Five Critical Questions Concerning the John Tortorella Hire

Thomas Drance
June 21 2013 01:42PM

John Tortorella is a pretty unique figure in the professional hockey industry. A taskmaster in an age of coddled multimillionaire professional athletes, and a guy with no time for the media in an age where information travels quickly, and where personal relationships shape coverage (arguably to an undue extent).

With the news breaking on Friday that the Canucks are reportedly close to hiring John Tortorella as their new head coach, there's five big questions that we have about the Tortorella hire. Read on past the jump.

1. How Will Tortorella's Tough Motivational Style Play with a Veteran Club?

Over the past month we've seen several Canucks players go on the record and pour cold water on the notion that this team needs a hard-ass, in the mold of a John Tortorella, to light a fire under their collective asses. Kevin Bieksa, for example:

Also Dale Weise, who started his career in the New York Rangers system, shared a similar sentiment - albeit it one couched in praise for John Tortorella - in a conversation with Jim Jamieson:

“He did a wonderful job when he came into New York. They had a good team, but they didn’t get the extra push from the coach for whatever reason. He came in and changed the culture there. He demands a lot from players. I think you can kind of look around and see that his style is kind of fading out of the coaching. There’s a way to be hard on guys and to push guys, but I think nowadays you’ve got to be a little more of a communicator. You can’t just put guys in the dirt and expect guys to get out of there themselves.”

For some fans, who overreact to things like "the Canucks do yoga after losses," these sorts of statements only cement their deep belief that the Canucks "country club" atmosphere was in need of a shakeup. Those same fans are convinced, based on a few selectively edited episodes of 24/7, that Tortorella is the best man for the job.

That's one side of the coin. But the other is that Tortorella can alienate his charges - just ask Henrik Lundqvist.

CanucksArmy writer Jeff Angus shared on Twitter on Friday that he'd heard from his usually reliable sources (you might remember that Angus was way out ahead of the Malhotra "don't call it a comeback" story in 2011, and on the Schneider > Luongo story in 2012) that the Sedins were pushing for Tortorella to be hired:

That'll come as a surprise, I'm sure, to those who haven't followed the twins very closely over the past decade. Contrary to the reputation they've inherited from lazy, and or xenophobic hockey fans and commentators over the years, the twins are tough players and they want to win. If they thought the team needed a more passionate, challenging head coach, it's certainly not hard to fathom them pushing for the team to hire Tortorella (or a guy like him).

The Sedins after all, will be unrestricted free-agents next summer. So if Angus's sources have this right and the Sedins are fully behind bringing in Tortorella, that would certainly help eliminate some of the "risk" inherent in this particular hire.

2. Did Ownership Drive the Bus on Hiring Tortorella?

There's a plethora of reliable Vancouver media folks who are very publicly asking this question on Twitter today:

In an ideal world you'd rather not deal with ownership interfering with hockey operations, obviously, but that the Aquilini's are "hands on" with the Canucks is nothing new. There's been a lot of scuttlebutt over the years, for example, that ownership was the driving force behind the Roberto Luongo contract. And that worked out just swimmingly for all involved.

If Canucks ownership is deeply involved in hockey decisions of this magnitude, that should probably be some cause for concern for Canucks fans going forward. Then again, if Mike Gillis was adamant that Tortorella was the wrong fit in Vancouver, I doubt ownership would overrule their President and General Manager...

3. Will John Tortorella make the Sedin twins block shots?

When the situation calls for it, sure, but I very much doubt that John Tortorella would use the same systems in Vancouver that he used in New York.

John Tortorella is many things - bad at dealing with the media, rough around the edges, not particularly good at controlling his temper - but he's not an idiot. In Tampa Bay, John Tortorella's teams played a totally different brand of hockey than his teams in New York did. Tortorella will adjust his game plan based on the strengths and weaknesses of his roster (and his opponent's roster) because that's what head coaches do.

