Sam Page, Contributor:
Lost in the speculation about whether John Tortorella had lost his team (seemingly), had lost the media (who cares?), or had lost his star goalie, not enough has been said about whether his coaching performance merited his firing. Alienating players is an important issue related to coaching. But even had every Ranger, to a man, loved Tortorella, he deserved to go.
To prove that Tortorella had lost his clubhouse, some have measured this year’s Rangers against usual hallmarks of John Tortorella teams. These Rangers didn’t block shots, they didn’t forecheck, etc. But this analysis circumvents the question of whether these hallmarks are something to aspire to in the first place. They’re not.
Any analysis of John Tortorella’s tenure must account for the team’s considerable success. The Rangers are just one of two teams to make the second round the past two seasons. They were contenders for every single regular season game of Tortorella’s four years.
Tortorella deserves partial credit. Given the money the Rangers have invested and the talent of Henrik Lundqvist, I’m inclined to say lots of NHL coaches would have had comparable records. But Tortorella gets full marks for keeping the team focused and bringing along the development of key young players like Derek Stepan.
Still, Tortorella’s system effectively put a ceiling on the Rangers’s success. Harrison Mooney humorously tweeted after the firing: “Torts is a good coach. But players seem to hate playing for him, and you need players, unless you’re the Predators.” Jokes aside, there’s an instructive comparison to made between the Rangers and the Predators, with their no players.
At their best, the Predators were seemingly able to be good and faceless by taking 12 two-way forwards of roughly equal value (and anonymity) and rolling four lines in a Tortorella-esque defensive system. Like the Rangers under “Torts,” though, the Predators have always seemingly hit a wall in the playoffs. Barry Trotz and John Tortorella have both also had problems incorporating elite offensive talent into their scheme.
With a team of 12 Ryan Callahans, Tortorella’s insistence on a shared responsibility might have made more sense. But real hockey teams–and especially the Rangers–are built with players of varying offensive and defensive skill. And just as one wouldn’t expect Brian Boyle to meet the team’s average offensive standards, Marion Gaborik should not be held to a single, team defensive expectation.
Coaches like Tortorella, who trade on cliches about “buying in” and “level of compete,” are dinosaurs committed to a ritualistic performance of “hockey the right way,” without any consideration to whether its hockey the winning way.
Shot blocking is an important part of hockey, and should be a natural last resort instinct for a player defending the point. But when shot blocking becomes an emphasis of a team and its system, priorities are necessarily out of whack.
Tyler Dellow took the Rangers to task in his excellent examination of the importance of shot blocking during last year’s playoffs:
There’s not an awful lot to all of this shot blocking that the Rangers are allegedly doing. Let’s take Brian Boyle. There’s no player in the league whose team blocks a greater proportion of the shots when he’s on the ice than Boyle. 47.6% of shot attempts became shots on goal. 20.1% missed the net. 32.3% were blocked.
What does this mean? Well, out of 100 shot attempts, the average player sees 53.5 of them become on shots on net against. Boyle sees 47.6 of them become shots on net. Boyle was on the ice for about 926 shot attempts this year. In Boyle’s case, about 441 of them shots on goal; the average player would have seen about 495 of them become shots on goal while he was on the ice. So we’re talking about 54 shots.
He goes on to calculate that the sum effect of Torts’ most faithful shot blocker, over a full season, is a meager 3 goals prevented. That number makes sense, given that the shots most often blocked are from poor shooters from far away.
This kind of losing the forest for the trees characterized everything Tortorella most emphasized. Forechecking is something you do when you don’t have the puck. Same with a dump-in. Ditto a shot block. And a hit. Puck possession wins hockey games, and Tortorella’s Rangers played for the glorification of situations without the puck.
To Tortorella’s immense credit, his Rangers were not bad puck possession teams. Tortorella knew when his team was not spending enough time in the opponent’s zone and said as much. He had a good knack for keeping bad puck possession players in his doghouse.
He was a fine coach, but he took a few ideas a little too far. Starting from the platitude that sacrifice leads to success, his system seemed to advocate that the team which sacrificed themselves the most on the ice would see the most success. Inevitably, good players were alienated for the wrong reasons.
So if Henrik Lundqvist did in fact get his coach fired, because he’d rather see his teammates lying down in front of him less and skating the puck into the opponent’s zone more, good for him.