Pardon John Tortorella if he’s feeling a bit antsy these days; the onset of September means that a hockey season is just around a calendar-flip … we hope.
Whatever happens on the labor front, Torts has to plan for training camp and climb even higher than the 2011-12 Eastern Conference Championship.
Completing a respite at his Wisconsin vacation home, the coach has reason to be optimistic and it’s not only because Rick Nash will be joining the Siege Mortar Squadron.
“We’re ready,” Tortorella told me, sounding very much like he’d like to open camp in about two seconds. “Camp is set for the 21st (of September) and I’m enthused.”
He should be; with an impressive crop of maturing Whiz Kids such as Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, Torts’ challenge will be honing their respective games to sharpness. A build-up-to-a-letdown is something every bench boss fears but with the surplus of Rangers talent at hand, the sky’s the limit.
When I mentioned that Bill Torrey’s formula for Stanley Cup-winners included speed, size and special teams, the coach said that his club has the goods.
“The additions of Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider have given us a lot of speed,” he noted. “And don’t forget the importance of quickness as opposed to just speed. That’s a big part of the way National Hockey League play is going. As for size, Rick Nash can move and he’s adding to our size.
“Granted we lost some size and hardness when Duby (Brandon Dubinsky) and Prusty (Brandon Prust) left, but we’ve made up for that with our additions (Arron Asham, Taylor Pyatt, Jeff Halpern, Micheal Haley.) With these guys we’re going to play a hard, straight-ahead game.”
As a rule, coaches avoid climbing on verbal limbs that might crack on them. But when it comes to Ryan McDonagh, Torts waxes ecstatic; or as ecstatic as an NHL mentor can get.
“Ryan’s best has yet to come, really. Basically, he’s just starting to come on because he’s got the goods. He’s mentally mature. Even when he makes a mistake, Ryan is ready for the next shift. And he’s going to get better and better offensively.”
Speaking of progressing defensemen, Michael Del Zotto’s “comeback” at the age of 22 impressed The Boss, but not to the extent that Torts believes that MDZ has fully completed his improvement cycle.
Tortorella: “After a year in the minors Michael made a great comeback; no doubt about that and he’s become more consistent. He’s one of the best at joining the rush and I love his aggressiveness that way. But he still has to improve his ‘hardness’ and mental toughness. I want him to know that he has to do what he did last season every year. That’s when you become a player.”
Much has been projected about the addition of Nash’s fire power, which can be devastating to goaltenders and a delight to The Garden Faithful who were rooting for his Rangers signing late last season. Torts knows all about that, but he insists there’s more to Rick’s game than a booming blast.
“I talked to him,” the coach went on, “and Rick’s going to fit in nicely. Among the many things I like about him is that his approach is all business.”
If anything surprised me about our chat it was what John said about Hagelin. We all know that the Swift Swede was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2011-12, but I didn’t expect such an emphatic critique as the one the coach delivered.
“Hagelin actually changed the complexion of our hockey club; actually he’s a huge piece of our puzzle because of his speed and the manner in which he uses it; the way he chases pucks down. I liked the way he worked with (Richie) Brad Richards and Gabby (Marian Gaborik,).”
Another work in progress is Stepan who the coach commended for “having a good second year,” but sees improvement ahead.
“He was less inconsistent, but I want to see more from him in the playoffs. He’s a young kid and still learning, but I’d like him to be more consistent.”
Torts allowed that he didn’t get to know Kreider who came on so strong in the playoffs after leaving Boston College.
“I’m really anxious to see how Chris does in camp,” he explained. “I’ll do a lot more coaching with him than I could do during the playoffs. He’s got to learn to be a pro and not miss any steps along the way. Plus, I want him to get to know me.”
Torts will visit The Apple on a non-sports — unless canine-watching is a sport — event on September 9. The coach will lead a mile-long walk along the Hudson in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. It’s all about raising funds for the Westchester Humane Society.
“My wife and I have four dogs of our own and we love the work we do with the Society,” he concluded. “We’ve been doing it for six months and it’s been a big part of our Summer.”
That soft side of Torts’ personality has been essentially hidden from the public. As for the canines, well, they can enjoy being in the coach’s doghouse!