Happy 55th birthday, John Tortorella. Older, yes; wiser, maybe; gentler, well, that is to be seen.
When Tortorella was first interviewed by the Vancouver Canucks, two weeks ago, it seemed like a crazy ruse, more along the lines of team president/general manager Mike Gillis interviewing everyone available – as he said he would – rather than the fired firebrand being a true contender for the role. On first glance, to most observers, Tortorella looked like a terrible fit for Vancouver – which a number of people still maintain.
But on closer inspection, and reflection, Tortorella – who turned 55 on Monday – may bring exactly the required elements to a hockey team that has badly underperformed in the playoffs two consecutive seasons. The team owner, billionaire Francesco Aquilini, and Gillis, obviously think this is the case for the man they’ve handed the reins, a hiring expected to be made official at an 1 p.m. PT press conference at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Tuesday.
Much of the sound and fury surrounding Tortorella is, at least to an extent, hyperbole, a YouTube pastiche of various explosions over a decade that when strung together paint the caricature of an angry man. Bark angrily, or curse, at someone once a month and, on YouTube, it seems like it happens every day. His appearance on HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic in 2011-12 certainly bolstered his foul-mouthed, smoke-spewing-out-of-his-ears legend, particularly a scene of his repeatedly cursing at his players in the locker room.
Tortorella, in one way, is painted as an outsized character because relative to his peers – the even-keeled Alain Vigneault, say – he is an outlier. Coaches in the National Hockey League are not unlike most of the players: boring. It’s a cold game, in the words of a thoughtful essay last year, and it does not pay to be colourful.
So a guy like Tortorella stands out much more so than he would otherwise.
Yes, he is bombastic. And, yes, he values shot blocking. But are they his defining characteristics? They are the headlines – but there is nuance, too. Also, men, and hockey coaches, adapt, as situations change, as they get older, learning from the past. And do not discount a surprise firing – like his ejection from New York less than a month ago – to spur a person to pause, to reflect, and recalibrate.
Media relations seem to be a focal point of the perceived fit in Vancouver – though whether media relations is a truly important measure is highly debatable. Gillis last Friday afternoon, speaking on Team 1040, the team’s radio broadcaster, acknowledged that a reasonable temperament in a market such as Vancouver is important, “where we’re under a microscope all the time.” Moving to New York from Tampa Bay, for Tortorella, was one thing. Vancouver is quite another, where the Canucks dominate attention, a world away from the Rangers, a second-tier name in their city, and not even close to being the biggest team in their own building.
Because of intense nature of the Vancouver market, playing nice(r) with reporters is, presumably, a condition to which Tortorella agreed, given that he faced unemployment for the 2013-14 season. Further, being a loudmouth coach with reporters shouldn't be totally discounted as some sort of evil. Tortorella isn’t just a blowhard. He thinks about his players. It’s not unlike retired Canadian Football League legend Don Matthews, whose bombast with reporters was appreciated by his players.
“He was so loud and obnoxious to everybody else, that he made himself the target,” Doug Flutie told The Globe last year of playing for Matthews. “The players, we would just sit back and relax. If you played against Don, you couldn’t stand him, but if he was your coach, you absolutely loved him.”
Then there is Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goalie who was widely believed to be among the malcontents whose upset with Tortorella led to the coach’s firing. But last week, Lundqvist insisted it was not true and instead praised the deposed bench boss: “Torts and I had a great relationship. It was exciting and refreshing to play for him. I never had a coach challenge me the way he did, in a good way.”
On the ice, Tortorella is more recently known for the defensive shell strategy – backed by arguably the best goaltender in hockey – and the plan, of course, features blocked shots. The nuance here is it was part of the ethos, but not the singular ethos, as the Rangers ranked 6th (2012-13), 4th and 4th, over the past three seasons, compared with Vancouver at 27th, 27th and 25th, according to numbers on NHL.com. The gap in rank looks like a huge difference – but it’s not really massive. The Rangers in the past three years blocked 16.1 shots a game, compared with the Canucks’s 12.5. It’s basically one more blocked shot per period, or, in time, the Rangers blocking a shot every four minutes, and the Canucks blocking one every five.
