Takeaways: John Tortorella’s Exit Interview
The exit interviews for John Tortorella and Danny Briere were held today. In two separate pieces, I’m going to cover everything that either man said that I found of any weight or interest.
This isn’t necessarily an article meant to pick out something specific for a headline. Rather, this is meant to be the closest thing on the internet to a filler free transcript. Throughout, I’ll interject with thoughts that I have on the subject matter at hand. Somewhat of a response to what’s being talked about at any time.
Alright, the quotes alone is gonna puff up the word count of this project, so let’s just get this show on the road.
“I think you look at our forward position. I think some kids have progressed nicely there. I think the next spot is defense. I’d like to see some kids come in there and push some people. Because there’s no locks there, just judged on the overall play of all those players on our back end. There’s no locks there. It won’t be given. I’m not going to disrespect the veteran guys as far as wanting to get them out of there. But everyone is gonna have to earn their spot.”
It took 7 minutes for anything of particular interest to be shared, but this was one hell of a way to kick things off. The focus for this organization, if this is to be believed, is on the back-end. There’s some hedging here, as far as preparing people for an underwhelming result if that’s what comes to pass.
But the flag was very much laid down: they want the defense core to look significantly different than it did this past season.
“Understand that, at least here, you’re gonna have to accept the honesty. And understand that that’s all it is: honesty. We have a ways to go there. I think we’re way too goddamn sensitive out here. About that. About simply—coaching. That surprises me. That’s something we’re gonna have to really grow at.”
This seemed oddly like a subtweet when he said it at the time. As if he was calling out a player without calling out that particular player, specifically because it is something of a new thought that he shared. This and the comment about the defense are the only two things he said throughout this presser that was new in any meaningful sense.
“I think that there are people, for the organization to move forward, [who have to go.] Not a lot, necessarily. But there are people. And Danny and I are in concert with that. I want to make sure everyone understands: this happens to all teams who are trying to get better. And I think, sometimes, teams get the order backwards. And they try to add people before subtraction. That’s where you get stuck in the mud. There are people I think who need to move on, based on where we’re at in the process. If we were in a different situation, maybe those same guys are staying. But we’re not.”
This is nothing new per-se, but this is Torts laying out the process of a rebuilding team, so it’s worthy of inclusion. It was a difficult thing for him to say without turning it into something scandalous.
If you go back and listen to this quote, you’ll find that I cleaned up a lot. But I think we all understand what he means. This team has to look radically different if it has any designs on competing for anything within the next half decade.
“I think every coach, every organization, every player has a different definition of accountability. Because I think that’s just human nature. That isn’t a bad thing.”
This presser spent a lot of time talking about things like standard, and throwing around words like accountability. Ironically enough, Torts himself did a wonderful job of articulating why I think any discussions on that front are a waste of time.
Everyone has a different definition of accountability, which means there’s nothing to talk about. If you want to get more specific, and say things like: “I need [x player] to do [y thing] differently,” then we can at least have a discussion where everyone is perfectly clear on what’s being talked about.
As it is, it’s just sort of fortune cookie nonsense. And that made listening to this entire thing a real chore.
“Clash of personalities happen. All the time. The way I feel about it—the way I go about it—it’s never a personal thing. It’s me trying to get everything out of a player who is playing in a team concept.”
The thing I found interesting in this statement? It’s part of an aggregate in which the word team concept comes up a lot. Does Torts feel like there’s too many people painting outside the lines of his system? This is rank speculation from me, but he circled back to the word too many times for me to write it off as mere coincidence.
Creative players who paint outside the lines can break down the structure of an opposing defense. They’re very much necessary. Especially in an offensive concept. But painting outside the lines in a defensive context can become dire, and cause breakdowns in coverage that weren’t forced by the offense but just given to them for free.
Tony DeAngelo and Kevin Hayes are probably the most notorious examples of “painting outside the lines” defensively.
All in all, though, I think there has to be some give-and-take from Torts here, if this is the struggle. It isn’t that he’s wrong. But if this team is going to get anywhere, the competitive version of this team isn’t going to look like a squad that never misses an assignment or sprints on a breakout too early. That’s human error, and will happen.
I’m not saying Torts doesn’t understand that on an academic level. But don’t become the enemy of the good in the pursuit of perfection, especially as far as something like DZ coverage is concerned.
