NEW YORK — Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised when the hammer fell on John Tortorella as suddenly as it did.
Yet, when the shocking announcement was made early Wednesday afternoon, the first reaction amongst media and fans was of surprise. John Tortorella, fired as Rangers coach four days following the team’s elimination from the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Make no mistake. This move was not made because of past performance. The Rangers are the only team in the Eastern Conference to win at least one playoff series in each of the last two seasons, and are only one season removed from achieving the No. 1 seed in their conference during the regular season.
Just 369 days before Tortorella’s ouster, they were eliminated two wins shy of the Stanley Cup Final. No, this was most certainly not a referendum on Tortorella’s job performance.
“After doing the analytical work we do at the end of every season, I came up with the decision that I really needed to do something to improve the team going forward,” said Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather during a Wednesday afternoon conference call. “Every coach has a shelf life. I told every guy that I’ve hired that at some point in time, this is going to change.”
Going forward, Sather said.
While he refused numerous times to go into the specific reasons regarding the firing, it is easy to see this was about the future path of the organization.
This was about Henrik Lundqvist, who will become a free agent after next season, and his apparent unease with the track the franchise was taking.
“I’m going to talk to my agent and we’ll see,” Lundqvist said during break-up day on Monday when asked about signing a new contract with the only NHL team he has ever known. “I had such a great time here in New York. From day one, they treated me really well and given me an opportunity to play a lot of hockey, so it’s been a lot of fun. I have one more year on the contract. Right now I’m just trying to get over this year. We’ll see. I’ll talk to my agent and we’ll take it from there.”
This was about Tortorella’s inability to adjust his coaching philosophy to the changing abilities of his players. This was a decision – correct or incorrect — meant to advance the franchise closer to its ultimate goal, which has now been left unachieved for 18 consecutive seasons.
“I made the decision,” Sather said. “Every organization has a formal process of going through to make these kinds of choices after you do your analytical work. It wasn’t one specific thing that – you talk about the power play, or whatever — there were a few things that went into this thing, and it was more of a decision of how we’re going to get better and challenge for the Stanley Cup.”
This was about a difference of opinion between upper management and lower management. Hockey is no different from any other industry – when lower management disagrees with upper management, pink slips aren’t far behind.
“I can’t predict what the new coach’s system is going to be like,” Sather said. “If you look at the teams that are going to be contending for the Stanley Cup, there are specific ingredients that [those] teams have that every team does not have. I’d like to be able to take the best of what those teams have and integrate them into our team.”
Ask 100 different players who have played under Tortorella about their experiences and you’ll get 100 different responses.
Marian Gaborik, who was traded away at the trade deadline after failing to produce this season under Tortorella, posted a cryptic message on Twitter after the firing, saying “Everything happens for a reason…”
Sean Avery, a former Ranger and vocal critic of Tortorella’s, said on the same social networking site two months ago the Rangers should “fire this CLOWN, his players hate him and won’t play for his BS…”
For every player that disliked the abrasive 54-year-old coach, there were many more who thrived under Tortorella’s watch, notably top-line center Derek Stepan, top-pair defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and captain Ryan Callahan.
When Glen Sather hires the new head coach of the Rangers, it will be his fifth coaching hire since he became the team’s GM in 2000.
This is a franchise entering a Stanley Cup-or-bust season. The only two players currently signed past this season are Rick Nash, Marc Staal, and likely soon-to-be-amnestied Brad Richards.
“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not there in the Stanley Cup, and you’re not there winning it, your season has not been a success,” Sather said. “Our goal, our ultimate goal, is to win the Stanley Cup. Any time you don’t get there, I don’t think we’ve achieved our goal.”
They have one more year to do it before increasing contracts and free agency threaten to blow up what the franchise has built.
And they now go into that make-or-break season with the biggest question mark of all.
A question mark in the coach’s office.
FULL CONFERENCE CALL TRANSCRIPT:
Question: How tough a call was this to make after the team was an overtime and Game 7 away from the Stanley Cup Final [last season], and has Tortorella left the club in a better state than when he received it?
Glen Sather: First of all, I’m very appreciative of what Torts has done here. We had an evaluation at the end of the year like we always do. We sit and talk about the future and where we plan on going, and our goal is the Stanley Cup. I felt this was a decision that had to be made to go forward, and we made the decision. As far as John was concerned, I think he was a little bit shocked, but he’s a gentleman and he took it very well.
