NEW YORK – Not only did the New York Rangers seek to change the message behind the bench, but the way it was delivered, too.
That left mild-mannered coach Tom Renney out of a job on Monday and blustery John Tortorella en route to a starring role on Broadway.
Renney was fired by Rangers general manager Glen Sather after he failed to turn around a once-promising season that suddenly spiralled out of control. New York is stuck in a skid resulting in 10 losses in 12 games (2-7-3).
With only 21 games left in the regular season, Sather couldn’t wait any longer to try to save it. The Rangers started 10-2-1 and were in first place for much of the first half of the season. Now their hold on a playoff spot in tenuous.
“We had lost our zip at some point,” Sather said. “We were a fast, puck-possessive hockey club that was determined and worked very hard and moved the puck well. We’ve gotten away from that and that’s why we made the change.”
The Rangers (31-23-7) entered Monday in a fifth-place tie in the Eastern Conference, only two points above ninth-place Carolina.
Renney’s calm, optimistic tones no longer worked, so Sather turned to Tortorella, the coach of the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who leads with an iron fist.
Tortorella was an assistant with the Rangers, and briefly served as interim head coach, going 0-4 at the end of the 1999-2000 season, before getting his shot with the Lightning. It didn’t take long for him to hammer out a multi-year contract with the Rangers.
“Torts is certainly a lot more fiery and a lot different in his approach to the game and the players,” Sather said. “He’s going to bring that fiery attitude, and a lot of the games we seemed to be missing it.”
Tortorella was let go by Tampa Bay following last season, and the Rangers were not required to provide compensation. In 6 1/2 seasons, Tortorella posted a mark of 239-222-36-38.
Renney, a former coach of the Vancouver Canucks, was 164-121-42 with the Rangers in four-plus seasons and ranks fourth on the team’s career wins and games coached lists.
Assistant coach Perry Pearn was also fired, but fellow assistant Mike Pelino was retained along with goalie coach Benoit Allaire, the Rangers said. Jim Schoenfeld, the team’s assistant general manager, will also serve as an interim coach.
Sather said Tortorella wasn’t the only candidate he spoke to Monday. Tortorella was expected to conduct practice Tuesday morning.
“It’s a great opportunity for him,” said Dave Andreychuk, the now-retired captain of the Lightning’s championship team. “It’s a perfect scenario with the talent they have there, the leadership they have, I think it’s going to be a good fit.
“He will make everybody accountable. It’s brutally ugly at times, but it’s also the right cause.”
In recent home games, fans had chanted for Renney’s dismissal. Sather made the decision during Sunday night’s 3-2 overtime home loss to Toronto.
“I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a few days,” Sather said. “Winning or losing that game – as painful as it was to lose it – I’d come to the conclusion during the game that today was probably just going to be the day that I’m just going to do what I had to do.”
Sather could have retained Tortorella after John Muckler was fired, but decided to hire Ron Low.
“In retrospect you can look back and say, ‘You know, it would’ve been smart to keep him,’ but that was 8 1/2 years ago,” Sather said. “Things have a way of coming full circle.”
The players met with Renney and Sather following a Monday morning workout at the team’s suburban practice facility.
“Sometimes you have to accept that you need a change and you have to do it,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “It’s all about winning, and someone had to pay the price. But we’re all responsible for this.”
Renney is the second Atlantic Division coach fired in a week, following Pittsburgh’s dismissal of Michel Therrien last weekend – a move also made one day after a loss to Toronto. Renney is the sixth NHL coach let go this season, which includes all four coaches whose teams started the season in Europe.
Renney went 2-0 against former Lightning coach Barry Melrose in games in Prague. Therrien and the Penguins faced Craig Hartsburg and the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm.
After a two-season stint as the Rangers director of player personnel, Renney became an assistant coach under Sather for the 2003-04 season. Sather relinquished his coaching duties Feb. 25, 2004, and turned the team over to Renney.
The defensive-minded Renney, who turns 54 on Sunday, went 5-15 to finish that season and took over on a full-time basis in July 2004, but had to wait for the yearlong NHL lockout to end before he could officially claim the job behind the bench.
In his first full season, Renney was a finalist for coach of the year honours after the Rangers went 44-26-12 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1997. They advanced to the second round each of the past two years.
Sather turned over the roster before this season, allowing veteran forwards and proven goal scorers Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan to leave via free agency along with the volatile Sean Avery.
Markus Naslund was brought in, and he leads the offensively challenged Rangers with 18 goals. The biggest disappointment has been the signing of defenceman Wade Redden, who was given a US$39-million, six-year deal, but now hears boos every time he touches the puck at home.
“We’re into a time right now where the team has not played very well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get back to playing like we played at the beginning of the year,” Sather said.
New York ranks 29th of 30 teams in goals per game (2.33) and has scored two or fewer 14 times in 19 games – including their past 12 losses.
Renney also struggled to get the most out of centres Scott Gomez and captain Chris Drury, who signed as free agents in the summer of 2007 but never found consistent linemates to work with.
“It’s a tough part of the business,” Gomez said. “As players, it’s definitely on us. We feel 100 per cent responsible, but also, we still have a lot of games left and we’re still in position where we can get into the playoffs. We have to find a way.”