John Tortorella already has a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but can his coaching style translate to another win in the post-lockout era of the NHL? With the Lightning, the suffocating system John Tortorella employs was aided by the sloppy style of hockey permitted in the old NHL. With the ice opened up by rule changes, one wonders if Tortorella’s system can still translate to postseason success. The New York Rangers were by far the best team in the Eastern Conference all regular season in 2011-12, but they seemed exhausted by the time the playoffs rolled around. Tortorella’s Rangers took the 7th and 8th seeded teams to seven games before falling to the 6th seeded New Jersey Devils. Were these struggles a result of their style of play finally catching up to them?
Blocking shots is a beautiful and frustrating thing, but it takes a toll on the Rangers each year. As they sprawl and sacrifice themselves in the defensive zone, the entire roster is subject to injury. Tortorella’s scheme is effective because it challenges teams to deviate from their own offensive systems. The result is incredibly consistent regular season success, as demonstrated by Torts’ 383-309 record as a coach. However, it also injures and exhausts his team. In fact, if you take away Torts’ 16-7 run to the Stanley Cup with Tampa, John Tortorella has a record of just 21-30 when the playoffs roll around.
Tortorella has made the playoffs with the New York Rangers in three of his four seasons, falling to the Washington Capitals in 2009 and 2011. The 7th seeded Caps took the Rangers through an exhausting series in the second round before the Rangers finally conquered them in a low-scoring struggle. Shockingly, the 8th seeded Ottawa Senators also gave the top-seeded Rangers trouble. New York looked sloppy and exhausted all postseason, depending on Henrik Lundqvist to carry the load. He almost came through, but ultimately Lundqvist didn’t get enough help from the rest of the roster.
The Rangers have a loaded roster, balanced with superstars and promising young talent. They have arguably the best goalie on the planet, and their defense-first system almost guarantees another playoff appearance in 2012-13. Still, with a history of fading down the stretch under John Tortorella, the Rangers have plenty to prove in the upcoming season. Can they sustain consistent, grinding victories into the early summer months?
Many say that criticism of the shot-blocking system is misguided, but 467 blocked shots had to take a toll on the New York Rangers last season. The Rangers were clearly exhausted in the playoffs, and if it wasn’t a result of their system, what was it? A lack of grit, toughness, and perseverance? John Tortorella’s shot-blocking system is one of the most demanding in all of hockey, and it’s hard to ignore how tired the Rangers were as they limped through the playoffs against the bottom three seeds in the conference. Granted an 8th seed went on to win the Stanley Cup, but good luck comparing the LA Kings to the Ottawa Senators.
As a whole, John Tortorella has unified the Rangers clubhouse and built a perennial contender during his four years behind the bench. The way he dealt with a polarizing Sean Avery situation was strong and effective. Every player on the ice is ready to sacrifice their body to ensure shots that make it to Henrik Lundqvist are few and far between. The young players on the roster stepped in and energized the Rangers and the superstars stepped up when it mattered most. However, the roster is also one of the most talented in the NHL. Is it possible that the Rangers win games because of how talented they are, and not because of the coaching style of Tortorella? Are his press-conference antics a detriment to the focus of the team? Does John Tortorella’s system hurt the Rangers more than it helps, particularly as they break down towards the end of each season? Moreover, with a goalie as insanely talented as Henrik Lundqvist, do the Rangers need to endure injury and fatigue in order to block so many shots?
Ultimately, John Tortorella has a proven track record of success and consistently qualifies for the postseason. He is a Stanley Cup champion in an old era of the NHL and a strong coach in the post-lockout NHL. It still seems reasonable at this point to question Tortorella’s lack of postseason efficiency with the talent the Rangers have. How many more sluggish finishes will Rangers fans be willing to tolerate? Henrik Lundqvist is in the prime of his career and the window is beginning to close. If Tortorella can’t deliver a championship with this team, perhaps another coach can.