NEW YORK, N.Y. – In a span of five days, John Tortorella went from out of the playoffs to out of a job.
The feisty and combative coach was fired by the New York Rangers on Wednesday after four-plus seasons behind the bench and four trips to the post-season.
Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather was vague when pressed for reasons why Tortorella was let go.
While no specifics were given, Sather made it clear that it wasn’t just one thing or particular incident that led to the somewhat unexpected dismissal.
“I am very appreciative of what Torts has done here,” Sather said during a conference call. “We had an evaluation at the end of the year like we always do. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. I felt that this was the decision that had to be made to go forward.
“I think he was a little bit shocked, but he is a gentleman and he took it very well.”
The fiery Tortorella was let go four days after the Rangers’ season ended with a Game 5 loss to the Boston Bruins. New York reached the Eastern Conference finals last year and was considered a championship contender in this lockout-shortened season.
Tortorella conducts business on and off the ice with an iron fist, treating players and media members alike. His abrasive style could have been a factor in the decision to make a change.
“Every coach has a shelf life,” Sather said. “I’ve told every guy that I’ve hired that at some point in time this is going to change.
“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup and we didn’t achieve that goal this year. I had to make a decision, so I did.”
Tortorella was dismissed with one year left on his contract.
In 319 regular-season games with New York, including a four-game run at the end of the 1999-2000 season, Tortorella went 171-118-1-29. He was 19-25 in the post-season, and reached the playoffs four times after taking over as coach in February 2009.
“Every time a coach gets fired, it is a surprise for me, because ultimately, we, the players, are responsible for our own play on the ice,” Rangers backup goalie Martin Biron told The Associated Press in a text message.
Tortorella, hired to replace Tom Renney with 21 games remaining in the 2008-09 season, achieved some success with the Rangers but couldn’t match the Stanley Cup title he earned in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sather said Tortorella’s contract status didn’t factor into the decision.
A replacement wasn’t named immediately, but Sather hopes to have a new coach in place by the NHL draft on June 30.
Former NHL coaches Lindy Ruff and Alain Vigneault could be candidates. Sather wouldn’t speculate on them or whether anyone currently employed by the Rangers would be considered.
The fate of assistant coach Mike Sullivan will be decided during the team’s organizational meetings in June.
“Hopefully whoever we hire has a lot of the good things that Torts had and a lot of good things that Tom Renney had,” Sather said. “There are a number of good coaches around, and a lot of them have different qualities. It is a little tricky sometimes to find someone who has all those qualities.
“I am certain that we’re going to find the right person.”
Last season, Tortorella led the Rangers to 51 wins—the second-most in franchise history—and 109 points before they were beaten in six games by New Jersey. He finished his Rangers tenure in fourth place on the team’s coaching wins list.
The 54-year-old Tortorella got the Rangers back into the playoffs, and New York outlasted Washington in seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being knocked out by Boston.
Tortorella made curious comments on Monday when the Rangers packed up for the season, remarks that could have led to his ouster.
In his final meeting with reporters, Tortorella said the Rangers weren’t emotionally ready to take on Boston after getting past Washington with back-to-back shutout wins when they faced elimination.
“One of the things, and it falls on my shoulders, is our team’s mindset going into another round,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think our mindset was ready to play another series and to the level you need to be at. It didn’t have a playoff atmosphere.
“That’s what I struggle with right now. I didn’t do a good enough job in correcting and getting their mindset back to not only play at the level of a Game 7 in the first round, but get ready for round 2, which is always going to be tougher.”
But Tortorella was defiant in his assessment that this wasn’t a down year for the club.
“I know the surrounding feeling here is that it was a negative season, a disappointing season. I don’t buy it and I won’t,” Tortorella said. “There are some good things that happened. I don’t think we took a step backward. I think this is a sideways step in our lineup and how things worked out.
“We played really well our last couple of months to get in, found a way to win a big series against Washington, and against Boston I thought we competed right to the end.”
Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist disagreed with that assessment. Lundqvist is entering the final year of his contract and would be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
“It is a step back,” Lundqvist said. “We were in the conference finals last year, we had high expectations on ourselves this year. It didn’t go our way, so yeah it is a step back. It’s tough to make it there, though. You can’t just expect it to happen.”
Sather said he hadn’t talked to Lundqvist, but added the team’s plan is to sign him to a new long-term deal.
The Rangers entered the 48-game season as a prime contender to win the Stanley Cup, especially after the off-season acquisition of top forward Rick Nash in a trade with Columbus.
After a slow start, the Rangers rallied to a 26-18-4 record and the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
New York struggled to score in the post-season, and Nash and Brad Richards were among the biggest offenders. Nash recorded only one goal and five assists in the Rangers’ 12 playoff games.
Richards, who has seven years remaining on a nine-year deal, was a bigger disappointment and was a healthy scratch in the final two games against the Bruins. Sather said that move was an organizational decision.
Richards had thrived under Tortorella when they won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, but he managed only one goal and zero assists in his 10 post-season games. Richards also is likely to be gone from the Rangers, who can buy out the remainder of his lucrative deal and remove him from the salary cap that will go down next season.
Tortorella is the career leader in wins by a U.S.-born coach with 410. He was an assistant coach with the Rangers in the 1999-2000 season and took over for John Muckler as head coach for the final four games.
Tortorella was then hired by the Lightning and he was their coach for seven seasons, going 239-222-36-38 and earning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in the championship season.