(cross posted at Blueshirt Banter)
Running Raw Charge, I get asked to comment on things from time to time. That's just what comes with the job. I agreed to be interviewed by another New York Rangers blog on the subject of John Tortorella. I'd already answered questions in the past for Jim Schmiedeberg when he was in charge of Blueshirt Banter and had questions about what to expect with John Tortorella's first training camp ("Vomit is a mainstay"). What could it hurt to answer a few questions regarding Torts for another Ranger blog?
It's no mystery that Tortorella's greatest success happened in Tampa, Florida, as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning: He and the team he coached in 2003-04 raised Lord Stanley's Cup above his head in victory. With the Rangers running roughshod over the Eastern Conference while the NHL's second season approaches, being asked about Torts time in Tampa seemed to make sense. You know, retrospect, comparison, etc.And with the Bolts and Rangers playing against each other tonight? Perfect timing, right?
But there was a sentiment in the original interview proposition, the email sent from Daniel at The Garden Faithful, that voiced discontent at John Tortorella, as if something were amiss.
"Oh, sure, Torts isn't big on Avery," I thought. "The Rangers are in first place in the conference, things are going well for the most part... There can't be a real issue here, can there be?"
Well, at least for one fan, there seems to be.
Daniel sent nine questions to me, phrased with an angle of agenda from start to finish: proof was supposed to be laid out that John Tortorella is a problem in New York (as he must have been in Tampa, too!) and the world would now know this.
Look, there's always going to be a discontented sentiment among the population about the head coach of any team - there's one aspect or another that drives people crazy. As a Tampa Bay sports fan, I know this from experience of living and dying with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and I grew up as a New York Mets fan). I've seen the Bucs 1990's rise with Tony Dungy's brilliant defense and non-existent offense, Jon Gruden won a championship and then shattered the team with ego and hubris; I've seen Joe Maddon play percentages with his bullpens to a fault; and John Tortorella isn't an infallible saint by any means, with the Lightning suffering the same blue-line turnovers leading to goals, a flaw that Bolts fans still see all-too-often with Guy Boucher in charge.
Their successes cannot be denied. Nor were their teams successful in spite of the aforementioned coaches styles - though opinions can say otherwise depending on how much you like or dislike a coach.
At any rate, after being thoughtful regarding my answers to Daniel's questions, replying in full and as best I could... I saw my answers mangled and myself put down by the interviewer because I didn't play along to his game of "Get Tortorella!" I was being "overzealous" and I was certainly a "Torts homer" who thought of John Tortorella as a saint.
So I'm posting the full text of the interview - minus juvenile edits and condenscending remarks aimed toward my replies by Daniel. I realize not everyone thought much of Tortorella, but you shouldn't shoot the messenger when he says something that doesn't fit your narrative of "He's not fit to coach!"
I think the BSB crowd would be appreciative if Lightning fans followed up with their own thoughts on Torts in comments The interview --with his pre-facing -- is below the jump.
Overview: Despite the team's great record, many Rangers fans have grown quite frustrated with Tortorella's coaching methods, and we are terrified it's going to result in a first-round upset. We're curious how he managed the Lightning during the '04 playoff run and what led to his dismissal.
For what it's worth, to give context before we begin: John Tortorella is due to be a Jack Adams finalist. If there is a segment of Ranger fans unhappy with this, then the problem isn't necessarily the head coach.
1. Many Rangers fans are upset with Torts' constant preaching of "going through the process" and not playing outside "the system." He refuses to acknowledge the Rangers are a Cup contender. He say's "we're not quite there yet," making it sound like we're an 8-seed fighting for our playoff lives, rather than a team running away with the Eastern Conference. Did Torts say the same kind of things during the Lightning's Cup-winning '04 season?
It's called keeping the team grounded. Yeah, Tortorella talked like that in 2003-04, and the team bought into the notion. Veterans like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier keep speaking in grounded terms in the media to this day when there is success, and Steven Stamkos and other young players are following leaderships lead in doing that. And there's nothing wrong with it.
