Tortorella and Vigneault Pull Their Teams in Opposite Directions

John Tortorella
John Tortorella (James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)
Though NHL coaches cannot be traded, the swap of Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella is the closest resemblance.    Naturally, the teams will be drawn parallel for at least the entirety of the 2013/14 season.  The New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks are richly talented teams who’ve experienced underwhelming results and both organizations need a fresh start.  And since the two bench-bosses are almost on opposite ends of the coaching spectrum, it will be a fascinating to see which roster can survive the transformation.

On Thursday night, the Rangers and Canucks met for the first time in the pre-season with Vigneault returning to the rink where he won five division titles and two President’s Trophies.  And while the pressure was likely more on Vigneault, facing the Vancouver crowd and reuniting with old staff and friends in the building, Tortorella has experienced an already high degree of scrutiny and doubt.  Can he control his angry outbursts?  Will he have the Sedin twins blocking shots like Ryan Callahan?  Will he be a distraction in a city with a tendency towards self-loathing not unlike Eeyore the manic-depressive donkey of Winnie-the-Pooh fame?

I watched this game to see two teams with a new coat of paint and a renewed sensibility come together for the first time.  It kind of felt like that trip you make to your ex’s house to pick up your stuff after a breakup.  And since that’s not a Reality TV show yet (trademark), the NHL’s version would suffice.  But first, a few more details on the swap and a look at which players might benefit most from a different coach.

Tortorella’s Small Window

Tortorella has already chummed the waters this month with two minor incidents that raised eyebrows.  He made his distaste for Twitter and its effect on team privacy quite clear.  Someone forgot to tell him that his goaltender has become one of the most popular players in the league via his Twitter account and, having done so, Roberto Luongo has said that his persona online helped to provide relief from the circus that was the goaltending musical-chairs act between himself and Cory Schneider. 

Secondly, he reprised his ability to silence the room with his post-game press conferences.  When a cameraman’s cellphone went off while Tortorella was talking, the coach threatened to walk away.  Vancouver may tire of him soon, and he is trying to adjust his approach, but New York Post writer Larry Brooks said he would be disappointed to not see Tortorella lose control with the media during the season.

His most-controversial platform is the notion of having all Canuck players, the Sedins included, blocking shots as a means of team defence.  He also played The Prince & The Pauper on the team plane for the first few road trips (Ok, not a true fact but you see what I’ve done).  And as tricky as it sounds to convince top-flight offence-first players to jump in front of speeding rubber – or grunt work, it’s compounded by the fact that the Sedins are due for one of either a contract extension or a new NHL home starting next July.  Rumours are out there that the Sedins could be a fit in Swedish-friendly Detroit but Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos has also hinted that a contract with Vancouver could be imminent.

Meanwhile, star centre Ryan Kesler, who’s tenth visit to the hospital comes free if he brings the voucher, would likely become the new Ryan Callahan of Vancouver – Tortorella’s captain in New York and most reliable shot-blocker.  Maybe Kesler blocks shots more often in 2013/14 but for some reason I’m reminded of the Simpson’s flashback to the oldest man in Springfield who takes a bullet for the President…after the President has already taken six to the chest.  Kesler needs to remain healthy for this Canucks team to reach the playoffs in a very tough division. Already, the leash on the new coach seems short.

The challenge seems greater and the window smaller for Tortorella than it does for Vigneault in New York.  The Canucks have had a lacklustre pre-season so far and Tortorella is dealing with a sensitive goaltending situation he didn’t have with the Rangers.  Is he the ass-kicker the team needs or will his act run thin with a group who knows by now how good they are?

Vigneault, Lundqvist, and the New Look New York Rangers

Alain Vigneault may be starting the season with less scrutiny than his counterpart (as much as a coach for a sports team in New York can avoid pressure) but nonetheless will have a hand in major turning points for a team that has yet to reach its full potential.
(Icon SMI)
(Icon SMI)
Can he take a battered, defensive squad and inject offensive creativity?  His powerplay units in Vancouver were often at the very top of the NHL.  He will not have the Luongo/Schneider controversy yet he too will have to help convince a superstar and shampoo-commercial actor in Henrik Lundqvist to re-sign with the team (even if you don’t continue reading this article, do yourself a favour and click on that last link).  Lundqvist was none too happy with last year’s results and spoke about his doubts minutes after the team’s final defeat, with some speculating that he had an indirect hand in getting Tortorella fired by general manager Glen Sather.

The Rangers have the offensive tools at hand, which suits Vigneault, though not all have been at their most productive.  Rick Nash looks at first glance to be the biggest benefactor of an offence-first mentality.  His name carries a huge cache but his numbers the past two seasons have not matched up.  The new look could also possibly revive the entirely-revivable Brad Richards.  If Richards and fellow centre Derek Stepan are the one-two punch down the middle, the Rangers will be able to compete, even in the competitive and inappropriately-named Metropolitan Division. 

Which brings me to Stepan.  The young centreman had difficulty coming to terms with the Rangers in a recent contract dispute but has lead the forwards in ice time the last three seasons and has been one of, if not their most, prolific scorers in that same time.  He’s a star on the rise who will have a longer leash in the offensive zone.

But maybe the broad strokes with which I’ve painted these two coaches will have no bearing on the game which I will finally describe to those patient enough to have read this far.

Thursday’s game

The Canucks defeated the Rangers 5-0.  Yep.

Tortorella’s insistence on board-play and puck protection lead to the Canucks possessing the puck for long periods of time in the Rangers’ zone.  The Vancouver powerplay was dominant, creating innumerable chances, while Henrik Sedin scored on his thirty-third birthday.  Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, was the backbone of a convincing victory for Vancouver.

The line that included Kesler and Chris Higgins did most of the board-work below the net and the two seemed comfortable playing that style.  This game was a wash almost from the beginning though New York’s excuse would be that they had been on a road trip that would take them to Vegas that same night in addition to a nine-game road trip to start the season as Madison Square Gardens goes under further renovations.

For those wondering, the first player to shoot the puck into the opponents bench and near his former coach was Ryan McDonagh.

McDonagh actually figures to also benefit greatly from his new coach.  An apparent throw-in in the trade that sent Scott Gomez from New York to Montreal, the defenceman is a star-in-waiting and in Thursday’s game joined the rush several times to help create scoring chances.  Put oft-injured Marc Staal in that category too.  His puck-retrieval skills and vision (whoops!) were outstanding (Staal was the victim of a brutal accident in which his eye was struck by a flying puck).

The hockey focus from this game however should be on one Roberto Luongo.  The goaltender was flawless on the scoresheet but also in the more minute moments of the contest.  He controlled rebounds, let pucks hit him in the chest, and flashed his glove to make two spectacular catching saves.  His game was simple and he calmed a team that is obviously on treacherous footing.  He is notorious for poor performances in October but this is September, I guess, and he was the standout player for both teams.  Lundqvist, meanwhile, was ordinary – bad at times – but that won’t make a Rangers fan second-guess him.  Canucks fans, though, were privy to an encouraging show from an individual who has carried the weight of the hockey world on his back for some time now.

Roberto Luongo in Long Island certainly makes sense. (Icon SMI)
(Icon SMI)
For the moment, the pressure on Tortorella has subsided while Vigneault has to be worried just a little with his team’s weak showing so far in the pre-season.  With that said, neither Callahan nor Stepan have played a game yet due to injury and contract, respectively.
Tortorella and the Canucks are ahead one stride after the first meeting between the two teams.  But very likely they will somehow remain tethered to each other throughout the season.  Both resisting whiplash as they attempt to change course.