Question: What is your target date for picking a new coach, and what is your thinking about the choice?
Sather: I’m sure there’s going to be lots of good candidates out there. We have our organizational meetings every year in June, we’re going to spend a lot of time going through the people, doing interviews, and deciding on which direction we’re going to go. That process is going to start very soon. I’d like to have it over by the draft this year.
Question: Lot of speculation that what some of the players had to say during break-up day had a role in this. Can you go over some of the things that made you decide to do this?
Sather: It wasn’t one thing. I’m certainly not going to speculate or start to criticize what happened with Torts and give you a lot of reasons and why we decided to do this. After the analytical work we do at the end of every season, trying to decide how we’re going to improve the team and how we’re going to move forward, this is the decision I made, and the decision that was consulted with some people so everyone knew what was going to happen. Removing anybody from the coaching role of the New York Rangers is a difficult decision, and I think I made the right decision so that we can go forward in another direction.
Question: When was the decision made?
Sather: I don’t think there was a specific time. After doing the analytical work we do at the end of every season, I came up with the decision that I really needed to do something to improve the team going forward. Every coach has a shelf life. I told every guy that I’ve hired that at some point in time, this is going to change. In order for our team to move forward, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. We didn’t achieve that goal this year. I had to make the decision, so I did.
Question: Was the offense and PP part of the reason the consulting group and you made the decision?
Sather: Well, it wasn’t the consulting group that made the decision. I made the decision. Every organization has a formal process of going through to make these kinds of choices after you do your analytical work. It wasn’t one specific thing that – you talk about the power play, or whatever, there was a few things that went into this thing, and it was more of a decision of how we’re going to get better and challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Question: John talked several times about the lack of depth and flexibility. Was his public questioning of the roster a reason?
Sather: No. It wasn’t one specific reason why I decided to make this choice. It was a choice of how we’re going to get better, and how we’re going to move forward. There wasn’t one specific situation.
Question: Does this include [assistant coach] Mike Sullivan, or is he still on staff?
Sather: We haven’t made any further decisions. The staff is the way it is right now. We’re dealing with this situation today, and we’ll get into that as soon as we get into our organizational meetings.
Question: In your analysis, taking Torts out of the equation, how did the young players like Chris Kreider develop this season?
Sather: Well, I’m sure you saw the way he played in Boston at the end of the year. I thought he played very well. Young players sometimes take a little bit longer to develop. Some come along faster than others. I thought Chris was fine, he’s going to be an excellent player. Not specifically disappointed in his development, but I think he’s going to be a good player here for a long time, and hopefully he’s going to be a great player.
Question: In your next coach, do you go back the other way, maybe someone less fiery? Try to calm things down? Or is that not a factor this time?
Sather: There’s a lot of factors when you go looking for someone to develop and help your team and get us to our ultimate goal. As you know, it’s not an easy thing to achieve. We have to keep striving to get there. Hopefully, whoever we hire has a lot of the good things Torts had, a lot of the good things Tom Renney had. There’s a number of good coaches around, and a lot of them have good qualities. It’s a little tricky sometimes to find someone who has all those qualities, hopefully that’s what we’re going to have this time around.
Question: How much did Henrik Lundqvist not openly endorsing Torts have to do with this decision?
Sather: It didn’t have anything to do with it. We plan on signing Henrik to a long-term contract. I’m not going to make any public comments on the negotiations – how or when they’re going to take place. That had nothing to do with this. This was a decision that I made.
Question: Will a prior NHL head coaching job be a must? Are there any guys in-house you’re going to look at?
Sather: As I said previously in the conversation, we’re going to put some interviews together with a number of different people and try to find the best candidate that’s going to serve the needs of the New York Rangers. I’m certain we’re going to find the right person and we’re going to move in that direction. Specifically, I wouldn’t want to make a comment on who we’re looking at, or how many people we’re looking at. We’ll find the right guy.
Question: Was Torts’ inability to integrate some of the kids like Kreider & Miller one of the issues?
Sather: You have to remember J.T. was out for the last month with a bad wrist, or he probably would have been playing in the playoffs for us. Individual players take different needs. Sometimes you can push them into getting where you want them to be, sometimes you can’t. You just have to be able analyze it and hope you make the right decision. As I said before, Chris is going to be a good player, and he’s going to develop at his own pace.
Question: Do you think this season was a step back after last season?
