Dave Lozo’s Bag Skate is a weekly feature that’s named as such because A) it’s kinda part mailbag, and B), like a bag skate, it’s very long. Unlike a bag skate, however, it is very enjoyable. Lozo worked for NHL.com for five years, three months, and 19 days (seriously), and finally left after getting his resumé to the point where he was qualified to write somewhere as prestigious as Backhand Shelf.
“Safe Is Death,” read the sign that hung inside the locker room of the Tampa Bay Lightning as John Tortorella guided them to a Stanley Cup in 2004. In an era when getting through the neutral zone was akin to skating through freshly poured tar, Tortorella’s team refused to sit back and clog.
That club was rewarded for playing that aggressive style with a championship.
Nine years later, the only place “Safe Is Death” is written is on the figurative tombstone of John Tortorella just outside Madison Square Garden.
Despite four-plus seasons that could be described as successful using nearly any standard for judging a coach, Tortorella was fired Wednesday with one year left on a contract he signed in 2011. Since the ink dried on that deal, Tortorella guided the Rangers to the conference finals in 2012 and the conference semifinals in 2013, which seems to show he was living up to the terms of the agreement.
In the end, it was Tortorella’s shot-blocking, grinding style that grinded his unhappy players to the point where Glen Sather believed they were better off with a new coach and a fresh start.
And he was right.
This isn’t to say that Tortorella’s players hated playing for him, as people like to say, but they certainly didn’t love it. To me, that’s always been an unfair knock against Tortorella. If his players hate him so much, why did Vinny Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko and Brad Richards all voluntarily sign with the Rangers? Richards, in theory, was willing to spend nine years with Tortorella as his coach. Matt Gilroy wasn’t exactly Ryan Suter on the free-agent market this past summer, but he chose the Rangers over a few other clubs. Tortorella’s players may not have loved him, but they all felt they made them better and gave them the best chance to win.
But it clearly reached a point where enough players lost faith in their coach’s system.
For a stretch, Tortorella’s style was necessary, and it instilled a toughness and work ethic that was missing in a very young team that was devoid of top-end talent. Just look at the team’s leading scorers in 2009-10: that team was a complete mess yet it nearly qualified for the postseason largely because of the shot-blocking, board-battling club it needed to be.
The Rangers were again a team that lacked offensive weapons the following season, but it was showing signs of improving in that area and squeaked into the final playoff spot in the East. The 2011-12 season was the culmination of three years of Tortorella-izing the team and improved talent coming from either free agency (Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik) or the maturation of young players (Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan).
Tortorella’s unwillingness to loosen the reins ultimately led to the Rangers’ demise against the Devils and his own demise Wednesday. The Rangers’ safe, grinding style that was necessary to compete with superior clubs was now the reason why series against the seventh-seeded Capitals and eighth-seeded Senators were lasting seven games instead of five games. The Rangers were at a point where they had the talent and experience, and not to mention a world-class goaltender, to take more chances and be more aggressive, but it wasn’t allowed.
Tortorella’s style became a problem both philosophically and in practice in 2013, as the Rangers revamped the roster in a way that both changed the identity of the club and unfairly raised expectations.
The Rangers finished 11th in scoring in 2011-12 before a lack of offense submarined them in the playoffs. It could have been seen as the result of a combination of Tortorella’s style and a youthful group learning what it takes to win during its first deep postseason run. Instead, it resulted in the loss of key role players Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust and Fedotenko that cleared cap spaced to fit Rick Nash, whose idea of a grinder is probably a sandwich.
The expectations, however, became even greater with Nash in the fold. Rangers owner James Dolan famously stumbled through a postgame press conference during the first half of last season calling his team Stanley Cup contenders, and there’s no doubt advancing three rounds and adding Nash only made Dolan increase his incorrect belief he had a championship team on his hands. Sadly, very few championship teams win a Cup with just two lines.
Whether Tortorella liked it or not, his team received a makeover and he never adjusted to the new personnel that was better suited for a skill game than a grind game. There also appeared to be a lack of trust between Tortorella and some of his players. Mistakes were generally not tolerated. Ask Richards, Marian Gaborik, Chris Kreider and Brian Boyle what happens when there’s a defensive lapse. They were all either glued to the bench, sent to the AHL, or healthy scratched. Players who are afraid to make mistakes are probably going to make more mistakes.
The effect of making Richards a healthy scratch against the Bruins is a great unknown. Some believe it was a move the players felt needed to happen given his struggles, others believe players took it as a sign of disrespect. But if Richards avoids an amnesty buyout, it’ll be fair to speculate that Sather was none too happy about Richards watching the final two games of that series.