Then there’s goal scoring. It is true the Rangers, even with the addition of Rick Nash, weren’t a squad of remarkable firepower but it is fact New York outscored Vancouver this past season. And back in Tampa Bay in 2004, when Tortorella coached the team to the Stanley Cup, the team won the Eastern Conference, was ranked third in goal scoring, and only 17th in blocked shots with 11.2 a game, less than Vigneault’s Canucks.
Returning to this past season in New York, Tortorella had a strong possession-positive team – which generally correlates with success. On the Fenwick gauge, a measure of shots taken (on net and missed but excluding blocked pucks) compared with shots ceded, New York was in the top quarter of the league, and ahead of Vancouver – though in the previous two years New York was in the league’s middle third, and behind Vancovuer.
Tortorella may be old school, in his belief that some shouting can stir young millionaires to action, but he has embraced newer trends such as zone deployment, where instead of putting forwards out on a roughly 50-50 basis, offensive zone faceoffs and defensive zone faceoffs, players are deployed more strategically. This is something Vigneault and Gillis, both of whom have embraced advanced statistics, love. So, here, Tortorella is in fact a philosophical fit with Vancouver and his new boss, Gillis. Notice this, on stats from behindthenet.ca, where Henrik Sedin this past season had almost the exact same offensive zone deployment as Brad Richards.
One requisite element Gillis has preached, after Vancouver’s season came to a thudding end as they were swept in the first round, is the need to embrace younger players, even if inexperienced and prone to mistakes. On this, Tortorella differs from Vigneault. Tortorella has shepherded young defenders like 24-year-old Ryan Callaghan and 23-year-old Michael Del Zotto, and on offence 23-year-old centre Derek Stepan.
Vigneault, meanwhile, was unforgiving of mistakes. He liked the steady Chris Tanev but could not abide watching Zack Kassian’s staccato play on the first or second lines.
This coming season, because of the salary cap crunch the Canucks face, the team will have to rely much more heavily on younger, entry-level contract players, where Tortorella should be a plus. He could also be just the guy to mould Alex Edler, who has only ever been coached in the NHL by Vigneault, into a top-notch defenceman. It is not crazy to think Edler’s often-listless play could use some higher-volume coaching.
At the end, this is a last-chance bet for this vintage of the Canucks, whose core players are older than or almost 30. The Sedins, who turn 33 in September, are in the final season of their five-year deal.
“We need a change in voice,” said Gillis on Friday on Team 1040, after Tortorella had arrived by plane in the early afternoon, not answering the couple questions lobbed by this reporter but being polite enough about it. Gillis emphasized a coaching change was the one real lever at his disposal.
“There isn’t a bigger change you can actually make, otherwise than a blockbuster trade,” said Gillis, noting big trades are basically extinct these days.
“The hiring of a new coach is going to go a long way to establishing a different voice and a different approach to how our hockey team operates and plays”
Perhaps Tortorella is a mistake, and he has not even slightly mellowed with age, that his hiring is akin to the failure of the blustery Mike Keenan here in the late 1990s.
But, a better bet, Tortorella could be just the right fit/adjustment/change for the Canucks, a team with potential but the inability to deliver when it counts. Note, also, that Tortorella is respected enough in hockey that he is a top-three candidate to be head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team in Sochi next winter, a squad for which he was assistant in Vancouver in 2010.
And, finally, Tortorella arrives just as the one area of assured Vancouver success in recent years, the regular season, changes significantly. The feeble Northwest Division, where the Canucks won five straight titles, is no more. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers remain – while the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild depart – and are replaced by much more significant competition, the Anaheim Ducks (No. 2 in the West this year), the Los Angeles Kings (conference finalist this season), and the San Jose Sharks (sweeper of the Canucks this year), as well as Phoenix Coyotes (who finished ahead of Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado this year).
Welcome to Vancouver, John Tortorella. Enjoy the 55th birthday. The horde descends tomorrow, and the work begins.