The Maven interviews the Rangers' coach
by: Stan Fischler
By any stretch of the imagination, John Tortorella has been an incomplete Ranger; a work in progress, so to speak.
How could it be otherwise?
The Blueshirts' coach missed 61 games of the 2008-09 season before replacing Tom Renney.
Translated, it means that he coached a mere 21 regular season contests and only — sadly! — seven playoff games.
If The Maven were sitting in a British pub, I would say, "Johnny Boy, we hardly knew ye!" However, I'm in Manhattan so I'll just say, "Let's talk."
But before we do, let's say that all of us are only now just getting to know the New Englander. (Actually, I consider Torts a Brooklynite with a Boston accent.)
Little by little, John's modus operandi is emerging after finishing last season with a 12-7-2 mark and a playoff berth.
We know that the 51-year-old Bostonian is the polar opposite of Renney, both personality and style-wise.
Torts practices no-nonsense, tough love, a la Mike Keenan, the last Rangers Stanley Cup-winning coach. He calls a spade a spade, often a lot louder than a player might like to hear.
He wears his emotions on his sleeve, jacket pocket and — as referees might attest — on his brow as well.
As both a baseball and hockey historian, I call John a "Latter-Day Leo Durocher."
And that's my highest compliment since I grew up following the bombastic-yet-lovable Leo (The Lip), who managed both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. (By the way, Durocher also was a brash New Englander, from Springfield, Mass.)
In The Big Apple we love brash but — as Torts knows full well — "chutzpah" (brazenness) is not enough.
The Faithful want wins. With that in mind, The Maven believes that Tortorella's mere presence will guarantee a 10 percent Rangers improvement right off the season's first slapshot.
But enough of me, let's hear what The Coach has to say about some salient issues which I raised in our conversation:
- THE TORTORELLA STYLE: "We're going to play with tempo; an attack-type style. Defense starts when you don't have the puck. We'll have an intense forechecking system and every player will be held accountable. I believe so strongly in the team concept. Players will get time through merit and they will need to understand what 'merit' is right away. One thing is certain; no organization takes care of its players as well as the Rangers. That goes for the practice facility to the way we fly; everything about it. We take away every crutch from the players. We've got a new coaching staff and it's going to be a wide-open camp. We'll give guys who had been stuck in the minors, a chance to step up here. My eyes will be open and I'll be objective."
- BLENDING UP-TEMPO WITH DEFENSE: "When I coached the Lightning, we played a real aggressive style. Having said that, a club doesn't win unless it's sound defensively. We don't want to spend time in our zone; but we won't trap.We have good, young defensemen in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. They are the foundation of our defense, but I'd like both of them to add some bite to their game. And by that I don't mean running people into the boards, but a little nastiness. Marc needs the kind of bite his brother, Eric, has in Carolina. Wade Redden is going to play well and so will Michal Rozsival. They'll both be in better shape. Plus, we have some good kids coming up."
- EXPECTATIONS FROM MARIAN GABORIK: "He's one of the most dynamic game-breakers in the league and he can be that for us. And let's not forget, he played for Jacques Lemaire, one of the best coaches in the game, and that means that Marian also can play well away from the puck. He taught Marian and Marian also can kill penalties. I believe that top players should play a lot and he will be. Right now, it looks like either Chris Drury orBrandon Dubinsky will be his center. I know a lot of people have mentioned Gaborik's injuries from the past, but he says he's healthy and we checked him out."
- DRURY AND THE CAPTAINCY: "Chris will be the captain. I've already had talks with him — he's a quiet guy — and we're still getting to know each other. As for the alternate captains, I haven't decided on anyone yet."
- IMPORTANCE OF SEAN AVERY: "I didn't realize how good a skater he is. That's most impressive. The biggest thing about Sean is that he needs to be a big part of the club. He has to believe that he can be a good player. My responsibility is to show that we believe in him as a player. Sean and I have stayed close during the summer and he knows how I feel. If he crosses the line, he won't play. He's certainly made strides; I can even put him on the power play. As far as my benching him during the playoffs, I wouldn't change my position if I had to do it over again. Remember, he took one penalty in Game Five against Washington and then a second that could have cost us the game. After that we had a great conversation, but in Game Six he tippy-toed around the ice. After that I told him I want him right on the edge. Yet he can't do stupid stuff and cross the line. Otherwise, I'll have to reel him in. I don't want him to tippy-toe — just don't cross the line!"
- THE MOST IMPORTANT THING A RANGER SHOULD KNOW COMING TO CAMP: "We've already put it in two letters sent out to them — conditioning. They'd better be in top shape because the first two days are going to be grueling. The style we play means that the guys will have to be in great skating shape. What worried me last season is that a lot of players tired as the first (playoff) round went on."
- IMPROVING THE POWER PLAY: "The biggest thing we need is to have someone to settle it down. We need a quarterback just to have poise and not make a bad play; a turnover. One of our biggest weaknesses was a lack of poise and our building can be tough. Redden has to be one of the guys who can settle it down and Rozsival as well."
- CHRIS HIGGINS' VALUE: "He can give me goals off the wing and I hope thatAles Kotalik can as well. Chris will fit into our forechecking system and I can use his speed. I see him as a 'utility guy,' who can kill penalties, can skate and score. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does in camp."
- RYAN CALLAHAN: "He was a pleasant surprise. He gave us good minutes in a lot of situations; did everything we asked; a lot. But he's not a real big guy and he can't do it all alone. That's why we'll need others to step up and do some of the things Ryan did last season."
- HIS WISH LIST: "I'd like to get a number one center and I know that Glen (Sather) is always looking around. Meanwhile, Dubinsky has the potential to be a really good player as he matures."
- HENRIK LUNDQVIST AND STEVE VALIQUETTE: "Hank plays too much and I don't expect him to play as much as last season. He's a great goalie, but he has to understand what it takes to win in the playoffs; we have to win in the playoffs. He's got to be fresher in the playoffs. He has to win rounds. Hank was great at the start of the Washington series when we needed him. Later he was tired. As for Valiquette, he's a good back-up who understands his role."
- TORTS' FAVORITE THING ABOUT NEW YORK: "The other day I told my wife that I still can't believe that I'm preparing to run a camp for a team in New York City. I love the people, the building, the pressure of it all. It's the NEW YORK RANGERS; AN ORIGINAL SIX TEAM IN THE WORLD'S BIGGEST VENUE. For me, coaching this team is a privilege!"