"He will make everybody accountable. It's brutally ugly at times, but it's also the right cause."
That was the reaction from Dave Andreychuk, the former NHL star who was part of the 2004 Stanley Cup team in Tampa Bay, upon hearing that the Rangers hired John Tortorella to replace Tom Renney in 2009. Tortorella is a polarizing figure and most people have strong opinions of him one way or another. I think Andreychuk's statement is as close to an objective observation of Tortorella's coaching style as you can get. He makes players accountable. He can be mean, vicious, loud, arrogant, condescending, and harsh. But ultimately, his intentions are just and often and his impact is tangible.
When John Tortorella took over the Rangers in February of 2009 the team was a dysfunctional, directionless group. Nine players on the roster developed, at least in part, in the Rangers' system, and a number of them were fringe players at best. The leading skaters in ice-time were Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, and Markus Naslund at forward and Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival at defense. Five older guys, all of whom were being paid to bring success. none of whom were delivering.
Though Tom Renney had his own positive impact on the Rangers overall, John Tortorella brought a radically different mindset to the table. He immediately made his intentions clear. Under him, the Rangers were going to transition out of the mindset of trying to buy success through free agency and would start developing its own core. The leader in ice-time during the Rangers' final playoff game of the season against the Capitals was not Redden or Rozsival, but instead homegrown Dan Girardi. The leading forward in ice-time was none of the big name, high-paid veterans, but instead 22-year-old Brandon Dubinsky.
Tortorella returns to New York today as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks. Ironically, a Rangers team that has his enormous fingerprints all over it will be trying to beat him. The leading defensemen in ice-time are homegrown players in Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal. Whereas in 2009 the Rangers used three defensemen in their 30s, the oldest defenseman on the entire roster right now is 29-year-old Dan Girardi. Five of the top seven forwards in ice-time developed through the Rangers' system. The Rangers will go into today's game with eleven guys on the roster who were developed from within, and that's not even including guys like Brian Boyle, Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Anton Stralman, who were all brought in with the focus on getting younger.
The Rangers' transcendence under Tortorella is found in his failure. Tortorella was fired in 2013 after the Rangers finished 6th in the conference and exited the playoffs in the second round. From 1998 to 2008 the highest the Rangers would finish was in 5th and the farthest they'd go in the playoffs was the second round. Essentially, what was pinnacle of Rangers' hockey for the decade prior to Tortorella's tenure was, by the end of his reign, seen as underachieving; not good enough. We can argue all the specifics of how Tortorella coached. How he did things tactically. How he handled the media. How he handled players. No matter what, though, the previous observation holds true. The standard by which we measure success of this team is dramatically raised from where it was when Tortorella first took over as head coach. No matter what you think of him, this is inarguable. Tortorella parted ways with a Rangers organization that was much stronger and healthier than the one he was first brought into. The good he did far outweighs any of the drama that occured during his four-and-a-half years in New York. I hope the arena acknowledges this much, and I hope the team gives Tortorella the tribute, even if minor, that he deserves.
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