Does Torts Coach #TheRightWay? Part I

No, really. This did happen. (That's a helluva playoff beard!)

As many of you know, The Garden Faithful is hot and cold in our relationship with Rangers head coach John Tortorella. While we fully acknowledge he has transformed a bunch of blue-collar guys and a world-class goaltender into the best team in the East, we also see fatal flaws in his coaching philosophy that worry us come playoff time. In other words, will the “system” he uses in the regular season work as effectively come late spring? We’re skeptical.

Accordingly, we decided to reach out to a Tampa Bay Lightning blogger and pick his brain about Torts and His Ways, in an effort find out how our head coach guided the 2003-04 Lightning to a Stanley Cup, in addition to finding out what caused his demise on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Our line of questioning would lead you to believe we view Torts as a crappy floor hockey coach who won a contest to become the Rangers head coach and is leading them to the first winless season in NHL history (well, Jason Ward may feel that way.) Instead, our inquiries to John Fontana, the managing editor of the Lightning blog “Raw Charge,” were intended to either help prove or disprove our negative thoughts on Torts’ coaching style.

What we received from Fontana was a thoughtful, educated and passionate defense of Tortorella. In the same way Rangers fans idolize Mike Keenan, Fontana shared his unconditional affection for Tortorella. That’s what happens when a coach wins you a championship. He elevates from a jerk-off to an immortal prophet. Just as we may find Fontana’s responses a bit overzealous, consider what people from Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Vancouver, (deep breath), Boston, Florida, and Calgary think when they hear Rangers fans extol the virtues of Iron Mike. But that’s what a Stanley Cup does. Every person associated with that championship becomes emblazoned in your memory as a saint.

So do we think Fontana is a Torts homer or an erudite hockey fan that has seen Torts’ coaching style breed multiple superstars and a Stanley Cup? For me its more the latter than the former, but keep an open mind who’s defending him. Regardless of what you take from the interview, it is reassuring to hear how Torts guided a team to the Promised Land.

Can lightning strike twice? We’ll find out. (Sorry. I had to. It was too easy.)

Fontana did such a wonderful job answering our questions, we’ve decided to publish this in two parts: Part One today, Part Two tomorrow before Torts returns to Tampa Bay.

(Everything in italics is Fontana, everything in regular print is The Faithful.)

For what it’s worth, to give context before we begin: John Tortorella is going to be a Jack Adams finalist. If there is a segment of Ranger fans unhappy with this, then the problem isn’t necessarily the head coach.

Q: Many Rangers fans are upset with Torts’ constant preaching of “going through the process” and not playing outside “the system.” He refuses to acknowledge the Rangers are a Cup contender. He say’s “we’re not quite there yet,” making it sound like we’re an 8-seed fighting for our playoff lives, rather than a team running away with the Eastern Conference. Did Torts say the same kind of things during the Lightning’s Cup-winning ’04 season?

A: It’s called keeping the team grounded. Yeah, Tortorella talked like that in 2003-04, and the team bought into it. Veterans like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier speak in grounded terms in the media to this day when the team has success, and Steven Stamkos and other young players are following their lead. And there’s nothing wrong with it.

Last season, the Rangers only made the playoffs with thanks to Tampa Bay beating the Carolina Hurricanes on the last day of the season. You and fellow Ranger fans remember that, right? And the disappointing first-round bouncing from the playoffs by the Washington Capitals? Would it be better if Tortorella let success go to his and the players heads and started a Laissez-faire management style where anything goes? No. Why? Because bad habits start to form when players get cocky and undisciplined; mistakes get made, and success can quickly turn into failure.

(Editor’s Note: As the blog’s lone Jets fan, I just started hysterically crying.)

Q: The ’04 Lightning were far more offensively talented than this Rangers club. They had the Hart Trophy winner in St. Louis, Lecavalier, Stillman, Richards, Modin, and Boyle on defense. Khabibulin was good in net during the regular season, but certainly not great. Did Torts preach conservative play or did he let the offense flow? In other words, what was his coaching philosophy? Did he coach to the team’s strengths or was he stubborn and made them play his way?

A: He made the team play his way, and his philosophy was “Safe is Death”. Players were supposed to be opportunists, but had to be responsible at both ends no matter what.

You can talk about the offensive prowess of St. Louis and Modin, but they were also effective penalty killers. Lecavalier and Stillman were a strong combo but Vinny was expected to win faceoffs. The Lightning were great on the forecheck, and that enabled the offense to flow.

Playing within a effective system – and Torts system has proven he has one– with the right personnel and the proper execution, works out in the end.

Q: Rangers fans are often infuriated by Torts inability to consistently run four lines. He’s constantly switching and flip-flopping lines, even if certain combinations are clicking. Did he do the same thing in Tampa Bay? Did he shorten the bench in the playoffs? Or did he continue relying on his third and fourth-line guys?

A: He continued relying on his guys. Rolling four lines. While the line combos were consistent or had small variations, you have to remember 2004 was different (for the league) than it is now. More coaches are now constantly shuffling lines. Rick Tocchet, when he coached in Tampa (who infuriated fans), constantly did that but his management was ineffective. Guy Boucher does that now to mixed results. Generally the same players will likely end up together, but line combos remaining static isn’t necessarily going to happen.

Q: Did Torts play favorites in Tampa Bay. For instance, were certain players on a short leash if they made mistakes in games, and would they ride pine as a result of their mistakes? Once you were in Torts’ doghouse, were you able to get out?

A: This happens with any coach in any league in any sport. If you can’t play in a system that the head coach – the guy in charge — employs, or if you go loose-cannon and make ill-timed, ill-advised mistakes on a regular basis, you are going to go to the doghouse.

It’s not a John Tortorella thing, it’s a head coaching thing. Currently, Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher has put guys into a doghouse from time to time during the season –Teddy Purcell, rookie Brett Connolly. Were they able to work their way out of the doghouse? Yup, by playing better within the system.

That goes for Tortorella as well. Andre Roy was the player in Tampa under Torts that was repeatedly in the doghouse, and for the reasons that I alluded to above: Ill-timed penalties, carelessness, not playing within the system. Did he find his way out of the doghouse? At times. But you have to earn that right – that goes for all coaches in any sport, though.

(Read Part II of “Does Torts Coach #TheRightWay on Friday!)

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