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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are hitting their stride, and for the first time since 2008 the Vancouver Canucks haven’t a part to play in them. There’s two different ways to look at this: the eternal optimist will point out it’s been a great six years, whereas the pessimist will look to this year’s results as being indicative of an equally long and bleak future.
What they can both agree on is that, in large, this change in the regularly scheduled programming was heralded by the debut campaign of John Tortorella as Vancouver’s new bench boss.
Whether it was a lack of tools with which to work, or general misuse of the ones made available, Tortorella just couldn’t set this ship on the right course. Injuries, of course, played their part, but even the most ardent defender of the much maligned coach couldn’t deny there were systemic issues with how the Canucks played this season. No, I’m not talking “mindset” either.
Look no further than the Canucks best stretch of hockey, marked by a 10-1-2 run in December. Sure, Vancouver was kicking ass and taking names, but the #fancystats told the more analytically inclined follower that this team was headed towards an equally steep decline. The Canucks precipitous drop in score-close Fenwick%, combined with a scary-sharp rise in PDO made it perfectly clear that luck was on the Canucks side more often than not in December.
And I think we all know how the rest of the season wound up playing out. For those who don’t, good on you for dodging one slow-moving, unbearably boring half-season of hockey that can be aptly described as “an unmitigated disaster”.
Mike Gillis eventually paid the piper for the team’s struggles. But it cost John Tortorella his job as well? Or rather, should it cost him his job?
It’s a rather unfair world we live in, and even someone as opposed to Tortorella’s methods as I am has to concede this season provided far from an ideal scenario for him to inherit. The team got no younger in the offseason that preceded his first behind the bench; if anything the core seemed to age quite drastically last summer. Before even getting a chance to impart his (dated and arcane) system and methods, he was sent as part of the Beg Brigade that was charged with convincing Luongo to stick around after dealing Cory Schneider.. an asset the coach wasn’t even able to use.
Essentially, Tortorella was the newly pegged manager to this team’s crumbling Super Market, being asked to first mop up the messes of those above him before eschewing direction to those below him. It makes sense on so few levels.
Looking beyond that though, the most concerning part of last season and the direction this club took, was evident in how they played. Whereas the Canucks developed a highly-efficient, high octane offense for the peak of Alain Vigneault’s tenure, Tortorella wanted blocked-shots, hits and that aforementioned new “mindset”. The Sedin twins had become accustomed to 18-19:00 nights, but spent much of the 2013-14 season in the top-five for ice time in the league. As did Ryan Kesler.
Torts rode his top-dogs to relative success in the earlier parts of the season, but it cost them a fighting chance in the latter half. When the Sedins and Kesler couldn’t carry their pace through 2014, there wasn’t enough depth to pick up the slack.
Which brings us to somewhat of a chicken-egg argument. Do we blame Gillis for putting Tortorella in a position where he had to ice Brad Richardson as a third-line center? Or do we blame Tortorella for this short-sighted approach to what is a very long 82-game season? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, as far as I’m concerned.
Even going as far back as his Stanley Cup victory with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tortorella had a reputation as a coach who rode his superstars. As his career went on, you could add an “into the ground” at the end of that superstars bit.
The most concerning part, however, was Tortorella’s blatant refusal to adapt his system to the available players and the vastly changing landscape of the modern NHL. Whereas his more successful contemporaries, coaches like Mike Babcock, Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock, have adapted their methods to accommodate a league where success is predicated on puck possession, Tortorella continued to stress the aspects of the game that involve not having the puck.
This was made evident on a nightly basis when the Canucks would enter the zone with control of the puck and promptly dump it into the corner. Forget that through a research paper submitted to Sloan Sports Analytics Conference we now know that controlled entries result in nearly twice as many shots as dump-and-chase tactics. Forget that. Look inward to your more pragmatic sensibilities and ask yourself if dump-and-chase hockey is conducive to the Sedins’ skillset?
I don’t usually believe in chemistry, but Tortorella continued to go back to the unforgiving Kevin Bieksa/Alex Edler pairing well, despite the blatantly obvious reality that the two were a hot mess together. Yet this most obvious of facts failed to sink into Tortorella’s “mindset” as they spent most of the year paired up, logging over 475 minutes at even strength. Does he even watch the games?
While we’re on the topic, what on god’s green earth was Torts thinking not sending out Roberto Luongo for the Heritage Classic? Did he not read the papers? Whether it was blatant myopia that led him to make that decision or full-on cognitive dissonance, I will never know. What is perfectly clear at this point, however, is that it wound up being the final blow to Roberto Luongo’s already shattered ego as his agent wound up facilitating a trade less than a week later.
Hard to blame him for moving the match too close to the situations fully-loaded and volatile powder keg, but a large chunk of responsibility has to be sent his way.
When it’s all said and done, John Tortorella is being left behind by a constantly evolving and changing league. Whether that’s with the Canucks or any other team is irrelevant. The days of screaming motivators have since passed for the more systems oriented coach.
But as it relates to this team, Torts was a poor choice to begin with and would be an even worse pick as this team’s steward next season. If the Canucks truly plan to rebrand themselves, placing a new sticker over the product’s old won’t be enough. Tortorella has got to go.