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Blog: Slap Shots
If you’re a Rangers fan, the last thing you want to see the first month of next season is Chris Kreider flinging himself in front of shots from the blue line.
Check that: If you’re a Rangers fan, the last thing you want to see the first month of next season is Kreider in street clothes, scratched from a game because he hadn’t flung himself in front of shots from the blue line.
Personnel questions await the Blueshirts following their run through the regular season and their stop-and-go trek to the Eastern Conference finals, but the larger question concerns the team’s style of play going forward under coach John Tortorella, who has cast himself as a true believer that shot-blocking is at the very foundation of an NHL team’s pyramid of success.
Neil Miller (2)
TAKING A SHOT: Stu Bickel (pictured) throws himself in front of a shot as Henrik Lundqvist looks on earlier this season, a perfect example of the game coach John Tortorella wants the team to play, which Larry Brooks says could hurt the team’s opportunities to improve in the offseason.
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Actually, the two questions are interlocked just like the letters on the hats worn by the Yankees, because if the Rangers are going to insist every player in the organization fit into the same round hole and there’s no room for diverse styles under this coach, then that is severely going to limit the options available to general manager Glen Sather as he seeks to upgrade the team’s talent level.
Tortorella insisted during the conference finals that his current philosophy is essentially unchanged from the one he had at Tampa Bay in 2004, when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. The coach said he had emphasized shot-blocking as much then as he does now.
No one is in position to know better what they did than Tortorella, as he once said in 2007, but I have to tell you, not only do I have no memory of Marty St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle flinging themselves in front of shots during the seven-game finals against Calgary that I covered, there isn’t a single reference to shot-blocking from the coach in my notebook.
Instead, there is this from the Game 1 morning skate on May 25, 2004: “We play one style — that’s attack.”
There is, however, also this: “I think every coaching staff and organization looks at the team and [determines] which is the best style to be successful. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong system.”
So bringing it forward, do the Rangers play the way they do, where blocking shots is mandatory and the team packs the defensive zone, because Tortorella believes that’s the style that gives the club its best shot at winning, or do the Blueshirts play that way because the coach has become a zealot in the manner of a reformed sinner?
The Rangers provided the evidence a team can be enormously successful during the regular season by giving playoff-caliber effort 82 nights a year because the fact of the matter is few teams are willing to pay that enormous price through a six-month grind.
The Black-and-Blueshirts proved they could thrive by spending shift after shift in their own end during the regular season, frustrating opponents by diving in front of shots, allowing foes to keep the puck on the outside, as long as the effort was supported by world-class goaltending.
But not so much in the playoffs, when every team is willing to pay the ultimate price, and not so much in the playoffs when the more talented teams and more adroit coaches can adjust to that style of play, as the Devils did under Pete DeBoer once Martin Brodeur rang an alarm bell following Game 1 of the Battle of the Hudson.
It is incontrovertible that the damage players incur by recklessly throwing their bodies in harm’s way takes a considerable toll once six months and 82 games become eight months and up to 110 games.
Nobody is suggesting the Rangers haven’t built a work ethic and cornerstone of sacrifice worthy of envy and admiration. They have. And for whatever role Tortorella has had in instilling that, the coach is worthy of praise.
But the Rangers are going to have to be a more diversified team with a more diversified look in order to get from Game 6 of the conference finals to the Canyon of Heroes.
That means adding talent, but there’s no use in adding talent if Tortorella won’t exploit it. For instance, if the answer to the question, “Could Alexander Radulov help the Rangers?” is “He’d never be able to play for Tortorella,” then something is askew because that’s pretty much what everyone was saying about Ilya Kovalchuk two years ago.
Do the Rangers play this way because they have to or because Tortorella wants them to or is it a combination of both through a growth process from which the Blueshirts went from 18th overall to second overall this year?
It’s impossible to know for sure, because while there is what Tortorella said in Tampa on May 25, 2004, there is also what the coach said in Pittsburgh on the morning of Feb. 21, this year:
“If you’re not blocking shots, you’re not playing.”
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