I’ve already said my bit about John Tortorella and there isn’t much more to say about his departure. In a nutshell, however, I don’t necessarily think the coaching was what was really holding the Canucks back this most recent season. Percentages played a big part.
That said, coaching also wasn’t the Canucks problem when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Boston and coaching wasn’t the Canucks problem when they exited the playoffs quickly against Los Angeles and San Jose in consecutive years. What I found interesting about the Canucks marketing was how much they built the identity of the team around Torts.
The opening montage video the Canucks played before home games this season received a lot of mixed reviews. If you didn’t go to a game this season, it’s basically a hockey player being forged in some dark room, juxtaposed with a figure—later revealed to be Torts—looking out at a hockey rink. The narrator reaches deep into the bag of narratives to set up how this season is going to be different.
They say our play is like our city. It’s too pretty. They said we’re not hard enough, that our fire doesn’t burn hot enough, that we don’t know gritty.
Catchy, but completely misses the point of what it takes to win hockey games in 2014. I won’t bog you down with the details of seven years of in-depth statistical research, but basically a team that hits, blocks shots and plays opportunistic hockey exclusively will only go as far as a hot goalie takes them, and building a team identity around the “grit” model is just a way of placating the average Joe fan who wants so badly to believe hockey players don’t work as hard as him at his 6-to-6 job in the salt mines.
I don’t quite remember a coach ever taking the spotlight as a coach as much as Torts did in his one year however. The biggest events and controversies this season all seemed to surround him and that isn’t really a good thing. Alain Vigneault was a controversial coach but he never really said anything on the bench, making his adjustments through his assistants and just generally acting as a surveyor. He’s not a strong-enough coach to build a marketing campaign around.
A team’s culture ultimately doesn’t reflect a wins-losses record, but that’s going to be a buzzword brought up at Trevor Linden’s press conferences when he announces the new coach and the new general manager. The reality is that Vancouver doesn’t have a rich hockey tradition, but that did not matter in the slightest when the Sedin twins started winning scoring titles. Like Vigneault, they’re effective players, but not necessarily the kind of strong personalities one can build an entire marketing campaign around. There’s a more quiet, businesslike approach.
The good thing though is that it doesn’t force the team into making moves it doesn’t have to make in an attempt to keep that culture going. “Culture” was a big factor in the Maple Leafs signing David Clarkson, the Bruins trading Tyler Seguin, and the reason why hundreds of Flyers fans are taking to Twitter demanding Paul Holmgren trade Claude Giroux for Shea Weber. I think more than anything, people have tried to force the Bruins link back to the ‘Big Bad Bruins’ of the 1970s more than the Bruins resemble anything close to those teams.
There have been a lot of questions about the Canucks identity since the loss to the Bruins but the best way to act is to avoid working towards that answer, and try and get good players and a good coach. The newest generation of Canuck fans to join the ticket- and merchandise-buying class were born in the mid-to-late 1980s. They’ve seen three successful iterations of the Canucks, and all of them had a different style of play and even wore different uniform colours. There’s no one thing to build around.
(I also wonder, if the questions about this Canucks’ team’s identity will still be around in 2031. The 1994 Canucks were honoured this past season and coach Pat Quinn got a spot in the Ring of Honour for essentially accomplishing the same thing as the Vigneault-era Canucks, but the Vigneault-era Canucks won more games relative to the rest of the league and are objectively better.)
So we’ll see what comes of it. Linden left the Canucks when Mike Gillis showed up so may bias his own views of what it takes to win as being similar to what the Canucks had in 1994. I don’t think that’s the case, and in interest of entertaining hockey, I really hope I’m right. If there’s a model to follow, it’s 2011: surround good players with more good players, and embrace the hate.
At the very least, can Linden petition to bring back the flute song?
ROUND TWO WATCHABILITY INDEX
The Canucks are out, but for your benefit, I’ve ranked each of the four second round series on the pure ‘Watchability’ scale which factors in the quality of the teams and the potential for crazy things to happen. Uniform aesthetics may also play a part.
Best matchup: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
There’s a bit of a conflict in styles. New York’s top goal scorers were cold in the first round against Philadelphia but dominated in possession five-on-five and their depth was able to get the job done. Pittsburgh’s top goal scorers were cold in the first round against Columbus but dominated in possession five-on-five and was able to get the job done.
Still, the Rangers try to get a little more speed from the lower half than the Penguins do, who gravitate towards checking, and don’t have the horses on defence to set up consistent attacks on three-and-four-man rushes. The Penguins get a lot of mileage out of that counter-attacking style.
The overwhelming NBCing of the series, combined with the Penguins awful sweaters (this is widely-accepted now, yes?) will be plenty annoying, but a good possession team was able to unseat the Penguins last year and the Rangers walk in with a strong Corsi rate, and top-of-the-line goal scorers up against Marc-Andre Fleury.
The hook: Maybe, just maybe, we will get to see Jeff Zatkoff start a game after Dan Bylsma just gets too annoyed after answering questions in the post-game about Fleury.
Biggest clash of styles: Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Awful uniform aesthetics: each game is going to be black vs. white. Anaheim has thrived this year thanks to some possibly unsustainable scoring from Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Despite their strong top nine forwards, the Ducks have a pretty pedestrian defence, exacerbated by injuries to Sheldon Souray and Stephane Robidas, and the ancients Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne don’t have much hockey left in them.
Conversely, the Kings are rolling three good lines right now, are a defensive and possession powerhouse and should be considered strong favourites with the best Corsi Close % in the league. Anaheim, unlike the Sharks, have a relatively poor 49.8% rate, which is 15 shot attempts below even, and tied for 14th in the NHL.
The hook: The stats crowd taking one right across the kisser when the Ducks somehow pull off a seventh game win in overtime, and the stats crowd responds by saying “well, it’s all Jonathan Quick’s fault anyway”.
Best history/rivalry/riot potential: Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens
I didn’t want to cheat and put this up at the top just because the first game of the series was such a classic. I didn’t think it would be very close at all, but Montreal skated well with Boston in the first half of the game and then decided “screw it, let Carey take this one” and sent all five skaters to the bench to relax and have a smoke as they watched Price parry wave after wave of Boston scoring chances.
The hook: A Bruins identity crisis when the Habs take both games on the road in Boston, a sufficient amount of overreacting, and then everybody remembering that this is exactly what happened in 2011.
Best uniforms, non interesting series division: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild
At this point, the only result in the second round that would truly shock me is a Minnesota win. I expect this series to be over quickly and efficiently.
The hook: Ilya Bryzgalov versus the Chicago newspaperman juggernaut.