They came down from the mountains Monday to start a week of NHL exhibition games – first in Calgary, then Edmonton, and then Thursday, in what might be September’s most-anticipated meaningless game, Alain Vigneault’s New York Rangers face off against John Tortorella’s Vancouver Canucks.
Three networks are televising the game, which is bizarre but also wholly predictable. There is great anticipation about what happens next in both markets, after Vigneault took over Tortorella’s team last summer, and then Tortorella was hired by Vancouver to fill Vigneault’s old job.
Two years ago, or the last time the NHL played a full 82-game schedule, the Canucks and Rangers ran 1-2 in the overall standings – and were seemingly poised to do great things. Underachieving playoffs last spring ultimately cost both coaches their jobs and, weirdly, they ended up in each other’s old position.
The chance to go to Vancouver now will help Vigneault get his homecoming out the way early. It also means Tortorella will get to fence with the New York press corps, just like old times. Most of them skipped the trip to Banff, but will be on site in Vancouver, just in case there are fireworks.
When Vigneault was asked if this game would help him turn the page on his Vancouver experience, he said: “I think the honest answer is probably not. It was such a great time for me. I have great friends there and the people I worked with were fabulous, so I know I don’t want to forget that time.
“It was great and for me to have the opportunity to go back there during exhibition is going to permit me to do one thing that I probably didn’t do before I left … and that was to thank everybody I worked with throughout those years. They really helped me look good most of the time – and that’s not an easy thing to do. So I’m very happy to go back there.”
As good a coach as Vigneault was, the sense in Vancouver was his shelf life had run out and they needed a fresh voice behind the bench.
In New York, Tortorella appeared as if he would survive the axe, given the Rangers won a playoff round against the favoured Washington Capitals before falling in the second round. Exit interviews with his players ultimately convinced general manager Glen Sather his team needed a change as well.
“Torts, yeah, he was tough,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said, “but it was also fun. It’s a great challenge for me as a player. I think he helped me as a hockey player to grow and I really appreciate that.”
Vigneault and Tortorella are both experienced coaches, with more than 800 games apiece of NHL experience behind the bench, but their styles largely differ. Vigneault is expected to emphasize offence to a greater degree, and he tends to have a different, more sympathetic, bench-side manner.
Teams will often alternate between coaches with different voices and tactical approaches, believing the larger issue isn’t their competence at all, but how a changed message will be perceived in the dressing room.
“Every time you change the coaching staff, you’re going to have a different mindset and a different atmosphere in the room,” Lundqvist said. “The same thing happened when Torts came in – everything changed. I think everybody came into the season with an open mind, to learn new things, and so far it’s been great. The whole team seems very nice. But I think it’s under pressure that we’re going to see the true colours – of how they work and how we respond.”
According to Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, it was the fact New York came up short of a championship the past two years that ultimately led to the change.
“Just to get a fresh face in here – and somebody with a new philosophy – I think it’s going to help us,” Callahan said. “I know our motto in camp so far has been: ‘Clean slate – and grab it.’
“He brings a little more of an offensive approach – guys are a little bit more free to make plays. By no means does it mean we’re not playing defensive hockey, because that’s still a big part of it. But I think we’re all excited to get going under this new philosophy and learn what it’s about. It’s going to be a good change.”
As for Vigneault, he said he would leave it to others to compare and contrast his style with Tortorella’s.
“I’ve given absolutely no thought to what was going on before I got here,” Vigneault said. “I got here and met all the players one-on-one before we started, talked about their expectations, talked about my expectations and the team’s expectations. I had a very good meeting with our core group, our captains and assistants, about what I wanted as far as standards and work ethic and team-first attitude.
“Players just want direction. They want to know what they need to do to have success – and that’s what I’m trying to do with my staff.”