“This is the way I coach. And I want to define it for you. Or—when we coach, as a coaching staff—I keep on saying ‘I.’ It’s we. When we teach, we teach in a group setting. If I’m coaching a player, it’s in a group setting. We’re all in the video room. And it’s not always bad stuff, like people think. But if I have a problem with Charlie about his back check, everyone is gonna hear about it. Because I think it’s that important. I used to do 1 on 1s. But I think it goes in one ear and out the other that way. We do it out in that classroom setting to invite that internal pressure. Does that cause a clash with the player? Sure it does. It’s not fair to the player if I’m not totally honest. Especially with today’s athletes, where I’m not sure they even want the honesty.”
This was an interesting insight into the day-to-day operations of the team. The “peer pressure” strategy is fairly well founded. In fact, it’s why mentors exist so much on good teams. Veteran players can say things with more weight than a coach can.
The one concern I’d have here is that by forcing that dynamic–forcing that peer pressure inauthentically–it’s very easy for a player to rightly take it personal.
Maybe you don’t take it personal, Torts, but you’re not being dragged in a room with your peers and being derided for your mistakes as detailed on a video for the “class.”
I’m not going to harp on this too much. Torts is hardly the only person to use this structure of film sessions. Jay Woodcroft of the Oilers–arguably Torts’ temperamental opposite–described a very similar concept. Of course, he made the whole thing sound significantly less confrontational.
Is this just a facet of how both men talk to the media? That’s very possible, perhaps likely. Which is totally fine, as long as it isn’t a difference of how both men operate in the room.
There’s a difference between showing video of the team doing something wrong (or right, sure, but that isn’t relevant here) and talking about it generally. Everyone gets the implication of this particular player did it.
But when you don’t harp on a specific player for it, it becomes more of a “this can happen to anybody” attitude. Which is far healthier than the alternative of: “Ivan is getting to sit back and chuckle as he sees on video that Tony can’t position himself in the DZ, while Tony chuckles as he watches video of Ivan trying and failing to retrieve a puck under pressure.”
“We’ve had some situations this year where players—where a couple of them came right at me—in front of the group. Right back at me. And I gotta be ready for that. Because a coach needs to be vulnerable if they’re gonna be honest with a player. And I’ve had some players come right at me. But at least he had the gumption to come right at me. And you’re solving the problem quicker that way. Players don’t always feel comfortable in that situation. So I’m always available 1 on 1. TK came in. Frosty came in. Tony came in. (When they were benched)”
Again, very interesting look inside.
“Everyone thinks conflict is such a bad thing. ‘OH, this person is really upset because you sat him.’ Really? If they weren’t mad at me, I’d be more upset. Conflict is how you build relationships. At least for me. It got me to a really good place with the understanding of certain players. In a good way. And for others, it told me that it just isn’t gonna work.”
On a fundamental level, I agree with what’s being laid out here. And I don’t mean with just this quote, but the total picture that’s being painted with all of these quotes. I see the logic.
Engineering conflict in order to get a deeper understanding of players in the wake of that conflict, because it is conflict that drags out our truest selves (most often.)
I understand the tactic. I even appreciate the tactic in a way. Here’s my concern: this team needs players, not psychologists. I need dudes who can fill particular roles on a hockey team. I don’t need personalities.
With this method Torts has laid out, it sounds like he is–at least in part–hunting personalities. If we give up on a good hockey player who has success at the top of another team’s lineup solely because Torts doesn’t like the cut of his jib or whatever, it will be significantly detrimental to the state of his team. It will set this franchise back years.
I’m not saying that personality isn’t part of the equation. Some players have a type of personality where they’re their own worst enemy in terms of developing. And that can hold them back. Want to know why players fall on draft day? There’s an obvious example.
But not every person who doesn’t like the way Torts handles his business is a problematic personality who won’t develop properly, and it’s way easier to replace a coach than to replace even one potential core player.
This isn’t a problem I’m saying is happening as we speak. I’m not there. I don’t know. But it is one to beware of.
“I’m sure you guys really want to know what happened. That’s going to stay between me and him and the team.”
There’s a lot of evasiveness after this, so I’m going to skip along here.
“Some players say they want to be held accountable, but in actuality, not really. They want a free pass in certain situations. But there’s no free passes.”