That was another problem with Tortorella’s coaching style: his only moves were head games that involved benching or demoting or healthy scratching. When asked about the atrocious power play this season, Tortorella said he doesn’t get involved in that. Yes, a power play that finished 23rd the past two seasons and never higher than 13th is something Tortorella doesn’t get involved in. It seemed that even if Tortorella wanted to fix the offense, he didn’t have the capacity to do so.
In the end, Tortorella’s safe style that didn’t encourage creativity wore on his players, none more than Henrik Lundqvist. Not one to show frustration in the locker room or on the ice in past seasons, he became more prone this season to subtly calling out teammates in postgame interviews or adamantly showing his displeasure after goals. Four years of existing in a system that required Lundqvist to allow two goals or less most nights in order to win grinded him to the point where he was non-committal about signing a long-term deal.
Sather may have taken several missteps this past offseason, but he wasn’t going to let Lundqvist get away. If it meant firing a coach with a “shelf life” that probably only had one more year at best, it wasn’t worth gambling that to potentially lose the final eight years of the NHL’s best goalie.
Personally, I think it makes sense to fire Tortorella, although I didn’t think it would happen. Tortorella’s style more than his personality has a shelf life, and it took the Rangers as far as they were going to go. It seems unfair to say considering his success, but the team plateaued in 2012 and while I believe getting this team to the second round in 2013 was a success, it was the beginning of the end. Miserable players in a system that calls for sacrificing the body is a toxic mix if a team wants to win a Stanley Cup.
The Rangers’ current roster is good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup in 2014, and it’s largely because of the foundation laid by Tortorella, but it would’ve been impossible for the team to jump that final hurdle while wearing their coach’s shackles.
What’s a Game 7 for regular folks?
As mere mortals, we will never know what it truly feels like to play in a Game 7. For those of us who didn’t strike it rich in the genetics lottery and/or weren’t instilled with a farmer’s work ethic and/or weren’t blessed with the natural talent to skate like the wind and/or snap a wrist shot with the accuracy of a sniper, we are left to guess what the Game 7 feeling is like from the comfort of our cubicles and offices.
Sure, that hole in our lives will never be filled. It will be an emptiness that will linger until we die in our two-bedroom apartments or second-mortgaged houses in massive debt. On the bright side, we won’t spend our later years with aching bones and joints as the result of playing a high-contact sport for 15 years.
So what is the Game 7 in our regular lives? Surely there is an equivalent, the civilian’s version of the do-or-die contest that can define an athlete’s career, that will stay embedded in his brain as either a wonderful memory or painful regret for the rest of his life.
There are varying levels of importance to the Game 7 depending on the round in which it is played. So in an effort for you to identify your own successes or failures in life Game 7s, here’s a list of the ones you’ve probably experienced.
Game 7, conference quarterfinals
Your first sexual experience: There’s nothing more nerve rattling than the night (or morning, afternoon, whatever) in which you are prepared for that first time. There’s nothing you can do to get yourself ready for it. Can you practice? Sure. I guess. If you consider throwing pucks into an empty net with your bare hand practice for a Game 7, sure, you can practice for your first time.
It’s just like your first Game 7. Yeah, you can ask people who have gone through it for advice, but until you get out there and do it, you can’t really understand it.
Your stomach is in knots, as are your pants, and deep down, who knows, perhaps that girl/guy isn’t going to want to have sex with you. The payoff/devastation in this area is about as close as you’re going to come to a sports Game 7. Of course, just because the puck does get dropped on your own Game 7, it doesn’t mean you’re going to score twice. You are more likely to cough up the puck 30 seconds into the game and not get another shift for a long time, but you’ll never forget it and it will help you for future Game 7s in this regard.
Ah, to be 32 again, huh?
Game 7, conference semifinals
Your first asking for a date: You’re probably wondering why I’d put sex before the date. One, I like to live in a world where sex comes before the date. Two, if I open with sex, you’ll continue reading for a longer period of time. But think about it. How hard is it the first time you ask a girl out? It has to rival that first Game 7. The feeling that comes with rejection or a loss can stick with you for a while. The only way to get over it is to get back on the horse and go for it again. As you ask out more people, it gets easier and you eventually find success. When you get a “yes” or a victory, it’s a pretty darn good feeling.