Last season, the Rangers only made the playoffs with thanks to Tampa Bay beating the Carolina Hurricanes on the last day of the season. You and fellow Ranger fans remember that, right? And the disappointing first-round bouncing from the playoffs by the Washington Capitals? Would it be better if Tortorella let success go to his (and the players) heads and started a Laissez-faire management style where anything goes? No. Why? Because bad habits start to form when players get cocky and undisciplined; mistakes get made, and success can quickly turn into failure.
2. The '04 Lightning were far more offensively talented than this Rangers club. They had the Hart Trophy winner in St. Louis, Lecavalier, Stillman, Richards, Modin, and Dan Boyle on defense. Khabibulin was good in net during the regular season, but certainly not great. Did Torts preach conservative play or did he let the offense flow? In other words, what was his coaching philosophy? Did he coach to the team's strengths or was he stubborn and made them play his way?
He made the team play his way, and his philosophy was "Safe is Death". Players were supposed to be responsible both ways, as well as opportunists.
You can talk about the offensive prowess of Martin St. Louis and Freddie Modin, but they were also effective penalty killers. Lecavalie rand Stillman were a strong combo but Vinny was expected to win faceoffs. The Lightning were great on the forecheck, and that enabled the offense to flow.
Playing within a effective system - and Torts system has proven to be that way - with the right personnel and the proper execution, it works out in the end.
3. Rangers fans are often infuriated by Torts inability to consistently run four lines. He's constantly switching and flip-flopping lines, even if certain combinations are clicking. Did he do the same thing in Tampa Bay? Did he shorten the bench in the playoffs? Or did he continue relying on his third and fourth-line guys?
He continued relying on his guys. Rolling four lines. While the line combos were consistent or had small variations, you have to remember 2004 was different (for the league) than it is now. More coaches are constantly shuffling lines. Rick Tocchet, when he coached in Tampa (which infuriated fans), constantly did that but his management was ineffective. Guy Boucher does that now to mixed results. Generally the same players will likely end up together, but line combos remaining static isn't necessarily going to happen.
4. Did Torts play favorites in Tampa Bay. For instance, were certain players on a short leash if they made mistakes in games, and would they ride pine as a result of their mistakes? Once you were in Torts' doghouse, were you able to get out?
This happens with any coach in any league in any sport. If you can't play in a system that the head coach - the guy in charge -- employs, or if you go loose-cannon and make an ill timed, ill advised mistake on a regular basis, you are going to go to the doghouse.
It's not a John Tortorella thing, it's a head coaching thing. Currently, Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher has put guys into a doghouse from time to time during the season -Teddy Purcell, rookie Brett Connolly. Were they able to work their way out of the doghouse? Yup, by playing within the system better.
That goes for John Tortorella as well. Andre Roy was the player in Tampa under Torts that was repeatedly in the doghouse, and for the reasons that I alluded to above: Ill timed penalties, carelessness, not playing within the system. Did he find his way out of the doghouse? At times. But you have to earn that right - that goes for playing under Torts, Boucher, Claude Julien or any other head coach in hockey / pro sports.
5. How responsible was Torts for turning St. Louis into a superstar and for helping Richards mature into a Conn Smythe winner? Did they emerge as stars thanks to Torts or in spite of him?
Every coach who oversees skilled players is, in part, responsible for their success and failings. To insinuate otherwise is to think a coach's responsibility is simply setting the lineup.
Let me throw back this question at you: Marian Gaborik is the Rangers offensive star, who started his career in Minnesota and had repetitive groin and leg issues. He joined the New York Rangers, and under Tortorella those issues have abated even though the Madison Square Garden ice is considered the worst playing surface in the league. Is John Tortorella's "Camp Torturella" training regimen responsible, in part, for helping Marian Gaborik strengthen problematic muscles and avoid injury? Or is he just in a better place because he's playing in New York and not Minnesota?
6. Did Torts have a hard-on for Fedotenko before his two goals in Game Seven of the Finals? Rangers fans are convinced if Torts is here in 2020, Feds will still be getting crunch-time minutes.
Ruslan Fedotenko played under John Tortorella in Tampa, as you know. Rusty knows Torts system, Rusty can play within the system effectively and spread that knowledge around to others he is playing with. It's not because Fedotenko gives Tortorella a hard-on, it's because he's playing a role in Torts gameplan.
