NEW YORK — John Tortorella was defiant in stating that the New York Rangers didn’t take a step back when they were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round.
General manager Glen Sather thought otherwise and fired the combative coach on Wednesday.
The fiery Tortorella was let go four days after the Rangers’ season ended with a Game 5 loss at Boston to the Bruins. New York had reached the Eastern Conference finals last year and was considered to be a championship contender in this lockout-shortened season.
“I came up with the decision that I really needed to do something to improve our team going forward,” Sather said during a conference call. “Every coach has a shelf life. 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 unexpectedly 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 in four of five seasons 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 goaltender 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.
“It wasn’t one thing and I am certainly not going to speculate or start to criticize what happened with Torts and give you a lot of reasons why we decided to do this,” Sather said. “After the analytical work that we do every year at the end of the season, trying to decide how we’re going to improve the team and how we’re going to move forward, this is a decision I made.”
Sather didn’t name an immediate replacement, but hopes to have a new coach in place by the June 30 NHL draft in Newark, N.J.
Former NHL coaches Lindy Ruff and Alain Vigneault could be candidates for New York. Sather wouldn’t speculate 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, but hopefully that’s what we’re going to have this time around.
“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 in the conference finals. He finished his Rangers tenure in fourth place on the team’s career coaching wins list.
The 54-year-old Tortorella got the Rangers back into the playoffs in this lockout-shortened season, and New York outlasted Washington in seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being knocked out by Boston.
“I felt this was a decision that had to be made going forward,” Sather said. “I think he was shocked, but he is a gentleman and he took it very well.”
Tortorella made curious comments on Monday when the Rangers packed up for the season, which could have led to his ouster. In his final meeting with reporters, Tortorella said his club wasn’t emotionally ready to take on Boston after getting past Washington with back-to-back shutout wins when it 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.”
Even though the Rangers were knocked out earlier this year, Tortorella emphatically stated he didn’t believe the team regressed.
“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.”
However, starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist disagreed with that assessment. Lundqvist is entering the final year of his contract and would be eligible to become 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 the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After a slow start, the Rangers rallied to a 26-18-4 record and the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But 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 by Tortorella 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 will likely also 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 for 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 — compiling a mark of 239-222-36-38 and earning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in the championship 2003-04 season.