Hartnett: What Went Wrong Between Marian Gaborik and John Tortorella?

Sean Hartnett
May 06, 2020 - 1:14 pm
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Expectations were high when Marian Gaborik joined the Rangers in the summer of 2009. Signed to a five-year, $37.5 million contract, the Slovak scorer was under immediate pressure to live up to an expensive price tag.

Gaborik had established himself as one of the league’s most reliable point getters in the NHL, totaling 437 points in 502 regular season games as a member of the Minnesota Wild. General manager Glen Sather was pleased with his latest capture.

“He is an exciting guy to watch play,” Sather said. “He can skate and does a lot of great things. He's a great player and he's young. I certainly think he's in the top 10 in this league.”

The big question was how a speed-based, net-rushing wing like Gaborik would mesh with the defensively-obsessed Tortorella who favors a heavy, physical brand of hockey.

Initially, Gaborik and Tortorella got off to an ideal start. Gaborik began his Rangers career by recording 10 goals and eight assists through his first 12 games with his new club. But it wasn’t long before cracks started to appear in the player-coach relationship.

“Gabby is a legitimate star, but I don’t like the way he plays in big games,” Tortorella said in April 2010.

Tortorella’s lack of trust in the star forward was magnified in the final game of the 2009-10 regular season in a winner-take-all game No. 82 between the Rangers the rival Philadelphia Flyers. A shootout would decide the final playoff spot.

Erik Christensen, P.A. Parenteau and Olli Jokinen were Tortorella’s first three shooters and the Rangers’ hopes of extending their season hinged on Jokinen’s stick. Brian Boucher stopped Jokinen’s effort and the Rangers missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.

 

Tortorella left Gaborik, a 42-goal scorer on the bench. When pressed by reporters for his reasoning for bypassing Gaborik, Tortorella refused to provide an answer.

The deteriorating relationship reached a breaking point days before the 2013 trade deadline. Tortorella had already embarrassed Gaborik by relegating him to the fourth line on his off-hand. A public shaming took place at a road practice in Ottawa, where Tortorella read off his full lines in earshot of the media and proceeded to have a 12-minute on-ice conversation with Gaborik.

Though Gaborik would be traded at the 2013 trade deadline to Columbus, the Tortorella-Gaborik feud rumbled on.

Ahead of the 2013 playoffs, an unprompted Tortorella defended his relationship with Gaborik when asked about the adjustment of the Rangers’ trade deadline acquisitions.

“We ended up getting three or four players that solidified our core, so don't give me any s--- about Gabby as far as our relationship and all that,” Tortorella said. "Because it's wrong and it's unfair to both of us. So, that's where we went. I just thought it solidified our group, and then we took off.

“I just think as you saw after the deadline, I thought it just changed our team a little bit and I know you guys will turn it around and say that we didn't like Gabby, and all you guys talk about the relationship I have with him. Gabby was a hell of a player, and we miss him in all situations.”

As the playoffs progressed, it became clear that Tortorella was losing the dressing room. He made two bizarre decisions during the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Bruins. First, was a harsh criticism of wing Carl Hagelin.

“He stinks on the power play," Tortorella said. “He stinks. I don't know why. I wish I could put him on the power play, but every time I put him on, he stinks.”

“I definitely don’t think I stink on the power play,” Hagelin responded. “That’s the only comment I have on the PP.”

Next came the benching of veteran center and team leader Brad Richards, who previously helped Tortorella win the Stanley Cup during their time together in Tampa Bay.

“He’s a hell of a hockey player that’s having a hell of a time, so I need to make decisions for what I feel is right for a team to win tonight’s game, and that’s why I made that decision,” Tortorella said. “This is a Conn Smythe winner, a guy I’ve grown up with, a guy that I love as a person and a player. But I have to make that decision regarding this. So, kiss my a-- if you want to run something different. It’s not about blaming that guy, and I don’t want anyone to pile on.”

The Rangers were defeated in five games by Boston. Shortly after the announcement, Gaborik reacted to the news on Twitter.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Gaborik tweeted.

 Gaborik would eventually be traded to the Los Angeles Kings. His 22 points in 26 playoff games helped power the Kings to a 2014 Stanley Cup championship over the Rangers, nonetheless. His third period goals in Games 2 and 5 forced overtime in eventual Los Angeles victories, the latter proceeded Alec Martinez’s series-winning goal.

It’s worth pondering what Gaborik could have achieved playing under Tortorella’s replacement, Alain Vigneault. On paper, Vigneault’s fast-paced system would have suited Gaborik’s tendencies. Instead, it was Gaborik who lifted Lord Stanley at the expense of Vigneault’s Rangers.

In the case of Tortorella and Gaborik, it was a clear mismatch. Still, Gaborik was able to record 229 points in 255 regular season games for the Rangers --  and 13 points in 25 postseason games as a Blueshirt. These numbers look all the more impressive through the prism of Tortorella’s offense-sacrificing leanings.

The more recent accomplishments of Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have played a part in obscuring the steady production that Gaborik supplied for the Rangers at the start of the post-Jagr era.

Years have passed since Gaborik’s sudden exit from New York. Time has a way of rewriting an athlete’s perception. Maybe now, Rangers fans can look back fondly on his years at The Garden.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey