Tortorella Players: 3 Canucks who have benefited from the coaching change

Thomas Drance
December 11 2013 01:20PM

The Vancouver Canucks have won six of their last seven games, they boast the league's best penalty-kill, and their controversial bench boss has been even keeled (mostly) while earning praise for his handling of the media. The John Tortorella era is off to about as good a start as anyone could've reasonably expected, well, except for the nihilist disaster fetishists waiting impatiently for Tortorella to go Vesuvius on the local press.

It has been a redemptive fall for Tortorella in some ways, especially with his old team the New York Rangers already in the "players only meeting" stage. If the Canucks as a whole are benefitting from the impact of a coaching change, and they seem to be, then we figured it might be worth our time to take a closer look at three players on Vancouver's roster who have particularly benefited from the Tortorella hire.

A quick note before we get started. The ultimate "Tortorella player" is probably Mike Santorelli, but he wasn't on the team last year and so I've excluded him for the purposes of this blog post. 

Chris Tanev

 
Tanev prevents power-play shots by any means necessary.
.gif via theScore

Somehow when the discussion this summer turned to "which Canucks players will breakout or chafe under Tortorella," Chris Tanev's name never came up. It seems surprising in retrospect, of course Tortorella would have a particular appreciation for an unassuming, hyper-efficient, shutdown puck-mover like Tanev. 

Tortorella has spoken repeatedly about how Tanev's play stood out to him when he was studying up on Canucks game tape this offseason. ”I have a whole different respect for him, watching him live and being with him and how he handles himself from shift to shift," Tortorella said of Tanev this past weekend.

"He doesn’t say ‘boo,’ is ready to go, blocks shots, has learned to have a really good stick,” the Canucks head coach continued.  Tortorella's comments won't come as much of a surprise to Canucks fans (or Canucks Army readers) who've long appreciated that Tanev is an excellent shot-blocker, has a good stick, and in't a ghost.

Tanev started the season in a role very similar to the one he occupied a year ago under Alain Vigneault: he was a third-pairing defenseman and occassional penalty-killer. Tanev only played more than 17 minutes one time in the first five games of this season, and that was during a comfortable Canucks win over Calgary in the second of back-to-back games. 

But Tanev's steadiness, situational awareness, and defensive reliability have clearly caught the attention of Vancouver's coaching staff, and  his role has expanded enormously as this season has played itself out. Tanev's minutes have particularly spiked over the past two weeks as the young Canucks defenseman has played more than 20 minutes in six of Vancouver's past seven games (all of them victories). 

The emergence of  Tanev as a top-pairing defenseman seems significant, but his spiking ice-time only hints at the seachange in his deployment. Tanev, after all, played more minutes than a typical third-pairing defenseman last season as Canucks coaches (and Rick Bowness in particular, presumably) carefully metered the ice-time logged by Vancouver's "top-four". While Tanev may have chewed up a good deal of ice-time last year, he did it all against bottom-six competition. 

That isn't the case this year though. Tanev is consistently tasked with shutting down the league's best for really the first time in his young NHL career. Tanev is facing the toughest competition among all Canucks defenseman according to Behindthenet.ca's shot metric based "quality of competition" (QoC) estimate, and the second toughest matchups behind only Dan Hamhuis according to extraskater.com's time-on-ice based QoC metric. He's still coming out ahead too...

Tanev is also leading all Canucks defenseman in short-handed icetime this season. I'll have more breaking down Vancouver's league leading penalty-kill for you later this week (or early this week depending on when I finish the video work), but let's just say that it might not be a coincidence that Tanev's taking on a primary penalty-killing role has coincided with the metamorphisis of Vancouver's 4-on-5 play, which has become super-elite under Tortorella and Mike Sullivan.

I'll put it this way for now: Chris Tanev has spent nearly 79 mintes on the ice in 4-on-5 situations this season. In those roughly 79 minutes Vancouver's goal differential, in 4-on-5 situations I'd remind you, is even. Yep. Even.

Chris Higgins


This is Tanev's goal, but Higgins' work along the wall and deft pass out of the slot creates the opportunity.

