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Rangers job is one Tortorella always wanted

Tuesday, 02.24.2009 / 3:39 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- As much as he loved his seven years in Tampa, John Tortorella really never wanted to leave New York.

He spent the first 78 games of the 1999-2000 season as an assistant to Rangers coach John Muckler, and the last four as the Rangers' interim coach. It was only one hockey season, but Tortorella, a Boston native, learned to love New York, the aura of Madison Square Garden, and the give and take with the critical media.

Tuesday afternoon, he was back in it -- sort of.

He might have been out in the suburbs at the MSG Training Center, 30 minutes from Broadway, but there was Tortorella, barking out orders in his first practice as the Rangers' head coach.

"I coached in a great city in Tampa for seven years and I loved it there, but I always wanted to get back into the north, into hockey country back in the northeast," said Tortorella, who was hired as the Rangers' coach Monday night. "I love the city. I think the people are fantastic. They're going to disagree with me. You guys (the media) are going to disagree with me. There will be some booing and criticizing. That all comes with it, and that's what I love about it. It is a passion. And to play in that building and be with the logo of the New York Rangers, are you kidding me? It's an honor, and I feel very fortunate to get the opportunity."

As humbled as he may be, Tortorella is well aware of the job ahead of him.  The 2004 Jack Adams Award winner called taking over the Rangers with 21 games left in the regular season a fresh start for everyone involved in the organization.

The Rangers won only two of its last 12 games under Tom Renney, who was relieved of his duties Monday morning. They have fallen to sixth in the Eastern Conference and were only two points out of ninth heading into Tuesday night's games.

So Tuesday morning, Tortorella had members of the dressing room staff erasing boards that had the current standings and stats, leftovers from the Renney era that ended because he couldn't get the club out of its prolonged slump.

"We want to clean that up and start over again," Tortorella said.

He brought with him a rule that no one is to step on the logo stitched on the carpet in the center of the dressing room. Tortorella had the same rule when he was coach of the Lightning from 2002-08.

"I just don't think you should do that," he said. "I don't think you walk on a logo anywhere, so that's the way it's going to be."

On the ice, he ran one of the crispest and most fluid practices the Rangers have had in some time. You could hear his voice booming throughout the hour-long session. There were some stops for water breaks, but the practice was built on speed and constant motion.

Tortorella can't promise wins and a playoff berth in a season that has been spiraling downhill lately, but he can promise to be tough on his players and hold them accountable for their actions.

That's his style, like it or not.

"Just being honest is what I try to be," Tortorella said. "They are going to be pushed. They are going to be held accountable. There may be some conflict along the way, but I don't think we should be afraid of conflict. I think conflict is a good thing in developing relationships as long as it is done in a respectful manner and it's done for what is best for the hockey team. I tell you right now -- there will be some bumps."

The first thing Tortorella has to do is get to know his players.

For everyone besides injured defenseman Paul Mara, who played under Tortorella for a short while in 2001-02 and forward Brandon Dubinsky, who played for Tortorella at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Quebec, it's a completely new voice.

He said that is best for everyone in this situation.

"I have really only watched this team from afar and I am really excited about getting to know them and for them to know me," Tortorella said. "I think it will help some of the players that they won't be pigeon-holed into a role because I don't know what their role is going to be yet. I have to allow them to play and we'll see where it goes."

Tortorella is sure of one thing -- the Rangers no longer will be the defensive-minded team they were under Renney. He will try to turn them into a team that attacks aggressively on the forecheck and scores more goals. The team entered Tuesday's games 27th in the League with 142 goals.

"I have always liked the pressure game so we are going to try to pressure and we'll see how our guys can handle it," Tortorella said. "But I have to be careful because I made a major mistake last year with our team in Tampa where I was too aggressive and our 'D' couldn't handle it and it cost us. I need to learn from that and see what these guys can handle as far as the change of style we're going to play."

"I coached in a great city in Tampa for seven years and I loved it there, but I always wanted to get back into the north, into hockey country back in the northeast. I love the city. I think the people are fantastic. They're going to disagree with me. You guys (the media) are going to disagree with me. There will be some booing and criticizing. That all comes with it, and that's what I love about it." -- John Tortorella



One of the real troubling spots for the Rangers all season has been their dismal power play, which entered Tuesday ranked 28th in the NHL at 13.8 percent. Tortorella said he plans to take over the power play, while interim assistant Jim Schoenfeld, who also serves as the Rangers' assistant general manager, will run the penalty kill.

Mike Pelino, a holdover from Renney's staff, will not work with the club on the ice. Instead, he will do advanced scouting. Benoit Allaire stays on as goalie coach due to his strong relationship with Henrik Lundqvist and Stephen Valiquette.

"I think it's important that the head coach has the power play because you're dealing with a lot of your top people and it's a very important aspect of the head coach, how to get the most out of your best people," Tortorella said. "Obviously if we are going to win, (the power play) is going to have to produce more than it has been."

It won't take long for him to learn how all these changes will shake out as the Rangers play three games in four nights, starting Wednesday in Toronto, followed by home games with Florida on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday.

Will underperforming stars like Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Markus Naslund, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival be re-energized by Tortorella's demanding style? Will a mercurial talent like Nikolai Zherdev be able to handle the coach's in-your-face personality? Will the Rangers be able to save this once promising season?

Tortorella finally is where he always wanted to be, and now it's his job to make the answer to every one of those questions a resounding yes.

"I am not going to sit here and lie to you and say I know what they're about -- I don't," Tortorella said of his players. "I know how I want them to play. The most important thing for a coach is what do you have and can they play your style. That's what I'm trying to work through here, and in one practice I don't have a clue. It's going to take more than that."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.

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