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Tortorella dives right into his new role

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

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With three-quarters of the season already in the rearview mirror, and only 21 games remaining in which to secure a playoff spot, John Tortorella predictably hit the ground running on Tuesday, his first day as the head coach of the New York Rangers.

“I have coached in a great city in Tampa for seven years and I loved it there, but I have always wanted to get back up into the north, into hockey country, and back in the northeast,” stated the Boston-born Tortorella. “I love the city of New York. I think the people are fantastic. To play in the building at Madison Square, with the logo of the New York Rangers, is an honor. I feel very fortunate to get the opportunity.”

John Tortorella met with the New York media for the first time as Rangers head coach on Tuesday after running his first practice at the MSG Training Center.
The opportunity to return to New York -- where he served as an assistant coach during the 1999-2000 campaign, finishing the season’s final four games as interim head coach - came about when former head coach Tom Renney was relieved of his duties on Monday morning. With the club struggling mightily over its last 12 games, posting a 2-7-3 mark over that span, Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather decided that a change in direction and personality was in order. That led Sather to contact Tortorella and offer him the vacant post.

“Tom’s body of work here was pretty good, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and he’s a good friend of mine,” Tortorella said of the fourth-winningest coach in Rangers’ history. “But I have a different philosophy. I have always liked the pressure game, and we’ll see how our guys handle it.”

After meeting with his players early Tuesday morning, Tortorella took to the ice with assistants Jim Schoenfeld and Benoit Allaire to conduct his first practice with his new team. Tortorella let Schoenfeld run most of the drills as the new bench boss observed, though on several occasions he stopped the drills to huddle with his players and offer up his opinions.

There were several new drills at practice on Tuesday, most of them emphasizing up-tempo skating and puckhandling, two staples of Tortorella’s preferred style of play. There was even a “follow-the-leader” skating drill in which the players formed a line behind the smooth-skating Fredrik Sjostrom, mimicking his cuts and swoops across the ice.

Tortorella also made sure to casually chat with several players on the ice during the morning workout. He held conversations with team captain Chris Drury, alternate captain Scott Gomez, and defenseman Wade Redden during different breaks during the drills.

“Your best players need to be your decision-makers, and they’re going to get every opportunity  to win hockey games for us as long as they show me they are going to compete hard, because that is something they can control,” Tortorella said, speaking in general terms and not specifically about any of the current Rangers.

The new head coach, who guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to four playoff appearances, two division titles, and the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship over seven seasons, said that his plan will be to let Schoenfeld handle the defense pairings and penalty-kill during games, and that he will make forward line changes and be in charge of the power play.

“I think it’s important that the head coach has the power play, because you are dealing with a lot of your top people, and I think that a very important aspect of a head coach is how to get the most out of your top people,” explained the 50 year-old Tortorella. “Obviously if we are going to win, the power play is going to have to produce better than it has been.”

Among the other changes instilled by Tortorella on his first day was the removal of statistics and standings that were posted on the wall near the workout room at the training center -- “because this is a fresh start,” stated the head coach. Tortorella also said he had decided to move former assistant coach Mike Pelino off the ice and into a scouting role with the team, and had made it known throughout the ranks that stepping on the big Rangers’ logo located on the carpet in the dressing room is a distinct no-no.

Most important, Tortorella -- who met with a large contingent of both broadcast and print media after practice and before the team jetted off to Toronto for a game against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday evening -- admitted that he has to get to know his team quickly in order to get them back on the winning track with the playoffs fast approaching.

Tortorella had been working as an analyst for TSN in Canada, and he does not feel as though he has a handle on each of his players, or the club’s overall strengths and weaknesses, just yet.

“I am trying to figure out who they are,” stated Tortorella. “I am not going to sit here and lie to you and say I know what they are about because I don’t. I know how I want them to play. But I have to be cognizant of knowing if they can play my style. That’s what I am trying to work through here.”

Along with figuring out his club on the ice, Tortorella is aware that he needs to rebuild the players’ collective confidence, which soared earlier this year with the best start in franchise history, but has suffered of late due to losing 10 of 12 matches.

“Losing knocks you down,” explained Tortorella. “I am going to push them; but as a coach you also have to understand when you need to be with them. I think this is a time to try and get them feeling decent about themselves.”

With three games over the next four nights, Tortorella will get a quick introduction into what needs to be changed and what he has on his hands to close out this season.

But Tortorella also noted there is one simple cure-all for the Rangers at present.

“There would be nothing better than a win,” he said.
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