Top 10 Questions the New York Rangers Need to Ask Their Next Coach

April 25, 2013; Raleigh, NC, USA; New York Rangers coach John Tortorella look on from the bench against the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC center. The Rangers defeated the Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

  1. Have you ever seen an NHL power play before?
  2. How do you like the sound of Assistant GM Sean Avery?

  3. Do you believe there are situations where it’s OK for the puck to be carried into the offensive zone?
  4. Do you think players should mostly play in their natural positions?
  5. Do you think it’s possible for your top defensive pair to play less than 45 minutes a night?
  6. Is it OK to sometimes not storm out of a press conference?
  7. Do you have set lines or do you just go with whoever you’re least mad at in that moment?
  8. Is it possible for a good player to not block every shot and to instead focus on something like scoring?
  9. Do you know what reporters are? Do you understand they’re paid to ask questions?
  10. Do you acknowledge that players are allowed to move around the ice on a power play?

A Five-Part Autopsy of the 2012 New York Rangers

New Jersey Devils center Adam Henrique (14) celebrates his game-winning goal during the first overtime period in game six of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals at the Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Rangers 3-2 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

I was so immersed in the Rangers’ surprising playoff run, that I wasn’t even able to process what I was seeing. But now that it’s over, the observations are starting to crystalize. This was a team that did a lot of things right (<cough>goaltending</cough>), but suffered a few mis-steps that ultimately cost the Rangers a shot at the Stanley Cup. I’m cataloging the failures, because the successes are fairly obvious (<cough>goaltending</cough>).

  1. Crazy lines: This is a recurring theme with coach John Tortorella. For whatever reason, he doesn’t like to keep lines together, even though his team had a tremendous regular season run using persistent line combinations. The constant line juggling made it hard for opposing coaches to determine match-ups, but it also forced the Rangers to simplify their play to the point where there was very little east-west movement. Passing benefits from familiarity and the Rangers often looked like a team trying to figure out teammates’ tendencies.
  2. Conservative play: Tortorella coined the phrase and philosophy ‘Safe is death’ back in 2002 while coaching the Lightning, but in the playoffs, his team played a painfully safe game. So safe that it became dangerous. Tortorella didn’t use more than three forwards on the powerplay until the Rangers were facing elimination against New Jersey. The Rangers didn’t push the tempo of any game unless they were losing. In general, the Rangers did a lot of waiting and never really put any team away through all three rounds.
  3. Belief in Carl Hagelin: Tortorella shoveled tons of ice time on the rookie Hagelin (an average of 16:45 per game) and Hagelin had just three assists and a -3 to show for it. Artem Anisimov averaged under 14 minutes per game and had 3 goals, 7 assists, and a +1. Hagelin’s speed was dazzling and he had some fantastic chances, but at the end of the day, he wasn’t finishing. At a certain point, a coach needs to look at performance versus potential. Sure, Hagelin had/has more upside than Anisimov, but if Anisimov is producing, don’t you want him on the ice?
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Julianna Margulies Teaches NHL About Fighting

06 March 2012: New Jersey Devils right wing Cam Janssen (25) fights with New York Rangers defenseman John Scott (28) during the first period a NHL matchup between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out and say it.

I watch The Good Wife.

I’m not going to make excuses. I’m not going to justify it by mentioning the quality writing or the amazing performances.

I’ve never written about The Good Wife here because it’s never intersected with hockey before.

This week it did.

This week’s episode featured a case about an NHL enforcer whose wife was killed while the enforcer was driving what might have been a defective snow mobile. The episode spiraled into a debate about if the player’s mental faculties were impaired due to his time in hockey, and then slid into the role the fictional hockey league might have played in the accident.

What really matters is that the episode was basically a one-hour indictment of fighting in hockey. Viewers were treated to an overview of the issues. The concussions. The enforcers fighting (literally) to hold onto their jobs, even when they’re hurting themselves. And the tacit approval the league gives to this behavior, even as it talks about protecting its players.