Moreover, John Tortorella's deployment patterns actually tend to match Alain Vigneault's rather closely. Here's a player usage chart for Rangers forwards who played more than twenty games last season, and here's one for the Canucks (courtesy somekindofninja.com). They're eerily similar, with the major difference being that Tortorella had more forward depth at his disposal last season than Vigneault did in Vnacouver, so his primary offensive unit was able to deal with modestly softer matchups.

In terms of zone-starts and in terms of specialization, Tortorella's Rangers zone matched two lines (one in the offensive end and one in the defensive end) and then used two lines in a more standard "two-way fashion" last season. That pretty closely echoes Alain Vigneault's modus operandi over the last three seasons.

Despite a glaring lack of forward depth, Tortorella will have a good deal to work with in Vancouver and It'll be fascinating to see what style of hockey a Tortorella coached Canucks team will play. I'd imagine Tortorella will play to the club's strengths which includes generously utilizing the club's plethora of offensively gifted blue-liners, and emphasizing puck possession whenever the twins are on the ice. Or in other words, I'd expect a Tortorella coached Canucks team to have a somewhat different identity than what we saw from his teams in Tampa Bay and New York...

4. Can John Tortorella handle the Vancouver sports media professionally?

John Tortorella has a reputation as a snide, unhelpful bully in his interactions with the media. It's a reputation that's hard-earned, frankly, though I've never covered Tortorella personally (I'm sure that'll change next season).

My preferred type of sports coverage comes from writers who don't need to lean too heavily on quotes from players and coaches anyway. I like it when sports writers know enough about the game they're covering that they can figure some of that stuff out on their own. But it's key for a coach in a passionate marketplace to be communicative with his club's paying customers. Most often that communication takes place through the intermediary of the media.

So yeah, Tortorella is going to have to reign it in, at least somewhat.

5. Can the Vancouver sports media handle John Tortorella professionally?

My least favorite type of sports coverage, by the way, involves writers unnecessarily inserting themselves into a story. I hate that. The worst example I can think of off the top of my head is when Don Brennan wrote an entire column about his penis. Just embarrassing.

Will there be competition between some in the Vancouver hockey media to earn the title of "Vancouver Larry Brooks"? I'd be very surprised if there weren't. Will that competition be distracting, unbecoming and ultimately pointless? Yep.

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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 pemoco
June 21 2013, 06:13PM
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As a Ranger fan, I can say that it became difficult to separate fact from fiction as Tortorella's tenure progressed. He arrived after Sather had 9 years of no success with the mercenary approach to constructing a roster. Under Torts, the organization developed a core from within. Immediately Staal and Girardi were given more responsibility. Players like Callahan, Dubinsky, Korpikoski, Anisimov, Stepan, McDonagh, Del Zotto and Hagelin were given opportunities to establish themsleves. (Jim Schoenfeld and Gord Clarke's contribution not be overlooked,it was a team effort.) There was committed hard-working team that made the mistake of over achieving in 2012 playoffs. Trading for Nash and being made the favorite changed the expectations and the long-term plan was history. Lots of roster turnover and the result was an imbalanced roster with only two real centers, one of who (Richards) was awful all season long. The local writers were always primed to trash Torts, given his winning personality, and there were elements of the fan base who never forgave Torts for getting rid of Avery and who blamed the coach for not matching the money the Habs overpaid to Prust. Despite all this, after the deadline the roster was more balanced and without Staal and Clowe, the NYR finished the season 10-3-1, then beat the hottest team in the league in the first round without and they certainly did better against the Bruins than the Penguins did. The players never quit on the coach. But Sather knows best. The decision to fire Torts was totally his, imo. With the exception of maybe one or two guys, I don't think there was any kind of player rebellion (a story peddled by one local writer in particular, who Tortorella had belittled on a regular basis. Plus Sather himself wouldn't commit to that scenario. Basically it came down to Sather wanting a change and the media more than happy to demonize the coach on his way out of town. The Rangers have won three playoff series in the last two seasons. In the prior decade since Slats rolled into town they only won two.

