Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Alone on the Range

The news of the past twenty-four hours in the National Hockey League is certainly centered around New York, as Nick Kypreos broke the news yesterday on Sportsnet's Hockey Central @ Noon. The New York Rangers have fired Head Coach Tom Renney and replaced him with former Tampa Bay Lightning Coach and TSN analyst John Tortorella. The Rangers new bench boss knows how to win; he is second only to Peter Laviolette for career wins by an American coach with 239 victories, he is a Jack Adams Award winner as Coach of the Year, and a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 with Tampa.

Renney was let go, along with assistant coach Perry Pearn, in a move General Manager Glen Sather felt he had to make as the Rangers continued to fall in the Eastern Conference standings - going 2-7-3 in their last 12 games. Sather is quoted in an article by Brian Compton at NHL.com as saying, "We've been thinking about it probably for the last couple of weeks." He went on to say, "I could see the team starting to slide. After the start we had at the beginning of the year and the way we were playing and moving and controlling the puck, the game just started to erode."

GM Sather was referring to the Rangers 10-2-1 record in October, and the eventual slide, posting a 2-5-3 win/loss record in February. Renney is fourth all-time in wins for Ranger coaches with a record of 164-121-42, but with only twenty-one games remaining this season and Carolina and Pittsburgh making a push for the final playoff spots, Sather was looking for a new attitude on his under-performing squad. In a Canadian Press interview, Sather explains. "Torts (Tortorella) is certainly a lot more fiery and a lot different with how he approaches the players."

If Sather is looking for more "fire", one would hope Tortorella, a former assistant coach in New York before Sather joined the club, is bringing a large supply of kindling and matches. Several Ranger players spoke on NHL.com and the MSG Network about the events of the past day.

Scott Gomez - "the players feel 100% responsible..." and, "we've got to find a way to win."

Markus Naslund went on to say, "...we have to respond."

The players are saying all of the right things, but will it translate into a win tomorrow evening against the Toronto Maple Leafs? New York's leading scorer, Nikolai Zherdev (16G - 29A - 45pts) is one of only two players on the plus side at +2, and he becomes a restricted free agent July first and will earn a raise from his current $2.5 million salary. The trouble in New York is with the "big money" players. The "boo birds" have followed Wade Redden from Ottawa to New York. He has five more years on a contract that pays $6.5 million per year, and his 20 points and -11 is not nearly good enough. Michal Rozsival, with 3 more years at $5 million, has 28 points but is a -14. Among the forwards; Scott Gomez (5 more years @ $7.35 million) has 42 points and a -9, Chris Drury (3 more years @ $7.05 million) has 38 points and a -11, and Markus Naslund (1 more year @ $4 million) has 36 points and a -14. The Rangers have allowed 170 goals, but have scored only 151, and their 13-14-3 road record needs to be improved upon if the playoffs are to remain a reality.

There has been much speculation regarding "tampering" charges against the Rangers by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tortorella was still under contract with Tampa, but had received written permission last June to seek employment elsewhere in the NHL. The real "tampering", if there was any, may have been regarding Lightning Assistant Coach Mike Sullivan. The Fan 590 in Toronto reported this morning that Sullivan, a former assistant under Tortorella in Tampa, has an "out" clause in his contract allowing him to join his former boss with a new team. The NHL is investigating the situation.

When a coaching change is made, teams tend to respond with a short winning streak (see Ottawa's 5 game win streak under new coach Cory Clouston), and that my be enough to hold on to a playoff spot in New York. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is an Olympic champion with Sweden, and if the Rangers stay in contention, he could steal them a round or two in the playoffs. If Tortorella doesn't make an immediate impact, the spotlights of Broadway could begin to shine on General Manager Glen Sather. If Sean Avery lands in New York again, it could be an interesting finish to the season at Madison Square Garden. Have a great sports day everyone.

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