By now all hockey fans are aware that the controversial and hot-headed coach of the New York Rangers, John Tortorella, was dismissed after 6 largely successful seasons with the team. His departure came as a big surprise – both for him and most Rangers fans. Torts, not known for keeping a low profile, has not issued a public statement about his situation, and the vast majority of Rangers fans had believed, despite the relatively disappointing 2013 campaign, that he would at least be given one full year, with a complete training camp and 82 game schedule, to work with the fairly new makeup of the team. According to various sources, however, many Rangers players complained to General Manager Glen Sather about their head coach, claiming that his in-your-face and hyper-critical nature was doing more to divide the locker room than unite it. The final straw seems to have been a subtle yet pointed indication from star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist that he was unsure about his own future with the Rangers, as he enters the final year of his contract with the team. Given a choice between keeping his head coach and keeping his goaltender happy, Sather opted with the latter.
The question, now, is who should be the leading candidate for the Rangers’ coaching vacancy? It is surely a highly sought-after position – a big-market, big-budget, Original 6 team with the talent and experience to make a serious run at a Stanley Cup over the next 3-4 seasons. In the immediate aftermath of Tortorella’s dismissal, several names were tossed around, including all-time greats Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, who have both officially expressed interest in taking the helm. While each player’s talent and hockey sense is undisputed – Gretzky is by far the best forward, if not the best player, in NHL history, and Messier is arguably top 5 – and bringing in either one would be a ‘splashy,’ high profile move, considering the track record of great players becoming coaches, in addition to Gretzky’s failure in Phoenix, it would be a big mistake to hire either player. From 2005-09 Gretzky led the Coyotes to a 143-161-24 overall record with 0 playoff appearances, albeit with subpar talent and an unstable ownership situation (he was a minority owner of the team at the time, but the group that owned the team eventually went bankrupt). Additionally, few truly great, or even very good, players go on to make good coaches in any sport. Sure, there are exceptions, like Mark Jackson, currently coaching the Golden State Warriors, or Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson who would coach the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup victory. But for each of those there is a Bill Russell, Yogi Berra, or even Gretzky in Phoenix — examples of players who knew intuitively how to play their respective sports at a high level, but for some reason, perhaps because of this natural intuition, were unable to teach the game on a level that every player would understand.
So, who should be on the Rangers wish list? First and foremost, longtime Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, fired during this season after 16 seasons with the team, is still looking for a new job. The Rangers yesterday received permission to talk to him about becoming the new head coach of the team. Although he never won a Stanley Cup in Buffalo, he did take the Sabres to the 1999 Finals, and is greatly respected throughout the hockey world as one of the better coaches in the game (he is also the head coach of Team Canada). If they have a chance to sign him, it would be difficult to decline. If not, their second choice would likely be former Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault, another highly regarded coach who should be able to come in and help the Rangers get over the hump and make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Finally, there is a lot of speculation that Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett might leave the team amidst the uncertainty of the Coyotes ownership situation. If he does, he should certainly be in the mix for the Rangers job.
Any of these three would be great choices; however, coaches of the caliber of Lindy Ruff are not often available, and particularly not at a time when your team is ready to win without a lot of changes to personnel. If the Rangers can land Ruff, they should be considered legitimate Cup contenders for the third year in a row.
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