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:
Bieksa on coach search: "I don’t think we need somebody to come in and crack the whip. We can work together toward a common goal." #canucks
— Ben Kuzma (@benkuzma) May 23, 2013
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:
#Canucks core players have been involved in coaching process. From what I have heard, Sedins, in particular, were pushing for Tortorella.
— Jeff Angus (@anguscertified) June 21, 2013
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:
Given Gillis’ stated desire for offence and integration of young players, have to wonder if he or Aquilini is hiring Tortorella.
— Iain MacIntyre (@imacVanSun) June 21, 2013
This hire has Aquilini written all over it….#Canucks
— Brad Ziemer (@BradZiemer) June 21, 2013
MG wants up temp style and Torts is the guy?. Doesn’t make much sense. Wonder how much weight ownership has in the decision. #Canucks
— Dan Murphy (@sportsnetmurph) June 21, 2013
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.