callahan, Korpikoski between Dawes and Prucha, and the usual fourth line, one that would survive nuclear war intact. That means that Aaron Voros starts the Tortorella era as the odd man out, as he should.
On defense, Tortorella had to rotate Mara in during his first full skate since sustaining a shoulder injury, so it was impossible to discern what his pairings might be. It did look, however, as if Staal and Rozsival would remain together while Redden would pair up with Kalinin and Girardi with Reitz (although the left-right thing doesn't really work out with those pairs). But before you get too pumped up about this apparent Redden demotion, look at it from Tortorella's point of view -- Redden and Kalinin are the guys he knows most about, Girardi and Reitz are probably his third-pair defensemen. But there's no doubt about his goaltending. "I have to admit, I think Lundqvist is the best goalie in the league," he said, raising no eyebrows with that pronouncement. "When you have a goalie that can cover up some of those mistakes and not everything ends up in your net, it's huge for developing your team. The situation in goal here is going to help us. They make a mistake and you still get a save from -- what do you call him here, Hank? We can talk about all sorts of things, but goaltening is the most important in winning and losing."
Tortorella is of course thrilled to be back in New York, where his head coaching career began as a fill-in for the final four games of the 1999-2000 season after GM Neil Smith and coach John Muckler were fired -- Sather did not consider Tortorella a candidate to stay on in part because Tortorella told him, in all honesty, that he deserved to be fired too for the debacle that team had become. "I love this city," he said today. "The people are fantastic. They're gonna disagree with me, you guys are gonna disagree with me, there'll be some booing, there'll be some criticizing. That all comes with it. That's what I love about it, because it's a passion. To play in that building, in Madison Square, and be with the logo of the New York Rangers, are you kidding me? It's an honor." One of the first rules he installed, in fact, was to make sure no one treads on the logo that is woven into the carpet in the middle of the Training Center locker room -- a tall order, as it takes up most of the middle of the room. Staying off the smaller logo in the Garden locker room will be easier.
Having been shown the door back in 2000, Tortorella of course went to Tampa, where he won the last Stanley Cup before the lockout. Today, as much as says he enjoyed it, he downplayed that achievement as it related to him personally. "I think coaches are guidance counselors," he said. "It's not so much about X's and O's. In Tampa, we made some good decisions in guiding our players, but they're the one who do it. The players are the ones who deserve the credit in winning a Stanley Cup. We did our job along the way, getting over some bumps and guiding them down the right road when they took the wrong turn. But they deserved the credit -- I'm behind the bench in a suit." A horde of hungry Ranger fans will disagree with that assessment if Tortorella can accomplish that feat here in New York.