John Tortorella Discovers Coaching Can Actually Help Teams Win

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 01: (L-R) Brandon Dubinsky  and Ryan Callahan  of the New York Rangers celebrate Dubinsky's second goal of the game at 55 seconds of the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden on November 1, 2010 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blackhawks 3-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It’s amazing how quickly a team can turn things around.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was speculating Rangers’ coach John Tortorella was just about done in New York.

Shortly after that, the team had an amazing turnaround, discovering a physical style of play that’s translated to wins, mostly because of Tortorella’s suddenly smart coaching.

There are a few reasons for the turnaround:

  • Shot blocking
    The Rangers have never been a great defensive team. They’ve never liked to consistently take the body in any of the three zones. So Tortorella seems to have compromised, and instead, just has everyone block shots. Teams are incredibly frustrated against the Rangers because shots don’t get through. Meanwhile, the Rangers are hoping their new third jersey is made of Kevlar.
  • Consistent lines
    Tortorella has always loved mixing up lines but last season he saw diminishing returns on the practice. So he’s really stuck with his lines. The Ryan Callahan / Artem Anisimov / Brandon Dubinsky line has been together since camp. Ruslan Fedotenko and Sean Avery have spent a lot of time playing together, albeit with different centers. But it’s paid off, in that the Rangers are finally getting scoring out of Callahan and Dubinsky, presumably because they’re not playing with a different person every shift. Also, players can finally tell when they’re being punished and not just caught in some kind of line-swap experiment.
  • No safety net
    With the injuries to Chris Drury, Marian Gaborik, and Vinny Prospal, the Rangers have no safety net. There’s no one on the roster who can take over a game, or who could take over a game 10 years ago. I would argue there’s no healthy forward who’s a natural goal scorer. So with no one to defer to, each player spends an awful lot of time trying to score, or at least get the puck closer to the net. That’s how a guy like Brian Boyle already has four goals, the same amount he scored all of last season. The Rangers finally have secondary scoring because there’s no primary scoring option.

The Rangers still have a lot of problems. Their defense can be awful — Michael Del Zotto seems to have abandoned all pretense he’s a defenseman. Also, the Rangers are still vulnerable to speed. During the last few moments of last night’s win over Chicago, the Blackhawks were whipping the puck around the offensive zone in a vicious cycle, and they had some great chances. If the game had gone on another minute, Chicago would have converted. The Rangers were simply unable to get in the way of shots or touch any Blackhawks.

But despite all of that, and my apparently incorrect doubts about Dubinsky, Tortorella has cobbled together a strategy that seems to work. The Rangers finally seem to have a post-Tom Renney playing persona, and it’s one that has allowed them to win games.

This probably isn’t a Cup-winning team, but it’s one that’s much improved from last season.