The Stanley Cup Reunion That Almost Was

The Eastern Conference final had just ended.  Adam Henrique, the series-winning scorer in the Devils’ first round series versus Florida, had struck again.  The Rangers’ season came to a disappointing end.  Many were left waiting with baited breath to hear just what head coach John Tortorella had in store at the post-series press conference.

While Tortorella has always had a certain way with the media, he has inarguably become more abrasive over the years.  Sure the pressure of coaching in New York is far greater than in Tampa Bay, but at what point does there need to be a certain element of respect toward the media?

Across the continent a fellow coach with his own history of media disenchantment was coaching the Los Angeles Kings to the organization’s first Stanley Cup final since the Wayne Gretzky era.  That coach, Darryl Sutter, spent the majority of the post-lockout years attempting to manage the Calgary Flames back to the Stanley Cup final—as he was able to do, while behind the bench, in 2004.

That 2004 Stanley Cup final, the last Stanley Cup final of the “Old NHL” (as it should be called due to the fact everyone refers to post-lockout hockey as the “New NHL”), featured Darryl Sutter, behind the bench for the Calgary Flames, facing the heavily favored Tampa Bay Lightning and hot-head coach John Tortorella.

(Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE)The coaches were then and continue to be quite dissimilar.  Darryl Sutter the unassuming farm boy from Viking, Alberta carried himself in a quiet confident, some would even say cocky, manner.  The Sutter family was not new to the Flames organization, as Darryl’s brother Brian had coached the Flames for a few years prior to Darryl’s arrival on the scene.  Sutter, Darryl that is, came into town fresh off a fairly successful tenure as head coach of the San Jose Sharks.  The Flames did not carry much in the way of expectations and Darryl quickly became the darling of every Flames fans’ heart.

Calgary played hard, did not take anything for granted, and made up in effort what the team lacked in grit.  Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla and a variety of no-name players backstopped a fairy tale run to the final in that year.  Whether the team took on the coach’s personality or vice versa was up for debate; all that mattered, however, were the results: A place in the Stanley Cup final against…

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In Florida a new team was emerging as a force in the Eastern Conference.  Led by Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Flames cast-off Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning had become a force to be reckoned with.

John Tortorella (James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)First-time NHL head coach John Tortorella led the Bolts to first place in the difficult Eastern Conference.  Tortorella was fiery and a breath of fresh air in an NHL that had become somewhat stale.  The gap between the brilliance of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had been bridged by the likes of Eric Lindros and Joe Thornton but the latter two names did not have the same skills, or cache, as the former two.  The NHL was defensive and soon clutching and grabbing was not only common but also expected.

Tortorella lived by the motto, “Safe is death”.  He encouraged his team to be aggressive, to create chances and to not allow the opposing team to ever feel comfortable.  His style and manner rubbed some the wrong way, but his team’s playing style was not only aesthetically pleasing, it was successful too.

His team rode through the Philadelphia Flyers, coached by the defensively oriented Ken Hitchcock, in the conference final and the high-flying Bolts were the Eastern Conference champions.  This resulted in a place in the Stanley Cup final against…

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Darryl Sutter and John Tortorella faced off admirably in the 2004 Stanley Cup final.  And while the series could have gone either way—see: The Martin Gelinas phantom goal in Game 6, the Lightning won the first Stanley Cup in the history of the State of Florida.

Since that time, however, all has not been all wine and roses for both coaches.  As mentioned above, Darryl Sutter eventually moved up to focus strictly on being general manager.  His tenure in management was anything but successful.  Sutter handed out contracts liberally, hired and fired two of his former coaching mates Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan and was on the outs with his very own brother Brent Sutter by the end of his Calgary tenure.  Sutter eventually resigned from his duties as general manager of the Flames and the history of his success in the Stanley Cup final was a distant memory.

Instead of returning to defend the Stanley Cup season the Lightning had, Tortorella was forced to sit out a season while the players and owners duked out the current collective bargaining agreement.  By the time the CBA was complete, a salary cap was in place and the Lightning struggled to build a supporting cast around the expensive core of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards .  The Bolts were left with below-average goaltending.  Two first round exits later, another missed playoffs and chaotic ownership on the horizon and Tortorella was sitting in the TSN studios providing analysis with the very media he seems to very much dislike.

The irony is also not lost on anyone that Jay Feaster, the same man who fired John Tortorella (even though it was widely believed that this was not his preference but that of the new ownership’s instead), was indeed faced with turning around the Calgary Flames by taking over the GM seat from Darryl Sutter.

Over the years, Sutter has not changed much.  His coaching style is still intense, based on attention to detail and never allowing a player to feel complacent.  His Kings may have more talent than his Flames squads ever had, but defense is still the first priority for Sutter’s crew.

It is in that way that Sutter and Tortorella have become increasingly similar.  Tortorella, once a proponent of run-and-gun hockey, at least in the 90’s and 2000’s sense, led the New York Rangers by preaching defense, shot-blocking and overall sacrifice.

Lundqvist beats Devils (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)If the Rangers had defeated their cross-river rival Devils in round three, it would have resulted in the 8 year reunion of Tortorella and Sutter coaching in the Stanley Cup final—albeit coaching different teams.

Does this say more about the coaches or the game itself?  Does the NHL have a way of changing offensive coaches and making them more defensive?

It is not as if John Tortorella does not have offensive players at his disposal.  The very Conn Smythe Trophy winner, from his illustrious run to the final, Brad Richards, in 2004 was his number one center.  Former 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik was his first line winger. Talented youngsters like Ryan Callahan, Chris Krieder, Derek Stepan and Brandon Dubinsky have all demonstrated offensive capabilities at some point in their NHL careers.

Instead, however, Tortorella thought his team’s best bet to the final was shot blocking and defensive acumen.  His playing time decisions were based largely on which players were turning over the puck, as opposed to which players were both creating scoring chances, or at least capable of creating scoring chances.

Less penalties have been called over the past few years and many believe the NHL is creeping back towards the low-scoring clutch and grab hockey it tried to distant itself from post-lockout.  Perhaps some of the change in style is deliberate—particularly to minimize concussions and the accompanying liability that may inevitably follow.  In any event, the bombastic American coach has moved closer to Sutter in style than the other way around.

While the eight-year reunion did not occur, the storylines would have been interesting if it had.  For now, however, we can wonder what has changed more over the years, Tortorella, the game itself, or both?

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