New York Rangers v Washington Capitals - Game Seven

There are many things in life that most of the population accepts as true that I find myself questioning. Benedict Cumberbatch is a good-looking man? Is it the accent? The fame? He’s pasty, has weird hair and a weirder name. Really, he’s me in high school.

Perhaps the most perplexing and confusing thing seems to happen at least once a year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s that moment when NHL coaches and general managers cease to be experts in the construction and managing of hockey players and suddenly become masters of illusion, diversion and psychology.

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson wrote an angry letter the day after Raffi Torres was suspended after Game 2 of San Jose’s Western Conference semifinal series with the Kings after leveling Jarret Stoll. Wilson used the phrase “grossly unfair” to describe the suspension for the remainder of the series and defended his player passionately and eloquently.

Right around the same time, Rangers coach John Tortorella was doing his yearly routine of not answering harmless, normal questions and making a spectacle of himself. This came after his team lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Bruins.

Following both events, Wilson and Tortorella were hailed as masters of distraction. “They put the focus on themselves,” I’m sure some guy said. “No one is talking about the struggles of the team,” I’m almost positive some other person remarked.

“Have you people all lost your minds?” I wonder to myself whenever these “distraction” stories are written.

Let’s start with Wilson, who I consider perhaps the most intelligent general manager in the NHL today. If there is anyone who knows how to use the media to his benefit, it’s him. Just look at his comments after trading Douglas Murray a few days before the deadline. He wanted to get a message across, and he most certainly did.

But this distraction narrative is just silly. Who exactly was being distracted from the Sharks being down 2-0 in a series by a few paragraphs on the team Web site? Reporters? His players? Do people think that the media covering that series see that letter and think, “Well, I’m not asking anyone in the Sharks room about being down 2-0 and that monumental collapse in Game 2. All Doug Wilson letter questions, all the time, my friends.”

Let’s take a leap and say that, yes, that’s exactly what happened and not a single media member mentioned the gut-wrenching loss in Game 2 and the importance of Game 3. Am I to believe the players became so distracted by this letter from Wilson that they spent the 24 hours leading up to Game 3 oblivious to Game 2 and the importance of Game 3?

Logan Couture: See that letter Mr. Wilson wrote?
Tommy Wingels: I did.
Dan Boyle: Yeah, me too.
Logan Couture: Yeah, it was some letter.
Dan Boyle: Yeah.
Tommy Wingels: Hey, boys, do we have a game tomorrow?
Logan Couture: Yeah. Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m awfully distracted by the letter.
Dan Boyle: Me too. Hey, do you remember what happened in Game 2?
Tommy Wingels: We played Game 2? I’ve been very distracted of late and I don’t remember.

In Tortorella’s case, the distraction narrative is even more ridiculous.

The way Tortorella answered questions the day following Game 1 is pretty much how he answers questions 80 percent of the time, be it after a win or loss, regular season or playoffs. He loathes talking to reporters. He has little to no respect for them and would probably give a percentage of his salary to avoid talking to them.

Yet somehow when Tortorella acts this way in May, he is no longer a jerk and bully. He becomes a smart coach who wants to take the attention off his team and put it on himself. What a wily and cagey veteran coach, the masses say. No one is talking about how his team couldn’t score a power-play goal into a soccer net right now, some fictional person would say for the purposes of ending this paragraph.

During the 2012 postseason when Tortorella was taking his routine to new heights (or depths), again the praise was there for his tactics. Pressure off players. Focus on him. That’s what he wants.

You know what all that led to? More questions for his players. Instead of spending the off-day talking about the need to find more offense, the fatigue level of the team, the inept power play and of all the other things that needed to be asked on a daily basis, there were an additional 3-4 questions for players about playing for Tortorella. The questions that were intended for Tortorella were now being asked of his players.

There was one off-day during the second round last year where Ruslan Fedotenko, who played for Tortorella in Tampa Bay as well, spent an additional 10 minutes at his locker answering questions about Tortorella after answering questions about all the other stuff. How in the world does Tortorella’s routine take pressure off his players? If anything, it gave them way more work to do with the media than if they had a normal coach.

Sometimes we read a little too much into things. We want something to be there that simply isn’t, like my tan in the summer. Doug Wilson’s statement wasn’t designed to distract anyone; it was designed to express extreme displeasure about a suspension to one of his players he deemed vastly unfair and show his team and other players around the league – perhaps future Sharks – that he’s got their backs no matter what. John Tortorella isn’t a cerebral mastermind; he’s a guy who hates talking to reporters because it takes away time from coaching his team, which matters even more to him come playoff time.

