Maybe it was doomed from the beginning.
He brought both pros and cons with him to Vancouver: a Stanley Cup ring, a Calder Cup win, and an Olympic silver medal, but also a harrowing reputation, especially when it comes to the ways he communicates with the media.
The removal of Alain Vigneault and the hiring of John Tortorella as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks on June 25, 2013, was somewhat promising. If anything, it assured change, something the Canucks have needed as they have struggled to succeed ever since their trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011.
“After seven years of Vigneault, changing the coach-player dynamic in Vancouver is not a bad thing unless Gillis hires the wrong guy to replace him,” Iain MacIntyre wrote in the Vancouver Sun after the firing of Vigneault. Unfortunately the replacement was, as Cam Cole writes, “a chemistry experiment gone awry.” So on May 1st, the Canucks fired Tortorella after just one year as head coach.
With the players that make up the Canucks, would hiring Tortorella ever have worked?
“I think our team is set up to play a certain way,” said president Trevor Linden in a press conference on Thursday. Tortorella’s coaching style and philosophy have obviously worked for some teams – for example, he coached the Tampa Bay Lightening to their only Stanley Cup in 2003-04 and was presented the Jack Adams award for that season. However, something about Tortorella does not fit with they way that Linden believes the Canucks are set up to play, which Linden describes as being characterized by the defence and “their ability to have the puck and move the puck.”
From Tortorella’s point of view, the first 40 games of the season really were not that bad. The Canucks were 23-11-6 through 40 games, which included a seven game winning streak in December, and were playing with an aggressive style that Tortorella felt the Canucks needed.
“I think the confrontations, the battles, is something that we need to improve at,” Tortorella told canucks.com at the beginning of the season. Initial practices involved a lot of physicality and for a while the Canucks had one of the best and most aggressive penalty kills in the NHL. Ever since the Boston Bruins pushed the Canucks around in the Stanley Cup Finals there has been a call for the Canucks to toughen up, and Tortorella was thought to possibly fix that.
According to Tortorella, the turning points that sent it all downhill were the California road trip on which the Canucks lost 1-0 to LA and then 9-1 to Anaheim, as well as the many injuries that occurred.
“We got banged up with some key guys and we just could not absorb those injuries and it eroded our hockey club,” Tortorella told CBC on April 13th. “But that falls on me in where I needed to get our team back. We changed our style a little bit, we had to be a little conservative with all the injuries but I didn’t get my team back to that aggressive style of our first 40 games.”
In his interview with CBC, Tortorella talked a lot about style of play, something that he thinks a lot of people do not understand.
“We’re not telling the Sedins to dump it in and go forecheck and bang around, we want plays off the rush, we want to be offensive,” he said. “We have to make the right decisions as we go through that neutral zone. But you do have to have some grind in your game. If you’re going to play an 82 game schedule and you’re going to go through rounds of playoffs to try to get where you want to be, it’s a hybrid.”
The hybrid style of play that Tortorella describes, with a combination of offence and physicality, sounds great – but the Canucks were unable to utilize or implement that style of play. They struggled with scoring goals, especially in the second half of the season, and even when they stood up for themselves physically, as in their 1-0 loss to LA in January, they came away empty handed. It sounds like Tortorella had a vision for what this team could do, but everyone watching the games throughout the season know that that vision never really came to life.
And then of course, there are the Sedins, who are leaders on the team and two of the best players to ever put on a Canucks jersey. At the beginning of the season Tortorella talked about playing the Sedins on the penalty kill and getting them to play a more two-way role. He also gave them more ice time than they ever received under Alain Vigneault. All of these changes or additions to their roles on the team led to questions of whether or not the Sedins were being mishandled. Does putting the Sedins in these different situations make them successful? Is that really what the Canucks needed?
One of the biggest differences in the styles of Vigneault and Tortorella is the way in which they communicate with players. Vigneault put some distance between himself and the players and left a lot of the dressing room communication to the Canucks’ core group of leaders. Tortorella on the other hand told canucks.com outright upon his arrival in Vancouver that “my job as a head coach of a hockey team is to push athletes to be the best they can be, to push them to areas where they don’t think they can get, that’s my job and I’m going to do that.”
Linden, the new Canucks president, is familiar with the club and many of the core players and at his press conference mentioned communication methods..
Linden told canucks.com that the coach that he wants and thinks the Canucks need to succeed is “able to communicate well with his players on many levels and understands players need to be communicated with differently for the different type of personalities you come upon.” Both Vigneault’s and Tortorella’s communication methods likely work for some players, but definitely not all, and that seems to be something that Linden wants to address.
As always, not all the blame can be put on the coach. There are many other factors that need to be changed in order for the Canucks to succeed. The injuries and scoring droughts really hurt the Canucks this season, so more depth is needed so that they do not spiral downwards when injuries and scoring droughts do happen. But with the firing of GM Mike Gillis and the hiring of president Trevor Linden, Tortorella no longer fits into the picture, if he ever did.
“I think you’re coaching the wrong way if you’re trying to save your job,” Tortorella told CBC near the end of the season. “I’m coaching this hockey team tomorrow night right to the bitter end, the way I think it should be coached.” Unfortunately, that way is not what the Canucks need.