Ryan Callahan – Wikicommons
According to Mike Gillis, the Canucks will be utilizing more young players in the lineup for this season – partly out of necessity (salary cap), and partly because the team has some young players who are primed for NHL duty.
Will Tortorella be able to integrate young players into the lineup better than Alain Vigneault did in his tenure in Vancouver? Was Vigneault “good” or “bad” at coaching young players? He wasn’t a coach who communicated a lot with his players, but there have been numerous head coaches who rely on their assistants for building player relationships.
Let’s take a look at Tortorella’s tenure in New York as a means of comparison.
In his first year behind the bench (2008-09), Tortorella’s Rangers were led in scoring by a 23-year-old Nikolai Zherdev. The team featured a few high-priced free agent veterans, including Markus Naslund, Chris Drury, and Scott Gomez. But it was the young guys who came together to form the identity Tortorella wanted his team to have. This included Ryan Callahan (23), Brandon Dubinsky (22), Dan Girardi (24), and Marc Staal (21).
In his next year behind the bench, that young core was joined by a teenager defenseman (Michael Del Zotto, who was 19). Artem Anisimov (21) played in all 82 games that season for the Rangers. Gone were Naslund and Gomez, while Drury played a diminished role with the team.
In year three (2010-11, Dubinsky and Callahan (now 24 and 25) were 1-2 in scoring for the Rangers. Derek Stepan played in all 82 games at the age of 20. As did 25-year-old Brian Boyle. In fact, New York’s top 10 point-producers in 2010-11 were all under the age of 30.
The Rangers brought in Brad Richards for year four of Tortorella’s tenure. The two had a lot of previous success in Tampa Bay, but Richards didn’t really fit the identity that Tortorella had built on Broadway (and it was pretty apparent). The heart and soul of the team was Callahan and the young core. Joining the team in 2011-12 was 23-year-old Carl Hagelin and 22-year-old Ryan McDonagh. Tortorella continued to rely on young players to play important minutes for his team. Only two players over the age of 30 – Richards (31) and Fedotenko (32) – finished in the top 12 for team scoring.
Obviously you can’t just insert young players into the lineup and expect success. They have to be talented and ready for the rigors of the NHL game. But Tortorella showed in New York that he was able to bring along a young core of players. He was unafraid to give big minutes to young forwards and defensemen.
Vigneault was heavily criticised for the short leash he gave to his young players over the years in Vancouver, including Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder. But what does reality say?
Vigneault took over a veteran team in 2006-07. The Sedins, Bieksa, and Burrows were all 25 years old. Kesler was 22. The rest of the core players were close to or over the age of 30. A 20-year-old Alex Edler played in 22 games that season. The prospect cupboard was pretty bare at the time. (Where art thou, Jesse Schultz?)
Kesler and Burrows each had breakout campaigns in Vigneault’s second season behind the bench. 21-year-old Mason Raymond played in 49 games, and Edler became a mainstay on the back end. No other young players played significant roles with the team that year.
22-year-old Jannik Hansen joined the team in year three – 2008-09. Raymond and Edler continued to be regulars in the lineup. 23-year-old Steve Bernier played a lot too, and somehow found the back of the net 15 times (the Sedin effect).
21-year-old Michael Grabner played 20 games the next season, finishing with 11 points. Some in the market were hoping that he would have had a bigger role, as his speed was a real asset up front. The core was forming, and it included the Sedins, Burrows, Bieksa (all 28), Kesler (25), and Edler (23).
Vigneault, for the most part, had a more veteran roster in his Vancouver tenure than Tortorella did while with the Rangers. But he also didn’t bring in as many young players onto the roster. How much of that is on him, and how much of it is because the Canucks didn’t have as many talented young players in the system?
Is Tortorella better at developing young talent than Vigneault? I’m not sure.
He definitely gave more ice time to young players in New York, but the Rangers were a team with a lot of good young talent when he took over. How much credit goes to the coach for helping talented young hockey players improve? Vigneault took over a veteran team and did help the development of the core players we see today in Vancouver. How much credit should he take? And should he take blame for not giving Schroeder, Grabner, or Hodgson more minutes? Edler has developed into a really good defenseman.
The argument could be made that Vigneault didn’t have the luxury of a stocked prospect cupboard like Tortorella did in New York. But credit does have to go to Tortorella – he turned the Rangers into one of the best teams in the East while getting a lot younger (and cheaper). Year after year he seamlessly integrated very young forwards and defensemen into the lineup. And the Rangers will reap the rewards of this for a few years (provided Glen Sather doesn’t continue to spend his dollars on the open market as if there isn’t a salary cap).
Tortorella has some options this year in Vancouver. Could Bo Horvat become the Callahan of Vancouver? Is 20-year-old Frank Corrado ready for big minutes? How about 22-year-old Zack Kassian? Vigneault gave him time on the top unit, but he didn’t show enough consistency to stay there. I think Tortorella did a really good job of creating "roles" for his young guys in New York.
The Sedins are going to continue to be very good players for a while. But for the Canucks to get back to Stanley Cup contention, they need their young players (Jensen, Horvat, Shinkaruk, Lain, Kassian, Schroeder, Tanev, Corrado) to develop under Tortorella in Vancouver as well as Callahan, Dubinsky, Hagelin, Stepan, McDonagh, Staal, Anisimov, Del Zotto, and Girardi did in New York. A tall task? Most definitely. But Tortorella has shown that he is more than willing to put his trust in inexperienced players.