I’m going to take another stab at speculation, because it really reads like Torts is sending a subliminal diss track to Tony. So what happened? My guess is that Tony was benched for one game over his play, and had problems with it. He blew up, maybe at Torts, or maybe at another teammate.
Maybe a confrontation turned into: “What about (x player) who did this thing? You’re not benching him!”
And then he was benched for the rest of the season to make a statement about the unacceptability of that.
I’m not going to pretend like I know for certain. This is my read. It could be completely off base.
“With Tony and I, that’s a situation that Tony and I need to work through. Along with the team. Not publicly.”
As is perfectly justifiable.
“I have to use my guts sometimes [to know if a player is listening.] I like it when they come back at me, because at least I know I got their attention. And they want to be involved in the conversation. When I get ‘yeah, yeah’d’, that’s when you have to think… maybe this guy won’t be here on the bus with us. Cause there isn’t a clause in my contract that says I can’t coach a damn player. Whether it be about their play, about their attitude, or about being a good teammate. I’m going to do that. And if a player doesn’t like that, they should come to me. And that’s the decisions we have to make as a management team.”
This makes sense, but also goes back to my earlier point about hunting personalities instead of players.
“To the end of this year, we evaluated. And I found out some really good things about players compared to where they are at the start of the year. Other players, I’m not sure if they can be consistent enough in what we want. And that isn’t just on the ice. Sometimes… it’s about… do you feel they want to be a part of this process, where we are.”
“Listen, I want believers. I do. I don’t think you find a way unless you have believers. The non-believers? I’m sure that goes to Danny. I don’t want non-believers.”
He means believers in the context of guys who are prepared to go through the hard times of a rebuild, so I’m not going to pretend he confirmed any of my biases. He didn’t, and what he said makes absolute sense.
But again, we are dealing with an undertone of hunting personalities.
“I’m not saying to you guys that I have all the answers. But I’m gonna coach this team the way that I see fit. I’m not gonna shy away from it, because media people think there was mayhem in the room, which there wasn’t. I feel I know how to coach this hockey club. When the people above me feel that I missed the mark, they’ll let me know.”
This seemed hilariously contradictory to me, in the sense that he both does and doesn’t have the answers. Depending on which sentence you read, you’ll come to opposite conclusions.
And I’m not saying there was mayhem in the room, but SOMETHING happened with Tony. Come on now, Torts.
“I still think we need hardness. Not hard players. Hard in the mind. I just think we need to accept, to be the best you can be, you need to be held accountable. And if you’re tired of a coach holding you accountable, you need to hold yourself accountable. That’s how we build this.”
Okay, this one is definitely to be read as: “We’re hunting personalities.”
It’s a dangerous business.
“We need a ways to go. Quite honestly, I think that’s why you need to look at our back end. I think we’ve made some really good progress with our forwards, even away from the puck. I think that’s our next focus. That’s where our kids come in. If you think you’re doing a good enough job, and you’re not, that’s where some other kids need to come in and take an opportunity. I think we made really good inroads as far as what we wanted. But are these the right players to do that? That’s the conversation we need to have.”
Again, I read something that really comes off like a subliminal diss track. This is becoming a common theme. But I also felt like it was a welcome respite where we talked about tangible hockey rather than someone’s personality or miasmatic philosophical concepts.
We need a team whose defense is significantly better at killing opponent’s plays in the defensive zone quicker. We need defensemen who have the ability to put pressure on puck carriers and sabotage passing lanes. It will even provide benefit in an offensive context, since killing the opposing team’s offense makes it way easier to possess the puck… which is how you play offense.
Could this philosophy affect how they draft? Quite possibly. Will it affect who they pursue in free agency? Yes, but to a lesser extent…
“We have to keep developing our kids, and not get distracted by a big name, and veer off course. There’s gonna be a time where that bigger name is out there. There are some smaller free agents who can back fill some specific roles.”
“I wished Cam didn’t get into the medical staff. But then I read on and found out he circled back to talking about it in the proper way. Because these guys have worked their ass off to get this scab right. I want you guys to understand that. We are on the right road. Is it still progressing? Cam was looked after. Is it fixed? It’s not fixed yet. But it’s getting there.”
This read uncomfortably like admonishing Cam Atkinson for not towing the corporate line. Yeesh.