NEW YORK — The Rangers fired combative coach John Tortorella on Wednesday, four days after New York was eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tortorella was unexpectedly dismissed with one year left on his contract. He led the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals last year and into the second round this year before New York was eliminated in five games by the Boston Bruins.
The fiery Tortorella, who was hired to replace Tom Renney in February 2009, achieved some success with the Rangers but couldn’t match the Stanley Cup title he earned in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather met with the media via a conference call Wednesday afternoon. He did not a name an immediate replacement, but hopes to have one in place by the June 30 NHL draft in Newark, N.J.
“I felt this was a decision that had to be made going forward,” Sather said. “I think he was shocked, but he is a gentleman and he took it very well.”
Last season, Tortorella led the Rangers to 51 wins — the second-most in franchise history — and 109 points before they were beaten in six games by New Jersey in the conference finals. He finished his Rangers tenure in fourth place on the team’s career coaching wins list.
The 54-year-old Tortorella got the Rangers back into the playoffs in this lockout-shortened season, and New York outlasted Washington in seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being knocked out by Boston.
Tortorella made curious comments on Monday when the Rangers packed up for the season, which could have led to his ouster. In his final meeting with reporters, Tortorella said his club wasn’t emotionally ready to take on Boston after getting past Washington with back-to-back shutout wins when it faced elimination.
“One of the things, and it falls on my shoulders, is our team’s mindset going into another round,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think our mindset was ready to play another series and to the level you need to be at. It didn’t have a playoff atmosphere.
“That’s what I struggle with right now. I didn’t do a good enough job in correcting and getting their mindset back to not only play at the level of a Game 7 in the first round but get ready for round 2, which is always going to be tougher.”
Even though the Rangers were knocked out of the playoffs one round earlier this year than last, Tortorella was defiant in expressing that he didn’t believe the team regressed in its progression.
“I know the surrounding feeling here is that it was a negative season, a disappointing season. I don’t buy it and I won’t,” Tortorella said. “There are some good things that happened. I don’t think we took a step backward. I think this is a sideways step in our lineup and how things worked out.
“We played really well our last couple of months to get in, found a way to win a big series against Washington, and against Boston I thought we competed right to the end.”
However, star goalie Henrik Lundqvist disagreed with that assessment. The opinion of Lundqvist, who is entering the final year of his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, likely registered with Sather.
“It is a step back,” Lundqvist said. “We were in the conference finals last year, we had high expectations on ourselves this year. It didn’t go our way, so yeah it is a step back. It’s tough to make it there, though. You can’t just expect it to happen.”
The Rangers entered the 48-game season as a prime contender to win the Stanley Cup, especially after the offseason acquisition of top forward Rick Nash in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After a slow start, the Rangers rallied to a 26-18-4 record and the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But New York struggled to score in the postseason, and Nash and Brad Richards were among the biggest offenders. Nash recorded only one goal and five assists in the Rangers’ 12 playoff games.
Richards, who has seven years remaining on a nine-year deal, was a bigger disappointment and was a healthy scratch by Tortorella in the final two games against the Bruins.
Richards had thrived under Tortorella when they won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, but he managed only one goal and zero assists in his 10 postseason games. Richards will likely also be gone from the Rangers, who can buy out the remainder of his lucrative deal and remove him from the salary cap that will go down for next season.
Tortorella is the career leader in wins by a U.S.-born coach with 410. He was an assistant coach with the Rangers in the 1999-2000 season and took over for John Muckler as head coach for the final four games.
Tortorella was then hired by the Lightning and he was their coach for seven seasons — compiling a mark of 239-222-36-38 and earning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in the championship 2003-04 season.