To Get Tough, Rangers Need to Recall How They Got Soft

This weekend saw Rangers coach John Tortorella formally announce the painfully obvious: The Rangers needs to be a mentally and physically stronger, more aggressive team this season.

Tortorella probably doesn’t care how the Rangers ended up this way, but it’s interesting to track, especially because in some ways, he’s responsible for their softness.

Tortorella was interim coach of the Rangers for four games at the end of the 1999-2000 season, after John Muckler was fired. Tortorella wound up coaching the next season in Tampa and the Rangers were to go without a coach for the next four years. Ron Low gave way to Bryan Trottier gave way to Glen Sather, none of whom had any idea how to successfully coach in the NHL.

Finally, in 2004, Tom Renney took over a team with no real offensive talent, other than Jaromir Jagr, and a lot of mismatched pieces. The lockout the following season must have been a relief to Renney.

The 2005-06 Rangers weren’t much better on paper, but they made it to the playoffs, only to be swept in the first round. But during that season, Renney had made an important discovery. While the Rangers still lacked any kind of secondary scoring, they could win games if they played tight defense. And so Renney focused more and more of his and his team’s energy on defense, hoping to erase the fact that the team had no scorers. And while there weren’t any great Ranger teams under Renney, they consistently made it to the playoffs with very average rosters. Renney lost his job when he lost all faith in offense and put all of his eggs in the defensive basket. And that’s the mess Tortorella is cleaning up. Tortorella must teach the Rangers how to forecheck and take risks. Because under Renney, the past four years were all about skating backwards for the Rangers.

But the Rangers still lack scoring, so while it’s great Tortorella wants to give a dull team an edge, he needs to remember that Renney’s tenure wasn’t all failure. There are some aspects of Renney’s coaching that Tortorella might want to keep around. I don’t think the 2009-10 Rangers are going to be known for their goal explosions. Without defense, this year’s team will be just as bad as last year’s. They’ll just be a more interesting guy behind the bench.

Also, speaking of the Rangers, Larry Brooks says the enigmatic Nik Zherdev offered to come back for $3.25 million, the same amount he rejected this summer. The Rangers declined his offer but I wonder if this means the KHL is exploring cost-certainty. I guess 99 NHL goals over five NHL seasons doesn’t exactly cause a ruble monsoon anymore.