And if those things truly are intended to be distractions, they don’t work. Every Stanley Cup Playoff game is a far bigger deal to everyone, especially players, than a letter or a 90-second, terse interaction with reporters. It’s like saying snapping my fingers rhythmically for 15 seconds is distracting you from the three naked women over there doing jumping jacks while wearing hockey mascot heads.

 

***

 

Not sure if you’ve heard, but the aforementioned Couture is now the leader of the San Jose Sharks. That’s right. He jacked up his leg in Game 3 against the Kings, left the game, came back, scored a power-play goal in overtime, and it’s now time the 24-year-old is anointed the unofficial leader of the club.

Of course, this story is the natural progression from the narrative that Joe Thornton is a terrible leader. He’s immature, not a gamer, has no grit and other things simple-minded people say about a player who unfairly earned this reputation during his time in Boston. Zero points with a torn rib cartilage in a seven-game series loss in 2004 is all it takes to impugn a man’s character.
I have never been a teammate of Thornton’s, so it’s not as though I can offer first-hand evidence of the nebulous “leadership” qualities people to love to talk about, but I can offer an anecdotal tale about his character that you can accept or dismiss as an indicator of who he is as a person.

It was October 2010 and I was with the Sharks in Mannheim, Germany. They were there to play an exhibition game before opening the season in Stockholm. After an off-day practice, the team was split into two groups – half the team stayed at the SAP Arena to sign autographs, half took an hour-long bus ride to the Kaiserslautern military hospital, a place for seriously injured soldiers from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thornton was part of the group that went, voluntarily, to the military hospital.

I got to the take the bus ride with the players. A representative from the USO spent just about the entire trip breaking down the seriousness of the situation at the hospital. We were going to see some severely injured people. Brain injuries, gun-shot wounds, everything you could imagine.

San Jose Sharks v Los Angeles Kings - Game One

Then the USO rep found a way to become even more serious. He let everyone know that there was a special section of the hospital where the injuries were even more catastrophic. He talked about soldiers who were missing limbs, eyes and some who would never walk again. If the one part of hospital was a nightmare, the other part was the nightmare no one there would awake from.

With 12 Sharks on the bus, the USO rep said he needed six volunteers to go to the special wing of the hospital. Without hesitation, Thornton was the first person on the bus to raise his hand. Several Sharks saw this and followed by raising their arms.

Four days later, coach Todd McLellan named Thornton captain of the team.

Of course, raising an arm on a bus to a military hospital does not mean one is equipped to captain a hockey team. But the gesture spoke volumes about Thornton’s maturity level and how his teammates follow his lead. He didn’t stay back at the arena for the cupcake assignment of signing autographs; he didn’t shrink away when it came time to visit a military hospital, and he didn’t bail when that volunteer duty required even more of him.

As if that’s not enough, he played with a separated shoulder in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final in 2011. He logged 32:15 of ice time in the double overtime loss, putting seven shots on goal during a game in which his shoulder was so damaged that lifting the puck was practically impossible. And from what I understand, playing with torn rib cartilage is about as bad is it gets. It’s the type of thing most people use to prop up players as tough gritty gamers, yet somehow that label has eluded Thornton.

Thornton had 40 points in 48 games this season and has nine points in eight playoff games and was an absolute beast in Game 4 against the Kings. But sure. It’s Couture’s team. Thornton is a questionable leader. It’s what the narrative dictates.

 

***

Four letters: Tiny Norweigan, Firing Torts, Arrested Development

 

I was just curious if you know what Torts actually thinks of Mats Zuccarello. It seemed to me that last year he lost confidence in his offense and let’s face it, there wasn’t any defensive play evident to lose confidence in.  I am just curious if Torts has changed his opinion of him because since his return from the KHL, he has been hitting, blocking shots, and has been reliable on D (but he does still need some more offensive numbers).  Do you think Zuccarello will stay with kids like JT Miller coming up?

 Thanks so much,

Lynsey

 P.S. would also love to hear you on the BHS podcast!

 

Just like your name, the D was definitely missing from Zuccarello’s game before this season. To be fair to him, he was a 23-year-old rookie when he first arrived in 2010-11 and wasn’t exactly adept at blocking shots, the most important thing a hockey player can do (in Tortorella’s eyes).

But he’s been much better during this go-round. Tortorella has mentioned his better overall game and has also talked about Zuccarello being more physically fit. I think it’s unlikely he’s back next season because like you said, J.T. Miller will probably be ready and there aren’t too many open forward spots with the Rangers in 2013-14 barring trades.

