John Tortorella doesn’t care much for practice. He doesn’t see much value in it. He’s a tape guy, from way back, the VHS days of the early 1990s when he had his first NHL job as an assistant in Buffalo.
To this day, Tortorella leans most heavily on video to instill his view of how to play the game. That and the somewhat-nebulous, though intriguing, idea of inculcating a “mindset” into his players.
In Vancouver, with the Canucks’ tough travel schedule, Tortorella is even less a fan of practice, and he prioritizes rest days – and fairly so – over practices.
But the tangible negative results of Tortorella’s disdain for practice are beginning to show where it counts the most: in the standings. The Canucks have ceded points to opponents, and failed to gain as many as they could, in part one can argue because of a lack of specific practice of particular game elements, such as the other-goalie-pulled 6-on-5, and the shootout.
There is a pretty-easy scenario to draw – which we will detail further along – that would put the Canucks in third place in the tough Pacific Division, instead of fourth, ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, not behind them, if the team was more skilled in the skills competition, by, say, practising it.
The Canucks on Thursday, in a practice after a day off, did in fact try their hand at the shootout, a rare occurrence, at the end of their session. “Don’t read too much into it,” said Tortorella afterward. Okay, but, this is what anyone could observe: it was disorganized, and lax, more shinny than professional hockey team. The goalies didn’t really get a chance to set up in between shooters. No Zamboni for the middle lane. Most guys took two or three hacks at it. Henrik Sedin actually scored one, then muffed another like the duffer he is in such situations. Jason Garrison looked pretty good, surprising himself. “Only in practice,” he joked later.
But no matter, according to Tortorella, it is “impossible” to conduct a shootout practice that in any way is like the real thing. Impossible!
“That gimmick should be out of the league,” said Tortorella after practice. Tortorella would indeed garner votes for this view, including my own, but reality is it exists – and playoff positions, even home-ice advantage, could pivot on shootout results.
When it was noted to Tortorella the team didn’t really do much a job to simulate an actual shootout on Thursday, there was a slight flash of a puff of smoke coming from his ears, a distant echo of all those years of angry Tortorella.
“You cannot simulate the shootout in practice, no matter how you do it – so write your story.”
And so we do.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the recent point of obvious contrast with the Canucks, visiting this week and on Tuesday stealing a 5-4 win, in a shootout, a game the home team should have won.
For one, the Pens scored their first of two 6-on-5 goals (sending a 4-2 game to overtime) on a set (practised) play. (The second goal came 16 seconds after the first).
Second, in general, to watch Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world, is quite something. He practises like a fiend, like his spot on the team hangs in the balance. Even during a game-day skate, which is typically, for most players, a short span to amble around the ice.
Third, the shootout. It may not be fully replicable, but like any skill, it can be practised, at least somewhat. It is not true to say it is impossible to practise. The Canucks lost to the Penguins, scoring zero while Crosby put in the winning marker, dropping Vancouver to 2-6 in the skills contest – down in the bottom third of the league.
The Canucks are giving away points. They have scored four times on 32 shootout attempts this season – one of eight tries, or 13 per cent, ranked 28th in the league, which means two out of every three shootouts they don’t score at all. The NHL median is a 35-per-cent conversion, nearly triple what Vancouver manages.
Picture this: if the Canucks were a little less useless in the shootout and, in fact, were pretty good at it, they might be 6-2, not 2-6. In such a scenario, they would have had 14 points in the standings for their skills, not 10 - four points, the same as two extra wins - which, while we’re jawing about it, would be enough to put the Canucks ahead of the Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific, third not fourth, which, while we're jawing about it, means a guaranteed playoff position, if this was April, and not a more tenuous, and not guaranteed, wild card.
Practice does not make perfect but it’s not worthless. Crosby and the Pens invest in it, and it shows. The Pens are 4-0 in the shootout this year, shooting five for 13, or 38 per cent, ranked ninth in the league.
Some Canucks such as Roberto Luongo are devotees of practice, reps, and his game shows it, evolving from the athletic flailing of his youth to a smarter, positional game he displays today. That’s work in practice, and a lot of it in recent summers through the craziness he has endured.
The lack of practice is beginning to quietly irk some players enough that Ryan Kesler, after the jarring loss to Pittsburgh said of blowing leads in goalie-pulled situations: “It should be fixable. We have to do something. Like work on it in practice.”
Ah, yes, practising 6-on-5. The Pens marked the fifth time this year the Canucks lost a regulation win because of a 6-on-5 goal.
Can I repeat that? Five times! The Canucks, in 11 per cent of their games this year have had a lead, in the final moments, and blown it, failing against a 6-on-5 push. And, recall, the Canucks are best team in the league on the penalty kill, but 5-on-4 is not the same, obviously, as 6-on-5.
Beyond the two goals ceded to Pittsburgh, it happened recently, end of 2013, against Philadelphia, which Vancouver ended up losing in a shootout. On Nov. 14, at home, nursing a 1-0 lead against San Jose, they gave up a 6-on-5 and lost in overtime. It happened twice in October, to the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames, both games Vancouver won, with overtime goals.
Say four of those 6-on-5 situations were prevented, going to overtime once, not five times. Instead of the 2-0-3, five points, the Canucks managed in reality, they’d be 4-0-1, nine points. That’s four points, the equivalent of two wins. Add that to the imagined 6-2 shootout record and the Canucks have 63 points, not 55, and are second in the Pacific, ahead of San Jose and L.A., and on the way home-advantage in the first round.
My crazy imagination.
Asked about practising 6-on-5 on Thursday at Rogers Arena, Tortorella said: “We have a concept with the goalie pulled, yeah. There are certain things.”
He then went on to talk about his review of the tape, saying the Canucks, variously, just didn’t make the plays needed to prevent the Pens from scoring, need to protect the puck better in at such key moments, and can’t let the opposition charge up through the middle third of the ice.
Conclusion: “We are certainly not going to overthink it.”