I guess you could say people who are 1-0 lifetime in Game 7s are people who marry their high school sweetheart. People who are 0-5 are those who gave it a run but eventually had to settle for life in a monastery. Ruslan Fedotenko is 6-0 all-time in Game 7s, so I guess that makes him hockey’s George Clooney.
Game 7, conference finals
Your first proposal to your first wife: Statistics indicate you are probably going to drop to a knee and present someone with a ring more than once, so let’s just go with the first wife for this. You’re set up for devastation or ecstasy. In your mind, this woman (or man) is the only one for you, when statistics indicate you will probably get divorced or wind up hating each other within 5 years. You’ll probably get another crack at this. But for the first time, you want that yes. You need that yes. You’ve played out the proposal in your mind hundreds of times the way players visualize a Game 7 pregame in the locker room.
Just like there are smart ways to go about preparing for a Game 7, there are smart ways to go about proposing. For instance, dropping the ring in a tray of nachos and using a stadium scoreboard to propose isn’t smart. That will lead to a loss. That’s probably the equivalent of calming your nerves before a real Game 7 by polishing off a fifth of whiskey. But your wedding proposal, just like a Game 7 performance, can make you a hero for decades in certain circles.
Game 7, Stanley Cup Final
Your first child’s birth: The mother of all life Game 7s. All you want are 10 fingers and 10 toes, which were also Ken Holland’s requirements for his defensemen this season. You can do all the testing you want beforehand, but you never know what can happen once you’re in the delivery room. There could be a problem with the way the baby is turned, or a perhaps the baby is caught in the umbilical cord, or perhaps the baby comes out healthy but looks nothing like you and your wife, who are both white, and looks exactly like your best friend Reggie, who is black.
This is the life-changing Game 7, the one you will remember forever.
For those of you saying, “Yeah, but professional athletes get to play in real Game 7s and get to have life Game 7s,” well, too bad. You should have been better at sports.
Three letters: Food, trains, bears
As a scribe who has been able to travel to many cities across these United States and watch hockey, you’ve probably eaten a burger or two on the road. Do you have a favorite burger spot on the road, or a city that has better food than others in general? I remember a lot of writers raving about the Juicy Lucy when the draft was held in the Twin Cities. Any others stand out to you? Also, as a Chicagoan I’m legally required to ask: deep dish pizza, yay or nay?
Thanks for your answers as always,
I don’t know if I have a favorite burger place. I would do all of my traveling during the two months of the postseason, and if you think it’s easy to eat like a horrible glutton during the regular season, it’s even worse when you’re traveling. You really begin to question your life when you’re sitting alone during a stopover in Phoenix, eating a barbecue chicken pizza from the California Pizza Kitchen at light speed because your flight is boarding. It’s really gross.
But I haven’t had a bad meal in Vancouver. The seafood is terrific. Deep dish pizza is great, but it’s unfair to call it pizza. Deep dish pizza is what happens if a regular pizza puked into a bowl. There’s a barbecue joint in San Jose called Henry’s Hi-Life that is great. In Boston, there’s a sandwich joint by TD Garden called Mulligan’s that’s a neat lunch spot. I can’t think of anything all that great about Toronto or Detroit, but both have great nightlife. Once you’re in a city often or you are with people who know the terrain, you can find many hidden gems.
But seriously, you have to work a salad in when you can. Otherwise you will die during conference finals.
Do you like trains?
Love them. They are quiet, relaxing and there’s baggage check or carousel. You don’t wait for food service; you can get up and get food and drink whenever you please. The seats are far more comfortable too.
Thanks for the question.
Let’s say you are face-to-face with a bear that wants to eat you. You have no weapons and from what I understand, it’s impossible to outrun a bear. How would you get out of this situation or would you die?
I think it depends on the terrain. Am I in the woods or am I in a city setting? Home-ice advantage means a lot in this situation. If I’m in the woods, I’m a done deal. They will find my corpse spread around the forest and my story will eventually be turned into an episode of Bones.
But if we are in a city setting, I think I can take the bear. Maybe not in a battle of fisticuffs, but there are many man-made obstaclesI can use to my advantage. I’m pretty agile so my first instinct would be to climb atop a car or bus or van. I would also consider just running in circles around a parked car because while a bear would run me down in a straight line, I don’t think the bear could turn as sharply.
There are also food carts everywhere. I could just push over the seasoned pigeon meat that passes for chicken and use that as a distraction. Piece of cake.
Also, there are offices and restaurants everywhere. I could just slip into one of them and give the bear the finger through the window.
(E-mail dave111177 at gmail dot com if you want a question answered next week that isn’t related to my imaginary battle with a bear)