“Safe is death.”
That was the motto of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, straight from coach John Tortorella, the last Stanley Cup champ before The Great Bettman Lockout II that canceled the whole next season. It sounded neat, and looked good on a T-shirt, but could easily be derided as just something to unite the players and fanbase. It actually stood out at the time.
The 2003-2004 season was the last of the clutch-and-grab era, and the height of it. Few teams were interested in scoring, and far more were interested in neutral zone traps, calf-roping any player with a modicum of talent, gumming up the works, and filling the the lineup with grunts and halfwits that would follow the instructions of trapping, holding, tackling, and rarely concern themselves with the puck.
The Lightning under Tortorella stood out. They had Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier, Dan Boyle from the blue line. Even Cory Stillman, a decidedly journeyman player, was inspired to an 80-point season, good enough for 8th-best in the league that year (Cory Stillman having two less points than Marián Hossa. Let that bake your noodle for a bit). They attacked, they pressured low in the offensive zone, they took risks. They were one of the few watchable teams of the time.
And the Lightning powered to a Stanley Cup, overcoming the decidedly agricultural Calgary Flames in seven games to do so. Then the league stopped, everything changed, and Tortorella went in reverse.
Torts would stick around for three more years in Tampa, having two pretty successful regular seasons but never having the goaltending to escape the first round. When he came to New York in 2008, safe was no longer death anymore. It was oxygen. The Rangers piled up playoff appearances, but played some of the most boring hockey Broadway had ever seen. Gone was the offensive flash and pressure and freedom that Torts had allowed his stars in Tampa. In was collapsing around the slot and crease defensively, dump-and-chase at the other end. Sure, Marián Gáborík and Richards again would provide the occasional flash, but those Rangers teams were symbolized by Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan and the glory of worker bees. In an era of the NHL that saw the league and teams trying to soup things up and put some excitement back in the game, Torts guided the Rangers back to the trenches of the years before the lockout.
There was one conference final appearance, but thanks to the Rangers grinding style and always getting just enough, two seven-game series in the first two rounds left them a puddle in that East final, allowing Hudson River rivals New Jersey into the Stanley Cup Final, unquestionably the worst team to appear in the championship round in a couple of decades. Even when Torts lost, we all lost.
Tortorella would last one more season in New York, and the team was so relieved to be free from his shackles they promptly went to the Final the very first season without him. After a delightfully mediocre season in Vancouver, Torts came to Columbus, and again installed a defense-first, mind-numbing system. Perhaps he didn’t have a choice, as GM-for-life-apparently Jarmo Kekalainen has rarely been able to procure a true star for the Blue Jackets.
Whenever there was a glimpse of potential talent, Torts chased them right out of town. To be fair to Torts, in the cases of Ryan Johansen, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Patrik Laine, he’s been mostly right. All flattered to deceive and ended up overrated, overpaid, and underperforming. But it certainly didn’t get the Jackets anywhere, though their problems are far more widespread than just the coach.
Torts will claim he authored the two best seasons the Jackets have had, and that’s true. It’s just that’s a knee-high bar to clear. The Jackets’ 108-point season of 2016-2017 was backstopped by Sergei Bobrovsky’s .931 save percentage. Their still stunning first-round sweep of the Lightning in 2020 came about thanks to a Bob contract-drive and Andrei Vasilevskiy puking up both his lungs over four games. And really, when an organization only has a first-round win to cling to, the problems are very large indeed. Again, this is a league that is getting faster, with more scoring, and more stars than perhaps ever before. And the Jackets had exactly, and have exactly, none of that. At least not at forward.
And Torts’s “success” in New York just happened to coincide with Henrik Lundqvist’s best seasons, especially in 2012 when Hank carried a .930 save percentage and netted him his only Vezina.
If you thought Torts was done going back in time, you clearly underestimate James Dolan’s ability to shoot his own dick off. There’s already buzz that in the Rangers’ “quest” to become tougher (and dumber) that led to the firing of GM Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson, they could seek a return for Torts. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad must already be on the phone to their agents. If the plan is to find a coach to unlock the untapped potential of Kappo Kakko and Alex Lafrenière, Torts screaming at them on the bench about blocking more shots isn’t the way to go about it.
But in hockey, much like wrestling, no one ever just moves on. Everyone comes back. It can never let go. Some GM or president and owner will see all the bluster and talk and swagger of Tortorella and be mesmerized, and ignore or miss the fact that there’s never been much behind it.