Tuesday, February 9, 2010

John Tortorella: Flip-Flopper or Losing Streak Stopper?

About this time last year - John Tortorella was sitting with Glen Sather and making a case about why the Ranger Coach Tom Renney should be fired and why, he, John Tortorella should replace him.

"Safe Is Death" was the phrase Tortorella used.

The Rangers under Renny were playing a style that emphasized defense first - with 5 skaters doing their best to protect Henrik Lundqvist and the Ranger goal. They also conserved energy - laying back and letting the other team punch themselves out. They tried to score when opportunities presented themselves. They waited and reacted.

The idea was that the Rangers lineup could only score a goal or two a night - so they tried to win 2-1.

Tortorella told Sather this approach was all wrong.

"Safe is Death" he said. Laying back and playing defense gives your opponent too many chances. Tortorella’s philosophy was to forecheck and attack. To get the puck out of the defensive zone and away from Lundqvist - to get it near the opposing goalie - where good things can happen.

You know what happened next. Sather listened. Tortorella got the job. The Rangers made the playoffs and got a 3-1 lead against the Caps. But then the wheels came off and we stopped scoring and that was the season.

This year - with some new players - a pure goal scorer - and a training camp - Tortorella had the team – His Team - ready. They came flying out of the gate - going 7-1, scoring goals, and playing exciting-to-watch, attacking-style hockey.

It was fun - a lot of fun - while it lasted.

But the Ranger high wire act came crashing down to earth. Teams began to adjust to our style - we stopped scoring - and we started getting scored on.

So - reluctantly - to stop our losing steaks - Tortorella changed his style. He began attacking less - playing more defense -staying back.

In short - he began playing a style that was a whole lot like the safe-is-death style of hockey that got his predecessor fired.

So - what do we make of this? Is our coach an opportunist? Did he say anything to get hired? Was he wrong in assessing how to fix the Rangers? Is he, in the end, a motivator more than an Xs and Os guy anyway?

Well, you can look at it that way. But I don't

I think John has done the best he can with the roster Glen and the Salary Cap Gods have given him. I know he's had input - but the team has more than a few over-paid unmovable catastrophes clogging the lineup that John could do nothing about.

And the one thing John didn't anticipate was the increased goals-against this season. Is that the fault of an all star goalie starting the downside of his career? Or can it be blamed on letting veteran defensemen go and replacing them with rookies? Or the unavoidable result of a goalie ridden too hard and too long for too many years?

Maybe, to some degree, it’s all of the above. But I don't fault John for changing the team philosophy in mid-season to focus more on defense.

That's not hypocrisy. It’s learning. It’s adapting to the situation as it changes around him. It's just Tortorella paying attention - thinking - listening to a quality group of assistant coaches – and taking action..

Whatever you think of John Tortorella - that man won the Stanley Cup just a few years ago. He's not clueless. He's built and coached winning teams.

So if "Safe" doesn't equal "Death" anymore - that's fine with me. As we limp towards the Olympic break there are actual signs of life. The team is still playing hard. The GM just pulled off his 2nd GREAT TRADE of the year (Gomez was the first). And our new lineup is showing more toughness and the ability - in Jokinen - to carry the puck into the offensive zone. We just pulled off a great win against our hated rivals - The Devils - in which we seemed to play great D - get great goaltending - and score timely goals - to defeat an elite team in decisive fashion.

If we can keep that up - anything is possible.

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