Sather: Well, I think what Henrik was talking about was last year we got into the conference finals. This year, we didn’t make that. I think that’s what he was referring to. I don’t know specifically, I haven’t asked him that question directly. I would think that’s what he was referring to. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not there in the Stanley Cup, and you’re not there winning it, your season has not been a success. Our goal, our ultimate goal, is to win the Stanley Cup. Any time you don’t get there, I don’t think we’ve achieved our goal.
Question: With the people you brought in, adding the skill to the lineup, do you think Torts’ system didn’t work with the personnel?
Sather: It’s a hard thing to say, because I don’t want to get into the specific reasons why we let John go. I just think every coach – whether it’s two years, five years, ten years, or 15 years, some guys in this league have coached for a long time. I coached for ten years myself. It’s a trying job. It’s something you just have to take day-by-day with every coach. You never know how long it’s going to last, or how long it’s going to work. It’s always a situation you have to analyze each one of those situations and see if you can come up with the right idea. I don’t think you can predict someone’s going to last four years or ten years. It depends on the individual.
Question: Does this team need a new style offensively to move forward and get to your goal of getting a Stanley Cup? Does that factor into the new coach?
Sather: I can’t predict what the new coach’s system is going to be like. If you look at the teams that are going to be contending for the Stanley Cup, there are specific ingredients that [those] teams have that every team does not have. I’d like to be able to take the best of what those teams have and integrate them into our team. We were successful last year. This year, there were a lot of factors that determined where we ended up. Hopefully we will achieve those goals to get better and get to that goal where we are challenging for the Stanley Cup. I think we have a good idea how we have to go to go and how we’re going to get there.
Question: Does this decision factor into Brad Richards and the one remaining amnesty buyout the Rangers have remaining?
Sather: That’s a decision we’re going to make in our organizational meetings. At this time, I’m not thinking about that. I’m trying to deal with this situation and trying to move forward.
Question: Was Torts’ statement on break-up day about not having the team ready to play Boston alarming to you?
Sather: I’ve said before, I don’t want to get into any specifics about the reasons. There isn’t one specific reason or one incident that brought this about that was something that has happened and something that occurred. There isn’t one specific reason that I can tell you.
Question: With Torts having one year left on his contract, did you feel like you either had to make this decision or extend him now?
Sather: I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I explained the reasons why we did it. I know they seem a little vague to you, but that has taken place now, and we’re just going to plan on moving forward.
Question: When a decision like scratching Brad Richards is done, does Torts do that on his own, or did he come to you and the Rangers brass to say ‘this is what I think should happen’?
Sather: It was an organizational decision. It was made in conjunction with the rest of us.
Question: Have you thought about your own future with the team? Are you going to continue to hold on to all of the roles?
Sather: Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, all the roles. I don’t sharpen skates, here. I’ve given that role up.
Question: Well, you’re President and GM. Will you continue as GM next season?
Sather: Yes, I am.
Question: Without commenting specifically on John Tortorella, the next coach you have, will it be important to have a good relationship with the press?
Sather: As I said, I don’t want to get into any specifics. In dealing with the press, it’s important that you have a relationship, whether it’s good or bad, it’s a factor of sports in the modern world today that we all have to deal with speaking to you fellas. Some people relish the opportunity to speak their mind, and some people are a little more reserved about it. That’s an individual choice. Like I said before, I’m not going to get into any specifics of things did happen or didn’t happen. I just think, in general, that’s part of the world of professional sports today.
Question: Based on the fact you said Torts was shocked, does that indicate this was a sudden decision in terms of the last couple days? In addition to that, was it more difficult to make the decision based off a shortened season?
Sather: Again, you’re asking me a question that needs a specific answer to. I don’t want to be too evasive about it. I can tell you this: The decision wasn’t made lightly. Any time somebody loses their job it’s a bit of a shock. I can’t tell you how much it was, but I don’t think he was prepared for it. I don’t think anybody’s prepared for it. It’s a difficult role he has to accept, and it’s a difficult role when I have to deliver the message. Specifically, I’m not going to get into any details telling you why this that or the other thing.
Question: Can you speak at all on whether it was more difficult to make the decision after a shortened season, whether that changed or affected the evaluation?
Sather: Those are all hypothetical things. What we dealt with this year was a shortened season. We dealt with a lot of injuries. I thought the team, under the conditions, played well. Did they play up to the expectations we had for them? No. That’s probably as far as I can go with that answer.