The episode was a huge black eye for the NHL. Instead of an hour of prime time devoted to the beauty of the sport, it made hockey seem like wrestling on ice.

The NHL could write off this episode as meaningless. They could say scripted TV has nothing to do with hockey and ratings. But NBC is promoting the NHL through its sitcoms. So obviously, somewhere there’s data showing that this kind of synergy is effective. If cross-promotion might bring in viewers, whose to say something like The Good Wife won’t cost the NHL viewers?
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Ryan Smyth to Rangers Would Have Been Textbook Sather

02 January 2012: Edmonton Oilers left wing Ryan Smyth (94) blocking the view of Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) while playing in a game where the Edmonton Oilers defeated the first place Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 4-3, at the United Center, Chicago, Il

Of course the New York Rangers were supposedly looking into adding Ryan Smyth as a top-six forward (maybe…). The Rangers need scoring, especially given Brad Richards recent cooldown that some might call positively Drury-esque.

Smyth is more than just offense, though. His strong play in both ends would let him slide right into this current Rangers team.

Too bad Smyth is going to be 36 in a few weeks.

Although, to be fair, Smyth’s advanced age hasn’t hurt his production for a defense-oriented Oilers team. He has 16 goals in 52 games this season. And Smyth would just be a rental, as I don’t think he has any long-term desire to live on the east coast, nor do the Rangers have extended plans to retain a player drafted the same year as their last Stanley Cup win.

Any why wouldn’t Rangers GM Glen Sather want Smyth? He’s the perfect example of a Sather acquisition:

  1. Smyth is a big name
    Sather really has two preferred kinds of transactions: big names and fourth liners (that’s why Sather must have loved signings like Mike Rupp and Donald Brashear, as it gave him the chance to sign big-name fourth-liners). There’s really no in-between for him unless he’s trying to dump a big name himself. What is it about stars that gets Sather so excited? It could go back to his time in Edmonton, when Sather couldn’t afford to sign or retain well-known players. Players like Smyth (and Drury and Richards and Gomez…) could be Sather’s Rosebud. Or Sather could understand that in New York City the only way for an NHL team to grab media attention is through flashy trades and signings. The media doesn’t get excited about NHL prospects or potential, no matter how much upside they possess. Plus, Sather’s boss, Jim Dolan loves big-name signings/acquisitions, no matter how ill-conceived or inane they are. The fact that landing Smyth might actually improve the Rangers would just be icing on the cake for Dolan.
  2. Smyth is a big name past his prime
    Because Sather gravitates toward big names, he’s always landing players once they’re past their prime. There’s a certain logic to it. Most teams will do whatever it takes to retain a player who’s still developing. But once that development stops, for most teams that means it’s time to part ways. For the Rangers, that means it’s time to break out the checkbook. Big-name players like Smyth are high-risk (although perhaps not even very high risk; I can’t imagine Edmonton will demand much for him)/high-reward.
  3. Smyth’s an Oiler
    Even before Sather came to New York, there was always a strong trade pipeline between the Rangers and Oilers. While recently it seems the pipeline has shifted southwest to Phoenix, Sather does seem to enjoy turning to Edmonton as a trade partner. Plus, Sather drafted Smyth, so there’s a shared Oilers history between the two men.
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NHL: There’s Nothing a Regular Season Gimmick Can’t Fix

New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA: Overhead of park at the start of the game.

Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Farber had an interesting look at John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer.

Collins came from the NFL and is credited with making the NHL more event-driven, coming up with ideas like hyping the annual outdoor game, starting the season in Europe, and making the All-Star game a sort of real-life fantasy draft.

The article is largely complimentary, but Farber does take issue with aspects of Collins’ philosophy:

You probably don’t know his name, but you do know his signature as the NHL’s P.T. Barnum. While the lawyerly [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman generally is about taking things step by step, Collins, the business guy, breathlessly rushes to the next thing, pushing, mining for opportunity and never having a bad hair day. The NHL’s 1,230 regular season games — OK, 1,229, after the Winter Classic — seem to have become an interregnum connecting the new narrative as the league lurches from one special event to the next.