The following is a list of NHL regulars who are generating even-strength shots on goal at a higher rate than Chris Higgins is this season: Alex Ovechkin, Marian Hossa, Evander Kane, Jamie Benn. That's it, which is pretty amazing really.

When Vancouver extended Chris Higgins last Spring, management referred to him repeatedly as a "seventh forward"; an excellent third-liner with the ability to play up the lineup if necessary. Well Higgins has been more like a fourth forward for Tortorella so far this season, and his production and play has been consistent with what you'd expect from an excellent top-six winger.

At the moment Chris Higgins is on pace for 20 goals despite converting on shots at a rate 25% below his career average. He's also on pace for 47 points despite carrying a very normal 7.8% on-ice shooting rate at evens. In other words: the secondary scoring punch Higgins is providing appears to be very much sustainable, in fact, we might reasonably expect his goal scoring rate to increase if he continues to generate the shot volume he has so far this season.

Tortorella and Higgins are an interesting case. Higgins played for Tortorella in New York, but was injured and snakebit and ultimately trade fodder at the deadline. But Tortorella reached out to Higgins after the trade, and was sufficiently impressed by Higgins' performance that he told him that he hoped their paths would cross again. Higgins meanwhile has credited Tortorella with helping him through a difficult time in his career when he was briefly a New York Ranger. 

Now that their hockey paths have crossed again in Vancouver, Tortorella is riding Higgins and the American-born forward has become a mainstay in Vancouver's top-six. Higgins' burn is way up and he's playing almost two-and-a-half additional minutes per game this season. Some of that is a result of Higgins' power-play ice-time being doubled this season over last, but most of the bump is at even-strength. 

There's no doubt that Higgins is earning that extra time, as he's been one of Vancouver's most reliable forwards in all three-zones. The Canucks have a 60% share of shots on goal with Higgins on the ice at five-on-five this season, and are controlling a higher percentage of shot attempts with HIggins on the ice than they are with any other skater besides Henrik Sedin. Across the board Higgins' underlying numbers have bounced back in a major way after they were uncharacteristically underwhelming a season ago.

Basically there's no forward in Vancouver who has benefitted more from the Tortorella hire than Higgins, well except for maybe...

Ryan Kesler 


Photo via wikimedia commons

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the Tortorella-hire has had as much of an impact on Kesler's return to form as, say, his return to full health after a multitude of injuries over the past couple of years. Still, Kesler's having his best season in a long-time, and Tortorella's heavy and flexible usage of Vancouver's two-way ace is certainly a part of the correlation of factors causing it.

The slamdunk American Olympian is leading all Canucks forwards in ice-time this season. His special teams minutes are virtually unchanged from what they were under Vigneault, but Kesler is playing over three-minutes more at even-strength per game. He's also bouncing around the lineup and has spent time playing his natural centre position, while also getting some looks on the wing with the Sedin twins. 

Kesler's most common line-mate has been Chris Higgins this season, and they've done pretty well together while dueling the opposition's best forward line on most nights. When Kesler has played with Henrik Sedin at even-strength (roughly 220 minutes), however, that line has totally crushed the opposition. The twins and Kesler have outscored opponents two-to-one when skating together, and have controlled 57% of shot attempts. It's a look that arguably makes the Canucks a bit too top-heavy, but it's a good wrinkle to keep in the toolbox (especially if the Canucks can add another centre at the trade deadline). 

Under Tortorella, Kesler has also dealt with a reduced workload in terms of defensive-zone starts. His "O-zone start rate" is back over 50% for the first time since his 40 goal season, and lo and behold, the former Selke winner is well on his way to his second career 30 goal season.

He's also converting at a rate that's eerily similar to his career average, so his gaudy goal totals in the early going certainly appear sustainable. Actually Kesler's goal scoring production this season, while impressive, might undervalue his actual offensive contributions.