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#2 NM00
June 21 2013, 02:45PM
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If the Canucks exceed expectations, John Tortorella will be praised for "changing the culture" of the Canucks' "country club atmosphere".

If the Canucks perform below expectations, John Tortorella will be blamed for being too "old school" and for creating "media distractions".

The pre-determined narrative will live on.

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#3 GenoMont@aol.com
June 21 2013, 02:49PM
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I am 85yrs old a former season subscriber at Rangers. John Tortorella was the first Ranger coach I dispiesd I wonder who his Vacouver Sean Avery will be I pity the poor guy. I don't think Torts has cahnged one bit and will no change

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#4 Daniel W.
June 21 2013, 03:01PM
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@NM00

And isn't that what hockey's all about?!

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#5 orcasfan
June 21 2013, 08:34PM
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@pemoco

This! All the negative publicity about Torts has come from the sports media (and their sycophants, like Doug McLean). Most of the so-called sports journalists (including most in the mainstream media in Vancouver!), actually no very little about the game of hockey. All they no about is looking for a "story". So when you see journos criticizing Torts for his "defensive" style, take it with the proverbial pinch!

All good coaches will be fairly adept at instigating the best system that they think will optimize their team's chance of winning. It obviously depends on the roster they have on hand. A successful coach at the NHL level is, by definition, one of the best in their profession. Until we see just what Torts is able to do with this team come September, let's not be dupes for our poor bemoaning local media, and, instead, wait and see how he actually manages!

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#6 Van C. Native
June 22 2013, 12:48AM
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1- Torts is gonna find out how Keenan felt coming into a country club left to him by the coach and GM. Bieksa statement says it all. If Bieksa knows what should be done with the club, why doesnt he retire and go into coaching, the last time I checked, he and his team could not get it done against Boston , so it's safe to say that Bieksa should stick to his expertise, which is inconsistent hockey.

2- You be the ownership had a big say if not the go ahead on Torts hiring. If I owned a club and saw how bad it's been tanked in the gutter by Gillis, I'd make all the big decisions from there on and keep Gillis just a tool for the dirty day to day work before I sack him later.

3- the Sedins better be blocking shots. They already dont kill penalties, hit, fight, shoot outs, they don't want to play on a different team, and they obviously dont show up in the post season. Can we baby the Sedins even more? The C should stand for Captain, not Comfort.

4- You bet Torts will explode sooner or later, the blind media here deserve it.

5- The Van sports media have no clue about winning a championship. They, like many of the fans, are more interested in a pretty loss than an ugly win. I would have prefered Scotty Bowman, but than again, he probably wouldnt want to come here and the Canucks motto for the ages has always been to not hire winners.

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#7 Snrubb
June 22 2013, 01:04AM
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@GenoMont@aol.com

Well, Boston won the cup with Marchand, so there's some merit in having that kind of player. Don't forget that Avery was one sick puppy, a troubled and disturbed human being who's troubles spilled outside of the rink and into his disturbed life. Avery should thank Torts for giving him ice time, otherwise, it wouldn't surprise me to someday hear on the news about Avery running around the streets strip naked and shooting at passing cars. That ( Avery )guy was a defective leaky meat pie waiting to explode in the oven.

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#8 adam
June 22 2013, 06:54AM
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That clip is gold. This website is gold.

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#9 pemoco
June 22 2013, 10:48AM
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@orcasfan

