A week before the regular season starts – with the Vancouver Canucks hacking along, losing most of their preseason outings – a new-and-improved, or at least calmer, John Tortorella has emerged.
Calm. An adjective that rarely finds itself in the same sentence, paragraph, or even story as the 55-year-old coach.
Tortorella has kept his temper and profanity-spiked spiels completely corked, so the only bits of umbrage sighted have been tiny scraps: a dislike for his players preening on Twitter or an irksome arched eyebrow over an accidental ringing mobile phone at a news conference.
Thursday morning in Vancouver, it was more good feelings ahead of the team’s last preseason game, against the New York Rangers, the team that fired Tortorella last spring, his temper and tenuous relations with players being a factor in the exit.
Preparing his Canucks during a 45-minute morning film session, Tortorella assembled a set of 40 clips, not from the 5-0 loss in San Jose on Tuesday night but instead from the team’s 6-1 victory on Monday night at home against Phoenix. It was praise the positive. Tortorella described the game as the closest the Canucks have come to playing in the spirit of his system, one heavy on puck protection, work on the boards and fore-checking.
Among the plays circled was a clip of rookie Bo Horvat, who, along with Hunter Shinkaruk, looks like he will make the opening-night roster, if only sticking around for several games. Horvat, in the first period against Phoenix, was in his own zone with the puck, shielded it against pressure and pushed it across the ice to a defenceman to start the team’s move out of the zone.
“He’s been awesome,” said Horvat after practice of Tortorella. “He brought the positives out of everything. There was no negativity whatsoever.”
Daniel Sedin reported no news to report.
“I haven’t really seen too much from Tortorella yet,” said Sedin. There’s been no shouting, per se, though the volume on and off the ice is a little bit louder than with Alain Vigneault, fired from Vancouver and returning in an official capacity for the first time this week.
“So far,” said Sedin of his new coach, “it’s been calm.”
It is the result – we will have to see how long it lasts – of an intense introspection, the period during which Tortorella burrowed after being fired and assessed himself, his failings. He rued that he became to be known as “that lunatic.” On Thursday, with Rangers beat reporters seeing the man they had known for several years, many of the same questions were broached. Tortorella parried a question on his feelings of getting fired so swiftly after the playoffs – “I’m not going to get into that. I’m not going to go back to what happened” – and spoke generally of “adjustments” he’s made, basically being kinder/gentler with the veterans.
“Yeah, yeah, I am trying to be a better coach,” Tortorella said.
The team, however, does not look as though it’s about to be any better than it was last year. Some sort of injection seems required among the bottom-six forwards, if general manager Mike Gillis can make something happen in the next several days. The power play remains weak and the Canucks are still figuring out how to play in the style of Tortorella. The result, often, has been confusion on the ice and, against San Jose, numerous odd-man rushes and a 5-0 loss. A lot of “mistakes,” said Tortorella.
It is not yet time for industrial language or bulging veins. After the Rangers game Thursday night, the Canucks have four practices scheduled – Friday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday – before next Thursday’s opening night on the road, in San Jose. The Thursday film session was part of the effort to quickly shape the team in Tortorella’s image.
“We’re trying to instill how we want to play,” the coach said. “It’s not the fighting, it’s not the banging, it’s protecting the puck, it’s sustaining the fore-check.”
Time does run short. The losses start counting a week from now.
“I think we’re getting there. I think they have an understanding,” Tortorella said of his team. “It’s a matter of doing it consistently.”