For example, Kesler has capitalized on 19% of his 5-on-4 shots on goal since 2008-09 (45 goals on 237 total shots). This season he's managed just two goals in 5-on-4 situations despite having taken a hearty 38 shots with the man-advantage. That number will regress, and looking at it, I have to think Kesler has a very serious shot at hitting 40 goals again this season, especially if the Canucks power-play has legitimately turned the corner...

Stats in this piece drawn from nhl.com, stats.hockeyanalysis.com, extraskater.com, and behindthenet.ca. Videos courtesy CanucksTV.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 GeezMoney
December 11 2013, 01:39PM
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Totally a non-sequitur thought, but I am going to have a real hard time when Kesler lines up for the Americans against Jonathan Toews. I root all year for Kesler to shut down Toews and now because of a flag I'm supposed to switch allegiances? It's truly anguishing.

Oh, and, yeah, Torts is doing wonders for some players.

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#2 Peachy
December 11 2013, 02:29PM
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Rocking article.

Regarding Tanev, how's he doing in terms of SA / 60 at 4v5 relative to other blueliners (on the Canucks and otherwise)? In other words, how sustainable is the awesomeness we're seeing from him?

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#4 van
December 11 2013, 03:08PM
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So, that one year contract for Tanev? How much for his next contract?

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#6 Skyone
December 11 2013, 03:54PM
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I thought Bieksa was gonna be on this list as he seems to be Torts #1 fave dman.

Juice is back into his fiery self and seems fully rejuvenated!

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#8 Beantown Canuck
December 11 2013, 05:27PM
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@Thomas Drance

Now how does he compare against all D-men league-wide with 50+ min played 4on5?

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#9 NM00
December 11 2013, 06:36PM
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Which 3 Canucks have suffered the most from Tortorella's coaching?

Surely there must be at least 3 players considering the Canucks aren't doing any better under Tortorella than they were under AV...

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#10 Neil B
December 11 2013, 08:07PM
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NM00 wrote:

Which 3 Canucks have suffered the most from Tortorella's coaching?

Surely there must be at least 3 players considering the Canucks aren't doing any better under Tortorella than they were under AV...

Early on, I'd have definitely said Hamhuis; but he seems to have gotten it together.

Definitely Alberts (didn't Torts say something like "his play scares me"?). Weise; possibly Kassian (although the book is far from written on him yet). One could make a case for Burrows & Booth; but injuries may be the story there.

So Alberts and Weise, definitely, and arguably one of Booth, Burr, or Kassian.

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#12 Frank
December 11 2013, 10:54PM
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Thomas Drance wrote:

@NM00 I'd probably go Kassian, Hansen, Edler

Edler has been off his game the last 2 years...

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#13 Ruprecht
December 11 2013, 11:27PM
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NM00 wrote:

Which 3 Canucks have suffered the most from Tortorella's coaching?

Surely there must be at least 3 players considering the Canucks aren't doing any better under Tortorella than they were under AV...

I've got Corrado for obvious reasons.

Lu just for the growing pains he had to go through with the changes to the defensive schemes.

Hansen, for whatever odd reason, but I can't see that lasting for long.

Who do you have?

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#14 PB
December 12 2013, 09:19AM
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@Thomas Drance

How has Edler suffered? His play has been inconsistent but he's still averaging the highest TOI of any player on the Canucks.

Hansen definitely, Kassian is only slightly less used than last year no? And with the same in-and-outs of the lineup. Alberts playing last year was more a result of not having Stanton so not sure he's suffering from Tortorella's reign in particular.

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#15 5minutesinthebox
December 12 2013, 09:33AM
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Thomas Drance wrote:

@NM00 I'd probably go Kassian, Hansen, Edler

Definitely these 3, and throw in Alberts for good measure.

Torts feels for Alberts though at least, having said as much during a presser. Alberts is far better than people think, its just he has an extremely tough roll when he is put out there. No regular partner, and no game time. When Alberts is comfortable he can be a wrecking ball out there (he has lead the Canucks in hits per 60 min by a large margin in almost all of his seasons here) and a physicality the Canucks surely lack. But when he gets out there now he is just concerned about not making a mistake.