Torts had his hand forced this season as the team changed markedly from the one that had gone to the conference finals. Most of the toughness was gone with Prust, Dubinsky, John Mitchell, Fedetenko and Rupp all leaving and only the disinterested Asham arriving. Plus Dubinsky, Feds, Mitchell, Anisimov, and occasionally Boyle gave a lot of depth and versatility to the third and fourth lines. Was still mostly a three line coach, but this past season it was basically a case where there were only enough quality forwards to have 2 lines. I guess the plan was for Nash-Richards-Gaborik was supposed to be so elite that they'd carry the team. I know he's a national hero and all up there, but Richards was awful this season. If anything he should have been benched earlier but there was no alternative on the roster. Trying to make do with two of Brian Boyle, Darrell Powe or Jeff Halpern to center the third and fourth lines was not a formula for success. Those three combined for 102 GP and 2 goals, both by Boyle. Torts was involved in personnel somewhat, so he can share the responsibility for the roster, but is the only one who gets held accountable. Removing Torts personality from the mix, it was actually a fine job of coaching to get the team as far as it went. But it was a no-win situation for Torts - he played the way that gave the team the best chance of winning, and that was some ugly hockey. If he opened it up NYR never would have made the playoffs, and if the Rangers were out of the playoffs and the Icelanders were in, he definitely would have gotten the boot. If he does get the job in Vancouver, I don't think you will see him try and recreate what he was doing with the Rangers, just like he didn't try to recreate in NY the "Safe is Death" system he had with the Lightening. Torts is no dummy, he will adapt to what he has to work with. Whether he gets a fair shake with the media up there is an unknown, as both sides would need to approach it with a clean slate. Can Torts button it? I don't know. One of the more veteran writers here spoke to him about the way Tom Coughlin changed in his dealings with the media, and although he felt Torts understood intellectually the wisdom of softening his approach, it wasn't a sure thing that he was capable of changing. He definitely dialed it back this season but it seemed that once or twice a month Torts was unable to help himself when asked some inane question. At any rate, he did a great job in a difficult situation and really deserved another season. I think he'll do just fine in Vancouver, probably better than AV will in NY. The only question with Torts is how long it will last.

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#10 orcasfan
June 22 2013, 11:59AM
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@pemoco

Good stuff! Clearly, the guy who should have gotten the boot in NY (long ago) was Sather! He has so often fallen for the big name guys without thinking of team balance. I think Torts (if he makes it) will possibly do better in Vancouver, especially because the top guys are all hard workers, and will give him a chance.

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#11 pemoco
June 22 2013, 03:51PM
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@orcasfan

"Clearly, the guy who should have gotten the boot in NY (long ago) was Sather!"

Understatement of the decade. Other than Lou Lam, who has actually won a few cups since the Internet was invented, what GM gets to hire six coaches without producing squat? Tortorella was clearly the best of the bunch, and what did he get for his efforts? A nice shove in the back at the first sign of trouble. Just the latest in the countless foibles of our resident genius. The height of the stupidity was Sather the GM firing Sather the coach and our local scribes seeing it as some sort of unprecedented move of sports management brilliance. Our owner is a know-nothing dilettante and will never get beyond Sather's rasputin-like hold over him. It's really a sick joke on Ranger fans. Really hope we don't lose Jeff Gorton while we wait for Slats to fade off into the sunset. Anyway, here are some select soundbites from the Sather era:

''I still believe you can't buy a winner." - Glen Sather, 6/1/2000

"I didn't want to be the lowest-paid coach in the league anymore." - Ron Low, 6/12/2000

''It felt like I was talking to myself.'' - Glen Sather on Bryan Trottier's 90-page essay, 6/2/2002

''We're making the playoffs, I don't know how much more I can guarantee it than by doing this myself.'' - Glen Sather on hiring himself as coach, 1/30/2003

''And I'm guaranteeing it, too,'' Jim Dolan on Sather's playoff prediction, 1/30/2003

''I like being around the guys. They work hard, just not all the time." - Glen Sather, 2/25/2004

''We sort of gambled." Glen Sather on drafting Al Montoya 6th overall, 6/26/2004

"It's pretty exciting. We ranked them both as number ones, and we never expected to get both of them." Glen Sather on spending over $86 million on Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, July 1, 2007

"He’s somebody that we had targeted immediately. He was our No. 1 guy on defence. We’re quite happy we’ve got him,” Glen Sather on Wade Redden, July 2008.

"When you sign anybody as a free agent, I've come to expect a little bit of relaxation." - Glen Sather, 6/27/2009

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