Tortorella's rebuilding program is working

New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella. (April New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella. (April 13, 2010) Photo Credit: Harbus Richard

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football. ...

It's been said too many times to count: You can't rebuild in New York sports.

John Tortorella has heard that and has replied every time: Why not?

"To me, that's the way you build a winner, and for a number of years," Tortorella told Newsday Thursday in a wide-ranging phone conversation. "You don't just want to sneak in there [to the postseason] and get your butt kicked in the first round. You want to build a team that can last. I think that's what we're doing here."

Tortorella said the same things last season, but they fell on deaf ears. He rubbed fans and reporters the wrong way with his occasional abrasiveness - and sometimes downright hostility - to those who wondered why he and Glen Sather were trying to do what no one has here, not even Neil Smith and Mike Keenan in winning a title 17 years ago.

Tortorella was the my-way-or-the-highway coach who couldn't possibly succeed in being patient, not with a GM who'd shown himself during the first five years at the helm to have the itchiest of trigger fingers.

But a funny thing happened this season. The players, the young guys Tortorella yelled at, cajoled and coaxed, started believing. And a few remaining veterans followed or hit the road.

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And the Rangers, at the All-Star break of a season in which a half-dozen of their regulars have been sidelined at times, have developed a reputation for being one of the toughest teams to play against. They lead the NHL in hits and blocked shots. They've gotten a staggering 17 points out of 26 games in which they've trailed after two periods (7-13-3).

The Rangers are everything they've never been, on their way to stealing the Devils' longtime mantle as the hardest-working team in the league. And they've done it Tortorella's way, with even spendthrift Sather buying in by sitting on his hands when trade offers come up or July 1 comes.

"In a salary-cap world, this is how you have to do it," Tortorella said. "It's right in front of you. The [Marc] Staals, the [Dan] Girardis, the [Brandon] Dubinskys, the [Ryan] Callahans, just off the top of my head . . . Brian Boyle, who's played so well . . . Ryan McDonagh and Matt Gilroy and Mike Sauer, who've made huge strides . . . It's a team. They've all contributed."

Nothing's been won yet. With 30 games left, the Rangers are only five points from ninth in the East, where they finished a season ago. Another playoff absence and Tortorella might not be around to see this rebuild, this sea change of the Rangers' culture the last three decades, through to the end. "I've said it all along: If they want to get rid of me, that's their right," he said while also declining to discuss his contract situation. "I just believe in this philosophy."

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There are many kudos to go around, for players such as Dubinsky, who never could get consistent enough with his effort before this season; to the AHL coaches with the Whale, Ken Gernander, J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller, who have contributed immensely to filling in the injury gaps with the Rangers; to Sather, who again turned a terrible free-agent signing into more cap space by dealing Michal Rozsival to the Coyotes for productive wing Wojtek Wolski and seemingly has found a gem in Mats Zuccarello.

There's Gordie Clark, producing hit after hit in the draft the way he did with Mike Milbury and the Isles. Mike Sullivan and Jim Schoenfeld teaching alongside Tortorella, with Sullivan a decent bet to hear from an NHL team or two for a head-coaching vacancy after the season.

It does all come back to Tortorella, though. He came in, he demanded his way and he's gotten it.

You can rebuild in New York after all. The Rangers are laying the blueprint this season.

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Rangers, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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