On Wednesday afternoon, once Mike Francesa had broken the news that the New York Rangers had fired head coach John Tortorella -- yes, really, you read that correctly, Mike Francesa broke the story -- the usually reliable hockey world stumbled in its attempt to reach some consensus. Had the team made the right move?
The old newspaper scribes, the ones whom Torts had bullied in so many press conferences, with one-word answers and hostile rejoinders, quickly danced on his grave. A wicked one had bitten the dust. But the internet's hockey observers, the ones who don't rely on interviews with coaches to fill 20 column inches every day, snapped back just as quickly: Who besides the press should care if Torts happened to be mean to the press?
This debate inadvertently highlighted a strange truth about the sport: No one has a clue how to grade a coach. Win-loss records do an OK job of assessing a coach's performance, once there's enough data. Tortorella's record in four-and-change years in New York -- 171-115-29 in the regular season, and 19-25 in the playoffs -- was nowhere near bad enough to necessitate an axing, but it wasn't good enough to protect him from one, either. (Hence "OK.") How about a qualitative assessment of Tortorella's tenure? His most obvious trait was his icy relationship with the media, which has precisely nothing to do with the outcome of games. So, what about the rest of it?
We should pause here to ask an important question: What exactly does a hockey coach do, anyway? NFL coaches create a game plan and call plays. That's fairly straightforward. If your NFL coach is inadequate, you'll sense it. NBA coaches call plays, too, and they also regulate vital chemistry among a very small group. A bad coaching job -- think Vinny Del Negro -- manifests itself soon enough. On the spectrum's other end, in baseball, good managers are little more than figureheads. The sport's many reliable statistics make tactical decisions, especially the allocation of playing time, not terribly hard to get right. (Sorry, fans of teams currently managed by Ned Yost.) And how much does clubhouse chemistry matter in baseball, the most individual of all major team sports? It seems to be little more than a lagging indicator of a team's winning percentage -- we learn only post hoc that the losers couldn't stand each other and that the winners were like brothers. In hockey, the coach has more chemistry-managing obligations and tactical responsibilities (optimizing matchups, apportioning playing time, developing a style) than any coach in another sport, but he has far fewer valuable metrics available to inform his judgments. His eyes must do most of the work.
Hockey coaches wind up being, then, not only especially significant to their teams but also especially hard to assess. Take the Bruins' Claude Julien. He was fired by the Canadiens in 2006, and he was fired by the Devils in 2007. The next year, he was in Boston -- and since landing the new gig, he's won a Stanley Cup and three division titles. His team will play Pittsburgh in the conference finals this week. When the Rangers hired Tortorella in the middle of the 2009 season, they likely marveled at the fact that he won a Cup in Tampa Bay, of all places. But they could have looked at things the other way: Tortorella coached Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle, all in the primes of their careers, and won only one playoff series outside of the Cup season. Who's to say that guy deserves a second act? He got one, nonetheless.
Here is what characterized Tortorella's New York second act: courageous shot-blocking, stellar goaltending and a leap forward in scoring. Under Tortorella, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh turned into two of the league's best defensive defensemen, and Ryan Callahan became the kind of two-way forward fans could be proud of. The team made the playoffs four times out of five, and they won a division title in 2011-12.
But here is what also characterized the same second act: playoff struggles, below-average power plays every year but one, feuds with his stars, inexplicable fascinations with certain offensive defensemen who cannot body-check and "leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky." Under Tortorella, Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto over-pinched with impunity, Taylor Pyatt and John Mitchell skated on power-play units, and Marian Gaborik was intermittently benched and later run out of town, despite two 40-goal seasons in his three full Ranger years.
Tortorella also subjected Brad Richards, his hand-picked top-line pivot, to these benchings, even though they never seemed to do much. In Tortorella's final two games as coach, he went even further: Richards was a healthy scratch, watching from the press box in favor of Kris Newbury, a 31-year-old scrub with nine points in 72 career NHL games. The scratches came after Richards had spent most of the year (and half of the playoffs!) on the first power-play unit and the second line. Tortorella could not coach Richards out of his slump, and he had no interest in sticking with him through it. So: scratched.
What could end Tortorella's Ranger tenure more fittingly than a capricious lineup move? He had seemingly never done the difficult but necessary intellectual business of configuring his ideal lineup. He was always tinkering, never building a foundation. Sometimes Brian Boyle was centering the first power-play unit; sometimes he was a healthy scratch. (Same went for Richards.) Sometimes Chris Kreider was a fourth-liner, doomed to play with Arron Asham; sometimes he was with Rick Nash and whomever the team's top center happened to be. In the 2013 playoffs, when Tortorella would adjust the struggling power play, it would get worse, stalling at the blue line instead of inside the offensive zone. The units would look like they had never before played together. Because they hadn't.
Tortorella had no first principles, no elemental and valuable understanding of his team. He had nothing to return to when his skaters hit rough patches. All he could do was hope that his goalie would keep the team around until they stumbled on success again. (Wonder why his goalie didn't care for him!)
This is the only way a hockey coach becomes easy to assess, and easy to axe. When he has no special knowledge about his team, he becomes useless -- maybe, just maybe, as useless as a hockey writer.