“Not many leaders are this versed in the craft of motivation.”
These words from Liev Schreiber’s powerful narration in last year’s HBO 24/7 series accompanied a clip of John Tortorella practicing his “craft of motivation.” Truth be told, Torts was pretty good at it.
But what happens when the motivator ceases to motivate? When your high-spirited team becomes just another group of struggling individuals?
If your name is John Tortorella, you find yourself out of a job.
Tortorella was one of only two bench bosses to make it to the second round of the NHL playoffs in each of the past two seasons. He led a scrappy, overachieving New York Rangers team to the Eastern Conference Final only one year ago and earned a Jack Adams nomination for his efforts.
That 2012 team believed in its coach and, therefore, believed in itself. That team had an identity. That team had “jam.”
Many scoff at the importance of “intangibles,” but there is one aspect of last season’s successful squad that was notably missing in New York City throughout this shortened campaign: Confidence.
A coach can’t blast a shot from the point, clear the crease, forecheck, backcheck, or pokecheck. A coach can’t score goals, save goals, or deliver a walloping hit. But that’s not a coach’s job. A coach’s job is to inspire his players to perform up to their potential and then to surpass it; to believe in their ability to succeed as players and as a unified team, all for the purpose of obtaining hockey’s ultimate prize: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Tortorella was behind the bench for last season’s swagger-induced miracle run and this season’s star-powered playoff push, but he failed to achieve The Goal—a Stanley Cup—with either.
The 2012 squad, despite its admirable, work ethic-fueled success, was missing too many tangible pieces (goal scoring, elite skill) to make it all the way. The gritty Rangers finally ran out of grit, leaving Henrik Lundqvist to fend for himself while the rest of the team struggled to ignore incoming crash of reality.
The 2013 Rangers benefited on paper from the addition of elite goal-scorer Rick Nash, but sorely missed rugged depth players such as Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko. To compensate for these losses—and, allegedly, to demonstrate a commitment to the coach—Glen Sather shipped Slovakian sniper Marian Gaborik to Columbus in exchange for two young, potentially explosive talents (Derick Brassard and John Moore) and a hard-nosed Torts specialty bruiser (Derek Dorsett). Ryane Clowe was also acquired to fill these dearly departed skates, and to provide some veteran leadership as well.
This replacement of missing parts left the Rangers with no more excuses. Skill? Check. Grit? Whatever the hell that is, check. But wins? Goals? As a netminder, Henrik Lundqvist can only do so much. A team that boasted the likes of Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and (for half of the season) Marian Gaborik should not have struggled to score—especially on the man advantage.
Tortorella’s art was motivation. His players noted his brute honesty as something that drives them to be better. Why else would Richards sign a nine-year deal with this coach? Why else would Nash, who had dozens of other GMs banging down his door, agree to come to New York?
“I trust them, and they trust me,” Torts once said about his players. But somewhere along the line, this trust went stale. Only the 23 players on Tortorella’s roster are privy to exactly when and where it went stale—or maybe they’re not even quite so sure. Regardless, the little things began to leak out: The coach’s assessment of Carl Hagelin’s power play performance, and Hagelin’s curt response. The disappearance of 2012 playoff sensation, Chris Kreider, and his inability to effectively, permanently find his game.
Then, there’s Exhibit A: The strained relationship between Tortorella and Gaborik, which led to the latter agreeing to waive his no-trade clause. At the time, it appeared that Glen Sather was demonstrating his commitment to working long-term with John Tortorella by unloading a 40-goal scorer who, try as he certainly did, never truly fit into Torts’ system. But in hindsight, it’s clear that Gabby was hightailing it out of the Big Apple before things got too heated.
Though Tortorella’s players said all the right things before and after each game, their play on the ice had noticeably deteriorated. Notoriously slow Taylor Pyatt wasn’t the only player who appeared to be skating through sludge. The lights in the renovated Madison Square Garden were brighter than ever this season, but the players on the ice were still struggling to find a spark.
The club’s morale certainly could not have improved when the coach opted to bench one of its leaders, Brad Richards, for Games 4 and 5 against Boston. Having earned just one point in his entire playoff campaign, Richards certainly deserved to be sidelined, and hardly anyone argued with the coach’s decision. But in truth, the situation should never have occurred in the first place.
And if Tortorella can’t elicit production from his fellow 2004 Stanley Cup-winner and longtime pal, there was hardly any hope for the rest of his squad either.
Henrik Lundqvist’s panic-inducing “we’ll see” comment during his exit interview appeared to be the final straw. Henk’s noncommittal response regarding a contract extension in New York was stated after his assertion that the organization had taken “a step backwards” rather than, as Tortorella proclaimed, “a sideways step.” New York management had to do something to keep its King happy, and they had to do it fast.
Tortorella outlasted Gaborik in the head-to-head battle of Who Goes First, but when Torts was weighed against franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the result was not in the coach’s favor.
Put in exaggeratedly simple terms, Tortorella is only effective when he’s effective. The Rangers need a morale boost, and it’s not going to come from him.
This team’s Cup window is closing quickly, and Henrik Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger.