When general manager Mike Gillis uttered the word “reset” after his team was swept from the first round of last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the logical conclusion was that this year’s version of the Vancouver Canucks would have a profoundly different look.
Well, they do and they don’t.
The roster really hasn’t changed much. The core of this veteran team remains very much intact. There will be a couple of new faces on the third and fourth lines when the Canucks open the season Thursday night in San Jose, maybe a new sixth defenceman and a new starting goaltender who just happens to be the old starting goaltender.
The most significant change was the hiring of new coach John Tortorella, who has been brought in to try to coax more out a team that many feel has underperformed since coming within one game of hoisting the Stanley Cup two years ago.
It’s behind the bench where things are going to be different for the Canucks this season. Really, really different.
In so many ways, Tortorella and former Canuck coach Alain Vigneault are polar opposites.
In the latter half of his highly successful seven-year tenure with the Canucks, Vigneault had more or less turned the dressing room over to his veteran core.
Tortorella is taking it back.
And that seems to be OK with the players, who in the early days of Tortorella’s tenure welcome a new voice and a new approach.
“AV was a calm guy, he didn’t come in and yell that much,” says winger Daniel Sedin. “Early on he did, but the last four or five years he left it up to us players to control the room and I think we did a good job of that.
“John is a more hands-on guy, he is going to come in between periods and after games and if we play bad you are going to hear it and if you play good you are going to hear it, too … It’s more honest, more straightforward.”
The players acknowledge that after two straight first-round playoff exits, perhaps a new approach was needed.
“Alain got us to play like an elite team,” says defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “We have been an elite team for five, six or seven years, division championships, Presidents Trophies, whatever. Alain was responsible for that. Now maybe it’s time for a new era and Torts to come in and get us over the hump there. That is what we are hoping for.”
Fellow defenceman Dan Hamhuis acknowledges the coaching change has been an adjustment.
“Torts is very hands-on with us, I would say,” says Hamhuis. “We watch a lot of tape with purpose. He is always talking to the guys on and off the ice, letting us know what he expects out of us, the purpose of drills. I think it’s great to have that voice.
“I don’t want to be back-handing Alain here at all, but talking very specifically about Torts, he is very involved on the bench during the game and so are the assistants. They are coming down to either end of the bench coaching us, coaching us individually and with our team system, talking about momentum of the game and things like that.
“The game is fast, it changes, it’s tough, there’s momentum surges and that is what you need out of your coach, to help settle the players, coach the players. I like it.”
Tortorella insists he is not here to reinvent the wheel. He recognizes his new team is one that has had considerable success the past few seasons. It’s his job to try to build upon that success and with an aging core group, that has to happen sooner rather than later.
“Well, the biggest challenge for me in this situation is the team has been pretty successful,” Tortorella says. “I don’t want to upend and turn everything upside down. I think there are some good things instilled here. I think it has lost itself a little bit since that (2011) playoff run and as I have said from Day 1, I want us to be a harder team to play against.
“At times during the pre-season I thought we did a really good job of that. Have we done it consistently enough? Not in my mind. That is what we are going to continue to work on, without upsetting the creativity that they do have. And you can have both. So I’d like to combine a little bit of my thought to where this team has really been successful, add to it and maybe we have something.”
It is not only the coach’s persona that has changed for the Canucks. Tortorella has introduced an entirely new system that the players are only just beginning to feel some level of comfort with.
The word the players keep using to describe the system is “aggressive” and it reflects Tortorella’s desire to make the Canucks a harder team to play against. At its most basic level, the new system stresses that when the Canucks lose possession of the puck they work hard to get it back.
It is most noticeable in the offensive zone, where the Canucks will be much more serious about forechecking.
“I think we’re more aggressive, going at guys,” says Daniel Sedin. “AV wanted us to be maybe more secure, come back in the middle, let them come at you instead of us going at them right now and forechecking and creating more turnovers. I think it gets us skating more and we are a good-skating team. So it should be good for us.”
“It’s way more aggressive,” adds fellow winger Alex Burrows. “We used to have different reads with Alain as to when we went on the forecheck. … Now it’s just go, go, go and all three guys are aggressive and all three guys are skating off each other.
“It’s different but at the same time I kind of like it. It creates turnovers and sometimes in the past I felt like we were skating backwards and sometimes it felt like we didn’t generate much because we were just standing still or skating backwards. So now we are moving our legs, we are at least trying to create stuff, getting into races and chasing pucks a little more.”
Tortorella brings to Vancouver more than a little baggage. He has pledged to temper his highly combustible personality when it comes to dealing with his players and the media.
So far, he has lived up to his word. He has been stern but fair with his players and his dealings with the media have been positive.
The real test, of course, figures to come when the Canucks experience their first losing streak.
Tortorella, who led Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup in 2004 and was fired last spring after four-plus seasons with the New York Rangers, is just happy to have another chance. Apart from the frustration of having to deal with the Massey Tunnel on his daily commute from his Point Roberts home, he’s loving his new life on the West Coast.
“I didn’t want to lose my job, but I am the fortunate one to have a great opportunity like this after that,” he says. “I am glad we are winding this down and we have our numbers and focusing on the season.”
He knows expectations in this hockey-crazed city are sky-high and that the ultimate success or failure of the team will likely be rested squarely on his shoulders.
“It is part of the reason it appealed to me because there are a tremendous amount of expectations,” he says. “I think that is going to be a huge part of how we handle ourselves as a team, to handle those expectations the proper way … it’s a tremendous challenge. But I am right where I want to be.”