New York Rangers’ coach John Tortorella, despite another bumpy year, deserved the contract extension he received (thought to be three years). Ultimately, he managed to make the playoffs with a team that was not only inexperienced and/or bad, but one that was also injured for much of the season.
Tortorella got a pretty bad team to overachieve, which actually contributed to making it look like he didn’t do such a great job this year. If Tortorella hadn’t gotten the Rangers into the playoffs and kept the team competitive right up until the last game of the season (if not the second-to-last game), the conversation would have been about how Tortorella didn’t have very much to work this year and the extension would have been seen as a non-issue. He would have been given a pass on this season.
But because Tortorella managed to get a horribly constructed team into the post-season, only to exit the first round with a single win, it suddenly seems like he didn’t do a very good job.
But let’s not forget the Rangers made the post-season without a top line center and with Marian Gaborik putting up one of the worst years of his career.
Tortorella got the team to focus on defense and attacking and they managed to win games by outworking opponents and doing lots of little things to win lots of tiny battles. And all of those little, tiny things — the blocked shots, the battles in the corner, the finished checks — translated into enough wins to earn the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.
Of course, Tortorella’s coaching performance wasn’t perfect this year. There were some issues.
Like the fact that the team’s powerplay was simply horrible for most of the season. In fact, one could argue that the Rangers’ powerplay woes allowed Washington to win the first-round series. Tortorella didn’t have much personnel for a good powerplay, but he did have options.
Rick Carpiniello suggested quite a few times that Tortorella do away with the powerplay units and just roll his lines like his team was at even strength. The idea there is the players are doing what they always do with the benefit of one less opponent on the ice. Given that the powerplay was often so bad, the idea deserved to be entertained. If Tortorella couldn’t come up with a powerplay strategy that worked, he should have at least come up with something that didn’t fail.
There were other personnel issues, too. Tortorella did a great job mentoring some of the younger players. Defensemen Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh had incredible rookie seasons, evolving into a very strong second defensive pair. Rookie Derek Stepan had some incredible moments, although he looked out of gas the last two weeks or so of the season, and for much of the playoffs. Defenseman Matt Gilroy, who seemed to spend so much of this season and last in Tortorella’s dog house, was incredible down the stretch, playing the best defense of his young career.
But Tortorella struggled with how to treat his veterans. He was unable to get through to Marian Gaborik, and his refusal to trust Gaborik in important situations (like when the Rangers were trying to protect a lead) seemed to shake Gaborik’s confidence. Gaborik’s best playoff game was game five, when he finally had nothing left to lose. Imagine if Gaborik had brought that game five energy and willingness to shoot to the other playoff games.
Tortorella’s inability to trust Erik Christensen and Sean Avery also seemed to shake the confidence of both of those players. Tortorella was not shy about sharing his disappointment in the play of both forwards and both forwards responded by playing like they were scared to mess up. Tortorella should have seen that his tough love wasn’t working and tried a different approach to get the two Rangers to play smarter and more consistently.
But Tortorella also showed evolution as a coach. While he’s still prone to juggle lines when things aren’t going well, he was much better about giving players time to get used to each other. And where in Tampa he would ride his big line as long as he could, getting them on the ice every other shift, here in New York, without a true number one line, he rolled three lines more consistently — especially for the first two periods of games.
So there were things Tortorella could have done better this season, but there were also a lot of things he did very well. The extension is a just reward for a coach who did a solid job with a team that should never have made the playoffs.
At a certain point, you have to think someone in management will want the Rangers to get out of the first round of the playoffs, but until that day comes, why punish the coach for not being able to work miracles with a bad team?