Profiles in Excellence: John Tortorella

John Tortorella: Rank #45 – 16 points

Coaching Experience: New York Rangers, 2000, 2008-present; Tampa Bay Lightning, 2001-08

Regular Season W-L-T-OL: 289-265-37-51; Playoff W-L: 27-25

Jack Adams Award: 2003-04

Southeast Division Titles: 2002-04; Playoff Appearances: 2003-04, 2006-07, 2009

Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 2004; Stanley Cup Victory: 2004

If Guy Boucher wants to become the greatest coach in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning (and if he maintains his present winning ways he will) the man he needs to surpass is John Tortorella.

Tortorella is the winningest American-born head coach in NHL history and the greatest coach in the eighteen season history of the Lightning; indeed the only coach in Lightning history to have a winning record with the club (although Boucher will soon join him in that regard). Not only that, Tortorella won the only divisional titles in Lightning franchise history and their only Stanley Cup victory in 2004. The Lightning made the Stanley Cup playoffs only five times in their franchise history (although in a few days Boucher will make it six) and Tortorella earned four of those playoff berths.

Despite all this Tortorella is, today, the head coach of the New York Rangers. How Tortorella got there is another story.

Tortorella was born in Massachusetts and played NCAA hockey at the University of Maine. He was never drafted by the NHL but went on to play four seasons of minor league hockey in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. When his playing career ended in 1986 he went into coaching: doing three years in the minors before getting an assistant coaching job with the Buffalo Sabres.

For most of the 1990s Tortorella was a career assistant coach in the NHL working variously with the Sabres, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the New York Rangers. It was with the Rangers that he caught his first big break when head coach John Muckler was fired with four games left in the 1999-2000 Season. Tortorella was named interim coach and played out the string.

Tortorella was not retained by the Rangers but the following season when Tampa Bay fired their head coach, Steve Ludzik, near the midway point, they picked Tortorella to replace him.

The going was slow at first. Tortorella didn’t have his first winning season until 2003 but that marked the beginning of four straight winning seasons and four consecutive playoff appearances for the Lightning — their best stretch in franchise history.

It was in 2003-04 (the last NHL season before the lockout) that Tortorella and the Lightning put it all together. Led by the trio of Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Vincent Lecavalier, the Lightning had their greatest season ever; winning their first divisional title in franchise history. It was also Tortorella’s greatest coaching performance in his entire NHL coaching career. He would win the Jack Adams award as NHL coach of the year.

The Lightning blasted the Islanders and Canadiens in nine games, but had faced a stern test in Ken Hitchcock’s Philadelphia Flyers in the third round where it took a full seven to put them down. Tortorella and the Lightning faced another Cinderella team in Darryl Sutter’s Calgary Flames for the Stanley Cup and, again, it went the full seven but the Lightning prevailed.

The 2004 Stanley Cup marks the high point in Tortorella’s career. Since then he has never been able to match that performance thus far.

What is striking about Tortorella’s teams is that they never dominated in any of the major offensive or defensive categories. In eight seasons his teams only cracked the top ten in offense once and defense twice. For the most part his teams flutter between being average to mediocre on the power-play, penalty-killing, and short-handed offense. His one true strength is that his teams have good on-ice discipline (though last season his Rangers were seventh in the NHL in team penalty minutes).

Tortorella is in some ways a 21st century version of the late Punch Imlach. As one Tampa sportswriter states, “Torts may have been one of the toughest coaches I’ve seen, but he did so to get the most out of his players. His pre-season camp was nicknamed ‘Camp Torturella’. If you bought into his system, you were going to succeed.”

Like Imlach, Tortorella runs rigorous training camps; has the same penchant for making scathing criticisms of his players in the press; and shares the same verbal combativeness and saltiness (his press conferences are never done live for fear of violating FCC rules—Tortorella has been fined by the NHL for using obscene language on the air with a TV reporter). Unlike Imlach however, Tortorella does not take himself too seriously and can laugh at himself on occasion. By 2008 Tortorella’s magic faded in Tampa. The Lightning finished last in the Southeast Division and that gave the new owners of the team the perfect excuse to fire him.

Tortorella was in limbo until late in the 2008-09 Season when he replaced Tom Renney as head coach of the Rangers. Last season was his first full year with the New York and, although he led them to a winning season, his performance wasn’t as good as his predecessor’s had been. The Rangers lost a shootout with Peter Laviolette’s Flyers in the last game of the season and was denied a playoff spot.

Tortorella has done much better this season. The Rangers have already matched their team point output from last season and are the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. This season represents Tortorella’s best coaching performance since 2006-07.

The Rangers are getting gritty performances from winger Brendan Prust and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist leads the NHL in shutouts and is the prime reason why the Rangers have the third best defense in the NHL. The Rangers transition game is also formidable since the Rangers are fourth in the league in shorthanded offense.

The 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs will represent a major chance for redemption for Tortorella and a golden opportunity to reassert his presence as one of the best coaches in the NHL today.

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