I’ve always thought Zuccarello was an NHL-caliber player and he can probably find regular playing time on some team’s third line next season. He has 11 goals and 34 points in 67 NHL games and is pretty good on the power play, but he’s not really a Tortorella guy. He’s European and undersized, so this could be his final season in New York. He’ll be a good player if he goes somewhere else.

 ***

Do you think the Rangers should fire Tortorella if they don’t make it past the second round? Do you think they will fire him?

 Chuck

Sexsmith, Alberta

 

Just the phrasing of the question makes the idea of firing Tortorella seem ludicrous. “If the Rangers are only among the eight best teams in the NHL and not the four best teams, should they fire their coach?” Despite popular opinion at the start of this season, this team wasn’t really a contender. It sacrificed its depth to get Rick Nash, then sacrificed Marian Gaborik to get the depth back at the trade deadline, and in a season in which there was no training camp, the Rangers did pretty good with a slew of new players.

Something else to consider if you think the Rangers are going to fire Tortorella: if they were to do so, that would mean Tortorella (315) would end his time in New York having coached fewer regular-season games than Tom Renney (327). It’s just highly unlikely that a team is going to fire a coach that went to the conference finals two years ago and the second round this year in a season that doesn’t even matter because it’s only a 48-game cash grab.

Tortorella has one more year left on his contract and will enter next season with a true contender. If the Rangers struggle in their first 20 games, maybe something happens. Who would the Rangers get to replace him now? Lindy Ruff? Alain Vigneault? Mark Messier? I’ve been wrong before, but there’s just no way Tortorella is going anywhere after this season unless a mutiny happens.

 ***

Better binge watching: 1st round of playoffs or Arrested Development Season 4

Alternatively, recast Arrested Development with the 8 NHL coaches remaining in the playoffs

 Steve

Mankato, Minn.

 

I’m terrified of Arrested Development season four. There is no way it is going to meet my unfair expectations. Same thing for the Anchorman sequel. I’ll take the first round of the playoffs over everything except the first two days of the NCAA tournament. For me, nothing tops that mix of excitement and gambling.

As for the second part of your question, I don’t know what to do with that. You want me to cast a coach as Maeby Funke? Dan Bylsma has a Gob thing going on I guess. Maybe Tortorella as George Bluth. I’d cast just about any referee as Maggie Lizer.

 ***

Dave,

 Say you’re a Zamboni driver. To what extent are you allowed to flaunt this? Better to coolly act like it’s no big deal or play along when people think it’s the coolest thing ever? Asking for a friend…

Alex

Washington, D.C.

 

I guess it all depends on what the people you’re trying to impress find cool. If you’re in a position where it can be used to pick up a girl or get some free drinks, I say flaunt it. But if I met some dude who was like, “Hey, brah, not for nothing brah, but I drive a Zamboni,” I’d very likely nod, grab my drink and go to the other side of the bar.

Depending on the rink, Zamboni drivers also act as either rink managers and have many other duties, some of which include changing light bulbs. All jobs are terrible to some extent and even the cool ones become far less cool once you get them. Unless of course your job is to spray oil on swimsuit models at photo shoots, although I bet that even gets boring after a few years.

“Dave, Natasha needs more oil on her thighs. They need to glisten!”

“God, how much oil does this lady need? Put your own oil on, princess.”

My advice to you would be not to flaunt anything. No one likes a show-off. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to give a massage to my supermodel girlfriend and roll around in the millions of dollars I have spread out on the floor of my mansion.

 ***

(E-mail dave111177 at gmail dot com with your questions about hockey, movies, cheeseburgers, bodily functions or whatever. Include your name and location otherwise I have to make them up and you will always live in Sexsmith)

Comments (12)

  1. Thanks for the kind words about Thornton. FYI for those who don’t follow the Boston sports media closely, one big reason why he got the underachieving or not a leader rep can be explained in three words: Kevin Paul Dupont.

    That Thornton was traded years ago means little to Dupont. He ripped him relentlessly when he was on the Bruins, and continues to this day. He has an Ahab complex about the guy that’s almost frightening in its intensity.

    If the Sharks lose in this round or even the next you will see Dupont reference it somehow, some way, even if it’s just one line in a totally unrelated story.

  2. In fairness, Tommy Wingels is still suffering from short term memory loss after that devastating illegal check by Henrik “The Assassin” Sedin.

  3. Lucille Bluth as Claude Julien

  4. You’re argument against the theory of Wilson and Torts being a distraction from failure is sound, until you realize that your piece is about just that, and not about the performance of the players on both of those teams. The existence of your argument against the theory almost supports the theory.

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