Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Timing off for Avery, Tortorella

They were an unlikely pair from the start. It was never going to work for Sean Avery and John Tortorella after the former Cup winning coach relieved Tom Renney during '08-09. Sometimes, matches are made in hell. Such was the case when Avery bolted the bright lights and big city for Dallas, where he lasted all of 23 games before his mouth got him tossed with a trip to detention.

Under Renney, Avery flourished. Easily fitting in after Glen Sather acquired him from the Kings for Jason Ward, Jan Marek and Marc-Andre Cliche. Who do you think won that one? Once here, Avery agitated against the Rangers' bitter Hudson rival, which would become public enemy number one throughout his Blueshirt career. Almost instantly, Avery and Martin Brodeur clashed literally when the antagonist lost control during a rush and bumped into the future Hall Of Fame Devil. If you were on the other side, it was intentional. 'He could've stopped.' Either way, Avery immediately got Brodeur's undivided attention. Rangers/Devils was never the same. When he shoved Brodeur back, the intensity between both sides of the rivalry ratcheted up to what it once was when Messier and Stevens captained each team.

Before you get the wrong idea, Avery isn't even close to either legend. However, he was a key ingredient that spiced up one of the best rivalries. Not long ago, the Rangers were the Devils' little brother they beat up on. AHL fodder. Then, Henrik Lundqvist evolved into a franchise netminder and Jaromir Jagr put the Blueshirts back on the map along with Czech buddies Martin Straka, Marek Malik (yes, him), Michal Rozsival and Petr Prucha. Fellow Swede Michael Nylander provided a huge assist as the Rangers became a playoff team again, finally earning respectability. When Slats took a chance on Avery, who didn't exactly have the best resume, it was a calculated risk that made the club harder to play against. Not the biggest player, the former teammate of Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan brought plenty of heart to the ice. So when naysayers put him down, their memories are a bit foggy. Sean earned the respect of the Garden Faithful to quote Adam Graves. Was he a bit of a rebel? So, he wasn't conventional. Paul Revere would've been proud.

A lot is said about the talent those Ranger teams had starting with King Henrik and No.68. Shanahan was also instrumental in helping younger players like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan grow into the players they are today. It's also easy to forget that when Avery came over from Hollywood, he reenergized a stale team that was on the fringe. Even with better players that also included Matt Cullen, who pushed Blair Betts to the fourth line, that '06-07 club was missing something. Avery provided it with his edgy style that rubbed opponents the wrong way. Fans enjoyed the passion he played with.
Suddenly, teams had to worry about someone other than Jagr.

Not that Avery was ever a big scorer. Sometimes in sports, it's more than just stats. But if that's what we're judging on, the Blueshirts went 50-23-13 with No.16 during that first stint. Just his presence alone improved those teams enough to advance past the first round and be competitive in consecutive Eastern Conference Semifinals against Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The Thrashers and that familiar guy Ilya Kovalchuk had no answer for him. Then a Spring later, it was Avery at his best against the Devils, even inventing Screen Gate. A tactic so preposterous that the Avery Rule was created with even t-shirts made. Ironic, eh? Following that episode, Brodeur refused to shake Avery's hand, which only allowed him to fire more shots at the NHL's winningest netminder.
During the summer of '08, he made a mistake signing with Dallas at the convincing of Brett Hull. Who could turn down $15.5 million over four years? For the role Avery played, it was more than he ever dreamed. It didn't take long for him to irk teammates who didn't like the disturbance he created. From the outset, it made no sense with Steve Ott already a Star version of him. The final straw came prior to a Stars/Flames game in Calgary when Avery went a bit too far in describing ex Elisha Cuthbert as "sloppy seconds," which Dion Phaneuf couldn't have taken kindly to. Even if the league didn't suspend him, Stars owner Tom Hicks would have. His career in Big D was done.

