John Tortorella had better be one hell of a coach. Otherwise, it’s hard to see how the Vancouver Canucks will be any better this year than they were last season. And you remember last season: it ended with a sickening thud.
As the most significant change to a franchise that was swept from the opening round of the National Hockey League playoffs last spring, the 55-year-old Boston native inherits basically the same lineup that was unable to post a single victory when it mattered most.
So, as the new season starts and Tortorella oversees his first training camp with the Canucks starting on September 12, it’s up to the new coach with a new voice and a new approach to somehow squeeze different results out of the same old faces.
Oh, sure, Cory Schneider was peddled over the summer—so it’s not all of the old faces—but for the most part the Vancouver Canucks are going to try for success in a new and tougher division under NHL realignment with the cast and crew that failed to deliver the past couple of seasons.
And that’s why it falls to the new coach to begin pushing the right buttons immediately. In the 44 years the Canucks have been in existence, there may never have been so many questions about so many players heading into a season.
Those questions start in goal, but they run much deeper than the never-ending Roberto Luongo drama. For the last two seasons, the Canucks had the luxury of what was arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL, and it didn’t matter whether it was Luongo or Schneider in net; either guy was capable of giving the Canucks an edge in the most important position on the ice. They no longer have that security blanket behind their starter, as Eddie Lack comes off a season lost to hip surgery and without an NHL appearance on his résumé. And he’s the front-runner to be Luongo’s backup. If not Lack, another Swedish rookie who’s never played in the NHL, Joacim Eriksson, will land the roster spot.
In a year in which Luongo is likely to play often and possibly add representing Canada at the Sochi Olympics to his workload, the Canucks are going to need someone who’s not just capable of playing but able to produce wins when the starter has the night off. And with 13 of their first 20 games on the road, the Canucks are likely to lean on Luongo or be forced to find out early in the schedule whether or not they have NHL-calibre netminding behind him.
The goaltending situation is murkier than it’s been in years, and so, too, is the outlook for a number of Canucks forwards.
The team showed enough faith in its core up front—Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows—to leave that group untouched during the off-season. It’s a risk, considering the quartet didn’t make much happen in the playoffs. It shouldn’t take long to see if Tortorella can coax more offence out of that group. Those four remain the offensive engine of the hockey club, but it’s a group in need of a tune-up, especially in key situations with games on the line.
Tortorella’s bigger challenges will be turning David Booth and Zack Kassian into players who can make a difference. Both have underwhelmed in parts of two seasons in Canucks colours, and that simply can’t continue if this team is to reach the levels it believes are possible. Once a 31-goal scorer, Booth has lost his way offensively, and Kassian has yet to show more than brief flashes of the form that had scouts drooling during the power forward’s 2009 draft year.
They are different players who will likely need to be handled differently, but Tortorella has to find a way to get the best out of both of them. Neither can go weeks without contributing offensively, as they have in the past.
On the day he was introduced to the Vancouver media, Tortorella spoke at length about the style he hopes to employ here, and he used words like bite and stiffness to describe his intention to inject a physical element into the bottom-six forward group. He’s going to need Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, and free agent Brad Richardson to be relentless in their pursuit of the puck and show an ability to do something with it once they’ve got it in their possession.
And he’s going to need players like Dale Weise and Tom Sestito to leave a mark on their opponents every time they get a chance to finish a check.
To round out his forward group, Tortorella will have to choose from an assortment of fringe free-agent acquisitions with little NHL experience, or he’ll have to find a promising prospect he feels is ready for prime time. The one area that shouldn’t be a huge concern for the new coach is defence, where the Canucks have a solid stable of veterans—perhaps lacking a superstar—with depth from top to bottom. However, as with many of his forwards, Tortorella needs to find a way to get through to Alex Edler and get him to live up to his sizable potential.
As it stands, almost all of the faces returning for this season are familiar to Canucks fans. But results that resemble anything close to the past two playoff appearances won’t cut it in a hockey market like this one—that’s why the coaching change was made. And now we’re all about to see what difference one man can make to a hockey club at a crossroads.
The Vancouver Canucks are banking on it being a huge one.