John Tortorella, one of the most divisive men in hockey, always seemed like an odd choice to take the helm of the Vancouver Canucks.
The team overseen by Mike Gillis had been one built for skill and scoring punch. But successive playoff failings against the might of the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks opened a door last June for Tortorella in Vancouver. The coach was able to convince Gillis and team owner Francesco Aquilini that he could spur a veteran team to success in the grind of playoff hockey.
He never got close. The Tortorella experiment in Vancouver was a failure and the final punctuation of the abbreviated story was made Thursday morning by telephone, when new Canucks president Trevor Linden called Tortorella to tell the coach his time was done.
And, now, it is back to the future for the Canucks, as Linden promises a return to an exciting brand of hockey, a style that sounds a lot like the one Gillis abandoned under the pressure to fare better against brawny Western Conference rivals. On Thursday, as Tortorella was fired, Linden unleashed promises: make the playoffs next year, build a Stanley Cup contender and restore the Canucks as a team that’s fun to watch.
It will be a difficult task, given that the team’s scoring prowess evaporated more than two years ago and worsened to the point where this past season’s goals were the fewest the Canucks have scored in franchise history. The Sedins had their worst season in a decade. The departed coach can take some of the blame, but an instant revival seems unlikely.
Linden on Thursday acknowledged the bind in which he’s in, promising better days immediately ahead, while hacking through all the challenges to get there. Firing Tortorella was the easy decision. Hiring a new general manager from a short list of candidates, finding a new coach and reworking the roster will be much more challenging.
“It’s not easy, and it’s not going to be easy,” Linden said to reporters at Rogers Arena after a news conference. “We need some things to fall into place for us. We’ve got some ideas and some plans.”
Retired hockey stars who move to NHL front offices generally have an apprenticeship before they take over. It was this way for Cam Neely in Boston, Joe Sakic in Colorado and Steve Yzerman in Detroit before he took the helm in Tampa. Linden, who had some experience in business before the Canucks, is learning the business of hockey in an extreme fashion, having to make a series of entwined, expensive decisions in quick succession that, together, will go a long way toward defining his tenure.
Among the complications: The top candidate on Linden’s GM list is currently employed in Boston, long-time assistant GM Jim Benning. Linden, while mentioning no names, acknowledged there might have to be some sort of “partnership” situation, in terms of bringing on a new man from another team. It sounds like a messy beginning, a pile on top of the mess left by Tortorella.
Then there is the goal to hire a GM first, and a coach second: “The timing of it is somewhat tricky,” Linden said.
Tortorella arrived in Vancouver last June as a humbled man, fired by the New York Rangers and promising a reformed self, in control yet still wielding a fiery spark that would propel the Canucks. There were some reasonable results but even early in the season, at the end of December, the Canucks were stuck in seventh in the tough Western Conference, which is where they still were on Jan. 18, the fateful night Tortorella rushed for the Calgary Flames dressing room in between periods.
Tortorella did contain himself in Vancouver. The one time he did not it was uglier than ever. The intermission melee was the demarcation point, the beginning of the tailspin for the Canucks during which, in between losses on the ice, Roberto Luongo was traded, Gillis fired and Linden hired.
On the way out of town last month, Tortorella called the team roster “stale.” It was somewhat self-serving but also exactly how he managed the team. Tortorella didn’t trust his lesser players, so he rode his best players, until he ground the likes of the Sedins into the ice. It was this that Linden could not abide.
Calling Tortorella a “good hockey man,” Linden recalled the hours of meetings over several days with the coach but concluded: “I kept coming back to a lot of things that I didn’t like that I saw trending.”
Linden feels what’s missing is a vibrant bottom half of the roster, third and fourth lines that can push the team’s stars. But it’s not as though the disposed Gillis didn’t see that problem either. He tried to fix it.
The Aquilinis want to be back in the playoffs, so that’s the goal, even if it might make more sense to rebuild over a couple years and then push. Delivering results quickly will be a severe test for Linden, the rookie hockey executive.