For much of John Tortorella’s time coaching the New York Rangers, I wondered how long he was going to last.
He seemed to have nothing but contempt for his players and a lack of patience that bordered on child-like.
Lines would only last a few shifts. Sean Avery was scratched for acting like Sean Avery.
Tortorella acted like his players had done something awful to him, but no one seemed to know what it was.
He also acted like there was a sequence of four magical line combinations that would somehow unlock the mysteries of the universe. And Tortorella seemed determined to find that magical combination, no matter the consequences.
This season has been different, though.
Gradually, Tortorella has actually started to coach.
He’s sticking with lines more. Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky have been a staple, with different centers, depending upon who’s playing well.
Center Erik Christiansen has frustrated Tortorella with his inconsistent play, but rather than bench him or banish him to a fourth line, Tortorella has been conscientious about giving Christiansen important shifts, on the top lines and with the powerplay. Christiansen made the move pay off last night against Ottawa while on with Dubinsky and Callahan.
Tortorella has used Avery in a similar way, occasionally throwing him on with Marian Gaborik. The two are coming familiar with each other’s game, but they’re not part of a regular unit. It gives Tortorella more in-game line flexibility and gives players the chance to step into big moment roles.
Tortorella has also been patient with young defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who’s struggled with both his offensive and defensive games. Last night he was a healthy scratch, mostly to give him some time to reflect on the game a bit. It wasn’t a punishment so much as a reset.
In the absence of Del Zotto, Tortorella gave rookie Derek Stepan time to run the point on the powerplay, and while Stepan doesn’t have Del Zotto’s shot, he distributed the puck well last night. It was an interesting choice to stick Stepan up there, but the move didn’t backfire (although Stepan’s unit didn’t have a powerplay goal either, so it didn’t really work, either).
The Rangers are still far from being a strong NHL team. The lineup is still oddly constructed. But Tortorella continues to make it work, coaching in an imaginative and resourceful way. Tortorella seems committed to getting the best out of his players, rather than coaching against them, and that’s probably why the Rangers have performed above their skill level for much of the season.
After all, how many .566 teams can boast of not having a top-line center or left wing?