Kassian is being kept on a very short leash (as he should be) and has struggled on most nights. With the Canucks fighting to stay in contention Im not sure Torts has much of a choice. The margin for error just isnt there.

Hansen has been probably my favorite Canuck since he got the call in the playoffs not so long ago. He has had a tough season with the injury, but you can see he is finding his form again. My people are writing him off as trade bait (which I wouldnt be opposed to if it was a package for a legit top 6) but Im not sure the value will come back for what he brings if he can return to his previous form. That kind of tenacity mixed with his speed is not something you find in many players.

Edler is starting to show that he is in fact expendable to this team, and would be the exact chip needed to bring back a top 6 forward. I have always been a fan of that rocket of a shot, and his physical play (which unfortunately has all but disappeared) but his defensive blunders have been more noticable than ever, and he seems to be struggling under Torts system.

With the new Cap ceiling at a proposed 70 mill + and only a couple of notable players needing to be signed, the Canucks are actually in very good shape to be big spenders in the off season. Ridding themselves off Booths contract ( I actually think it may happen through trade as opposed to buy out as he will be in the final year of his contract and that should attract some teams looking for the floor without the long term deal) will leave them with more than enough to find a top 6 player.

The Blues and Sharks (as an example) will be in tough to keep there core together even with the increase in Cap. Way too many players to sign and many will be looking for hefty raises, meaning there will be some quality players hitting the market this summer.

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#16 NM00
December 12 2013, 10:17AM
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@Thomas Drance

It was a rhetorical question...

To use Kassian as an example, would he be any higher on the winger depth chart under AV?

He might...but I doubt it would be BECAUSE of AV.

To use Tanev as another example, I'll agree that he may very well be benefitting from Torts' D deployment in terms of increased ice time/responsibility.

At the same time, this is his first full season as an NHL regular (second if you want to count last year's lockout-shortened season).

He could have been the same player under AV if one of the core 4 defenseman had been traded.

I can get behind the idea of a usage change under new middle management.

However, Tortorella sprinkling fairy dust on the team probably isn't the explainer...

I'd argue the main difference is the centre depth with which Tortorella has to work.

"If the Canucks as a whole are benefitting from the impact of a coaching change, and they seem to be, then we figured it might be worth our time to take a closer look at three players on Vancouver's roster who have particularly benefited from the Tortorella hire."

If we're going to attribute the aggressiveness with which the Canucks play while holding a lead to Torts, do we also attribute the declining FenTied to him?

If the Canucks miss the playoffs entirely, is it because Torts did not push the correct buttons?

I doubt it...

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#17 James M
December 12 2013, 11:03AM
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Great article once again. Thanks Thomas Drance.

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#18 Brent
December 12 2013, 01:14PM
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Frank wrote:

Edler has been off his game the last 2 years...

Sorry meant to reply to Thomas Drance Not sure I would agree. Kassian would have been on a short lease with AV based on his defensive lapses, but would he have been a healthy scratch? Maybe not. Hansen has had opportunity to be on the top line. Edler gets lots of minutes. I would say Weise until recently, has suffered, as the 4th line gets so few min's. Booth as well, getting sent down, and then all the healthy scratches. I suspect he would have had way more leash with AV.

Speaking of doing well, what about Sestito. Sure he isn't getting many minutes but I mean why does he even get to play? I would argue Archibald is a much better option.

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#19 Brent
December 12 2013, 01:17PM
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Thomas Drance wrote:

@NM00 I'd probably go Kassian, Hansen, Edler

Not sure I would agree. Kassian would have been on a short lease with AV based on his defensive lapses, but would he have been a healthy scratch? Maybe not. Hansen has had opportunity to be on the top line. Edler gets lots of minutes. I would say Weise until recently, has suffered, as the 4th line gets so few min's. Booth as well, getting sent down, and then all the healthy scratches. I suspect he would have had way more leash with AV.

Speaking of doing well, what about Sestito. Not as high profile and sure he isn't getting many minutes but I mean why does he even get to play? I would argue Archibald is a much better option.

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