I too have some concerns about what Collins is doing to the league. More and more, mainstream media NHL news seems to be about either one-off special events, like the Winter Classic and the All-Star draft, or horrible violence associated with the game. But the regular season, for the most part, is completely ignored, left for the fans to discuss amongst themselves.

Part of that is because the NHL season is so long and grueling. It’s hard for fans to sustain a level of excitement for 82 games; I’m not sure it’s fair or realistic to expect the local media to maintain it.

The regular season is also often ignored because the post-season is considered to be hockey’s real season. After all, more than half of the league’s teams make it into the playoffs. That’s where the games really begin to count.

But the disappointing thing is that Collins comes from the NFL, where the regular season games are incredibly important (I’m assuming no one from Indianapolis is reading this…). Obviously, that’s because of the much shorter season, but not entirely (team parity is also probably a factor, and that’s something else the NHL is struggling to successfully accomplish). Just about every regular season NFL game is an event, enjoyed by fans of the teams playing, but also non-fans.

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How Brad Richards Found Offense Through Defense

New York Rangers center Brad Richards (19) during the first period of the game at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-3.

Larry Brooks had a nice little appreciation of Brad Richards yesterday.

Brooks also credited New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, who moved Richards off of Marian Gaborik’s line when it became obvious the two just weren’t clicking.

Tortorella deserves a lot of credit for his handling of Richards.

Given Richards salary, it would seem that he belongs on a top line. But given that Richards’ north-south North American style doesn’t seem like it will ever mesh with Gaborik’s more European east-west leanings, Tortorella doesn’t press the issue (at even strength, anyway).

Instead, Tortorella embraced Richards for the player he is. For all of his offensive talents, Richards is really just a solid two-way player who happens to have a great shot. To leave him as a top-line center would have negated some of his defensive strengths.

Tortorella figured that out back in October, when he first separated Richards from Gaborik, putting him on a more physical line between Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Richards told the New York Post he appreciated the move:

I’m not seeing the game the way I should be, and when that’s the case and things feel they’re moving quicker than they should, sometimes getting me to grind it out is the best way to get me going, and Torts knows that…Playing with Cally and Dubi, working down low and having zone time, I believe that will be good for me and good for the team.

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Blues Thought Ahead with Coaching Change

St. Louis Blues center T.J. Oshie (74) makes a move with the puck in front of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (7) during the first period in the NHL game between the St. Louis Blues and the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It was a little bit surprising when the St. Louis Blues fired coach Davis Payne earlier this month. The Blues were 6-7. Not great, but certainly not horrible.

It was even more surprisingly when GM Doug Armstrong hired Ken Hitchcock as the new coach, since the rumors had Hitchcock taking over in Columbus.

Armstrong obviously didn’t have much faith in Payne, but he also gave the St. Louis Post-Dispatch an interesting reason for the Hitchcock import:

The reality is, this is a business and we have a number of players that are going to want huge economic rewards over the next 18 months and we need to know what we have in these players. You want to make wise investments and I thought having an experienced coach would give us a better opportunity to know exactly what we had.

In other words, Armstrong felt Davis wasn’t doing enough of a job kicking the tires of guys like TJ Oshie, Chris Stewart, Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Pietrangelo, and Patrik Berglund, none of whom are under contract past 2013.
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Goaltenders Need Protection From Their Teammates

 April 14, 2011: Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) looking to make a save as defenseman Mike Weber (6) is dealing with Philadelphia Flyers right wing Andreas Nodl (15) during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quaterfinals between the Buffalo Sabers and the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Sabers beat the Flyers, 1-0.

Kerry Fraser had a big piece on TSN about how Brendan Shanahan blew it by not suspending Milan Lucic for his hit on goalie Ryan Miller. Fraser says that without a Lucic suspension, it’s going to be open season on goalies:

Players (and more importantly goalies) would know that the League still considers them endangered and will continue to protect them from full blown body checks. It now appears that hunting season is now open. The license only takes “two minutes” to fill out and can be completed from the penalty box.