With 28 other teams not interested, there was only one that needed him back. The Rangers had become soft without Avery while adding washed up Tinman Wade Redden. To say the post-Jagr Era wasn't going according to plan would be an understatement. With Scott Gomez at times disinterested and an unpredictable Nikolay Zherdev, the Rangers needed Avery again. Unfortunately, the team continued to struggle, forcing Sather to fire Renney near the end of February '09. In came Tortorella, who had ripped Avery to shreds on TSN. It was almost like they were forced on each other with Slats saying, 'I don't care how. Make it work.'

At first, it didn't go that badly. It seemed Tortorella began to understand Avery and what he could bring. If only the former Tampa coach had practiced what he preached against former Southeast rival Washington. After Lundqvist backstopped the underdog Rangers to a 3-1 series lead, things went haywire when the new bench boss lost his cool when a few Cap fans near the glass got under his skin. Tortorella's retaliation in the form of a water bottle earned him a suspension. Ironically, the same game his most scrutinized pupil didn't play due to a loss of discipline. Perhaps he overreacted to the penalties Sean took. It's not like the stripes ever gave him the benefit of the doubt. 'He's Sean Avery,' was the joke tossed around MSG.

If only Tortorella had seen the big picture with his team a win away from a gigantic upset. Instead, he made it worse by getting suspended for Game Six, which saw the Blueshirts meltdown. Sure. Avery returned but it was too late. The damage was done. The Caps edged them 2-1 in the deciding game and Avery and Tort would never be the same. Yes. He tolerated him. But any little thing Avery did wrong, he was punished. Sometimes fairly and other instances, unjustified.

Under Renney, the more laid back coach allowed Avery to be himself with consistent ice time. With Tortorella, you never knew from night to night. As was previously noted in yesterday's post, Sean had a solid '09-10 but fell out of favor last season. He only missed six games and posted his most assists (21) since that '06-07 campaign when the Rangers traded for him. Oh btw. Avery finished with career bests in goals (18), assists (30) and points (48), going 8-12-20 the remaining 29 games with his new team. Oddly enough, he had similar production at the end of '09, tallying 12 points (5-7-12) over 18 contests including two power play goals.

Sometimes, you wonder why Avery ever made the trip to Europe. Especially if Tortorella knew all along, he wasn't going to put him on the final roster. Somewhat dictated by Marc Staal's PCS (headaches) that prompted the Blueshirts to call back Tim Erixon and phone old pal Paul Mara. The Rangers' most pressing need is D with uncertainty surrounding Staal, who now could miss the first month. So, Tort chose shootout specialist Erik Christensen over Avery despite a strong showing from Sean against the Flyers. The lasting impression is that the Wayne Simmonds incident was the straw that broke the camel's back.

When you hear Tortorella repeatedly say, "I'm trying to do this the right way because I don't want to keep on shoveling dirt over Sean Avery, but we have better players than Sean Avery right now on the hockey club," did he ever have a realistic chance? It seems like Tort's mind was made up early on, taking into account the play of kids Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin and ex-Pred Andreas Thuresson.

"We think we have a better team, and think we have better players than Sean Avery...our depth put Sean in this spot."
If it were only based on that, the organization wouldn't have waived Dale Weise, Brendan Bell and Stu Bickell. The move allows the Rangers to free up necessary cap space to bring in a vet defenseman. If it's Mara who's been here before, understandable. Right now, the Blueshirts will start the season with Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Mike Del Zotto, Mike Sauer, Steve Eminger and Tim Erixon. Hardly what they envisioned.

From that standpoint, cutting Avery sounds logical. However, the way it was handled begs the question why the coach couldn't be more up front with Sean. If he never had a chance, wasn't it a waste of everyone's time to have Avery come to Europe? It isn't quite Slats' blatant disrespect for Brian Leetch but let's call a spade a spade. Tortorella comes off looking small here. Assuming Avery clears waivers, he's expected to report to Hartford. Not unless Tort bans him. Doomed from the start.

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