7. What did Lightning fans think of Torts? What ticked you guys off the most about him? I'm sure the feeling was more positive in '04 than by the time he was fired in '08, but overall what was the feeling towards him? And how did the media feel about him?
He was beloved.
Oh, was John Tortorella abrasive? Yeah. Could he be a dick? Sure. Did he ever rub fans the wrong way? Yeah, but it wasn't 2007-08 (which I'll elaborate on below), it was 2001-02 when John was coaching his first season in Tampa. He took Vinny Lecavalier's captaincy away (after Lecavalier's contract holdout to start the season) and put Lecavalier in a doghouse to the point Lecavalier wanted out of town. Yeah, fans sided with the franchise player - but Torts won out, and won the backing of ownership who refused to trade Vinny.
Not only did Torts win out, but Lecavalier himself admits he's a better player with thanks to what he went through with Tortorella and what he was tought.
Problems were too often personnel related from 2005-06 until the end of Torts tenure in Tampa. That failing isn't on John as-so-much horrible drafting, bad decisions by GM Jay Feaster and circumstances beyond both men's control.
8. Why did Torts fall out of favor in Tampa Bay? Was his personality too abrasive? Did the team quit on him? Did management and fans simply get tired of his stubbornness? Describe the break-up between him and the Lightning.
OK Hockey (Oren Koules and Len Barrie's ownership group). That's it in a nutshell. THAT'S why John Tortorella was dismissed in Tampa Bay after the 2007-08 season - the incoming ownership group (one of the most impulsively asinine ownership groups that the NHL has seen in the modern era).
You see Torts got canned, but you miss the entire story of the season: Ownership was in limbo from August 7th, 2007 until around the trade deadline in 2008 That means the team could not take on or subtract any significant payroll and change the franchises value. That means personnel problems could only be addressed with minor league reserves. And the prospects that were promoted to Tampa were not going to cure broader ills for the Lightning (like goaltending).
Tortorella had to coach what he had. Jay Feaster couldn't make a trade. Basically everyone had to suffer the season: players, coaching, management, and the fans.
Did John Tortorella fall out of favor with the fans or the media? We were used to his antics and embraced it. He missed the playoffs all of two times as head coach of the Lightning: 2001-02 and 2007-08.
Now lets finish this history lesson: Rumors started in March 2008 that the incoming ownership group wanted to bring in Barry Melrose as head coach (a guy who hadn't coached in the league in a decade). Torts fate was sealed not so much by his style, his coaching, lack of results, or some public gaffe. His fate was sealed by the incoming owners (Oren Koules and Len Barrie, also known as "The Cowboys") that were planning to turn the Tampa Bay Lightning into their own personal fantasy hockey team.
Melrose, their hand-picked coach, lasted 16 games with the team before getting fired. Barry's style embraces the hands-off you seem to be looking for in other questions you ask. If he couldn't cut it in Tampa, do you believe he'd be a better fit in New York?
9. Lastly, did the Lightning win the Stanley Cup thanks to Torts or in spite of him? From what you know about this year's Rangers team, do you think Torts can earn his second ring?
How many professional sport teams won a championship in spite of their head coach? This isn't video games, this isn't fantasy hockey, this is professional sports - where coaches are involved at all levels of game plans, training, staffing, lineups, etc. They live and breathe the sport. To insinuate a team - any team - is winning in spite of their head coach is to simply admit to bias. Did the New York Giants win the Super Bowl in spite of their head coach? Did Boston win the Cup last year in spite of Claude Julien? Did the Yankees win World Series rings in the 1990's in spite of Joe Torre?
If John Tortorella doesn't take the Rangers deep in the playoffs, there will be reasons for it. But the reasons won't be because he didn't play Sean Avery. The reason won't be because he had the team adhere to his system. The reason won't be because the Rangers didn't trade for Rick Nash. It will be because the Rangers got beat. And the question for you is, do you want the Rangers to be competitive going forward, or do you just want a Cup at any cost - the future, current - and if that means throwing the coach under the bus, so be it?