Apparently NHL GMs agree to some extent and have vowed to remind their players to protect goaltenders outside of the crease.

The thing is, how common is the scenario that got Miller hurt? How often are goaltenders hurt coming out to play the puck? How often do goalies come out that far to play the puck? You hardly even see goalies playing the puck behind the net anymore.

The Lucic hit was bad and he probably should have let up sooner, but it’s not a recurring NHL problem.

If the NHL is serious about protecting goalies, it needs to look at what teams are doing to their own goaltenders.

How many times have you seen a defenseman shove an opponent into the defenseman’s own goaltender? There’s no statistic tracking this, but it sure happened last night when Islander Blake Comeau (a forward) shoved Ranger Michael Sauer into Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov writhed around in pain for a minute or two but was able to finish the game.

But who’s protecting Nabokov? Where is the outcry? Is an injury somehow less damaging when it’s inflicted by a teammate?

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Trapping Isn’t Tantrum-worthy

Tampa

Like a lot of NHL fans, I’m not sure why people are just now realizing that the Tampa Bay Lightning use a 1-3-1 system.

I’m also not sure why the 1-3-1 suddenly infuriated the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday night.

But now, there’s talk about the NHL “doing something” about trapping teams.

Obviously, there are things that can be done.

Greg Wyshynski suggested a shot clock, which is an interesting idea.

But if the NHL really wants to kill trapping, they need to talk to their television partners.

Specifically, they need to talk to them about how they shoot NHL games.

Most NHL telecasts follow the puck through the three zones. Sometimes there are some shots from behind the goal up the ice, but for the most part, NHL games are shot like you’re watching above center ice. It makes sense, because viewers want to see the action. But in hockey, a lot of action occurs behind the play, too. And when you can see the whole play, it’s very easy to see what types of systems a team is running.

There’s never been a fan-driven outcry against systems because they’re tough to suss out on TV.

Even while Philadelphia was stalling, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on, because the camera was focused on the Philadelphia defensive zone. It’s only until Versus went to an overhead shot that fans could see the issue with Tampa’s 1-3-1:

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Put Columbus Coach Scott Arniel Out of His Misery

Blue Jackets R Rick Nash and Panthers D Dmitry Kulikov battle for control of the puck during the Florida Panthers versus the Columbus Blue Jackets game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH.

Scott Arniel has got to go in Columbus.

Not because his coaching is the reason his team has been awful. Not because of this weekend’s embarrassing 9-2 loss to the Flyers.

But because the team has obviously checked out on him.

With just two wins and an overtime loss, the Blue Jackets have five points in the standings, putting them 10 points behind the eighth seed.

If Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson wants to give up, he can keep things as-is and prepare to start dealing talent toward February. Or maybe he can even start earlier, like when stores have a Black Friday sale before Black Friday.

But if Howson thinks he’s assembled a competitive NHL team, it’s time to get rid of Arniel and bring in someone else. But he needs to do it now, before the playoffs fall out of reach.

Yet again.

Last season, the Devils were mired in a similar slump with coach John MacLean, although the Blue Jackets would kill for a slump like that right now, and Devils GM Lou Lamoriello didn’t make a coaching switch until late December. But by then, the playoffs were out of reach. Even though the Devils put together a lights-out second half under coach Jacques Lemaire, who took over for MacLean, there just wasn’t enough time for the Devils to push their way into the playoff picture.

If the coaching switch had been made sooner, the Devils might have made the playoffs.

So while it’s not entirely fair to solely blame Arniel for his team’s lackluster start, ultimately he’s the coach and he is responsible for how his team plays.

Saturday night in Philadelphia, we saw a team that was apathetic. We saw a team that was undisciplined. We saw a team that was lazy.

Arniel just cannot come back from that.

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