There are two adjustments to be made when John Tortorella becomes your head coach.
One is to his famous aggressive, high-tempo style of hockey, where the pressure is always on the puck and decisions have to be made quickly, with a fore-checking offence backed up by a shot-blocking defence that demands self-sacrifice.
The other is to Tortorella’s equally famous personality, which is as aggressive and demanding as his preferred brand of hockey.
So the Vancouver Canucks can thank whoever drew up their schedule. You might think it was Tortorella himself, the way the team’s seven-game road trip, its longest of the NHL season, came along six games into a so-so start under its new head coach.
Spending 11 days together away from their perennially distressed fans will give the Canucks and Tortorella a chance to understand each other (liking each other is not something you can take for granted where Coach Torts is concerned) early in the season. It will also give them a chance to absorb Tortorella’s most radical idea so far, breaking up long-time linemates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, which horrified many but wasn’t looking too bad Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres.
The Canucks had the double good fortune to open their trip against the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers and Sabres. When you’re trying to get used to a new system and, in the case of the Sedin twins, new linemates, there’s nothing like trying it against a couple of palookas.
Once Henrik Sedin was put between Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins in the third period last Tuesday in Philadelphia, the latter two scored the tying and winning goals to get the road trip off to a good start. That line started Thursday’s game in Buffalo and took up on its first shift where it left off to get the Canucks moving to their second consecutive win, a 3-0 decision.
That raised their record to 5-3.
However, halfway through the game, after a few shifts together in the first period, Tortorella had the Sedin brothers reunited full-time with Kesler as the third party.
Playing Tortorella’s way means playing on instinct, knowing his system so thoroughly that decisions flow from the play. That, Henrik Sedin said, takes more time than one training camp. The Canucks slowed over the last half of the game against the Sabres, but it looks like things are sinking in.
“It’s a work in progress,” Sedin said. “There’s things from past years that are creeping back into your game. I think that comes from [Tortorella] not being here long enough.
“It’s a game of instincts and if things are happening fast out there, you tend to go back to what you’ve done before. That’s going to take a while. I’ve seen parts of our games for 30, 40 minutes that have been good but we need to get to where we play a 60-minute game and everything comes by instinct. That hasn’t happened so far.”
To hasten the learning, Tortorella is putting the Canucks through longer video sessions than they were used to under his predecessor, Alain Vigneault. This is also where the Canucks are getting a healthy dose of the mercurial coach’s personality.
“The thing we knew about him is he is honest,” Sedin said. “You might have 45 minutes of video and he’s going to tell you what you did wrong in a brutal, honest way. But two minutes afterward, you might have done something well in a clip and he would tell you the same thing, you did something well.
“That’s all you can ask for as a player. It makes no difference if it’s a star player or a fourth-liner, he will treat you the same way.”
It is the sort of thing, Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo thinks, the team needs.
“He’s an intense, passionate coach,” Luongo said. “I think we needed that in this locker room. Right now, he’s bringing lots to the table and the guys are buying in. We’re trying to get more and more comfortable with the system. I think you can see guys gaining confidence in it.”
As for splitting up the Sedin twins, all concerned were shrugging Thursday, especially since it may be intermittent. Higgins scored his second goal in as many games with Henrik Sedin as his centre. Brad Richardson also scored, and then the Sedins reunited to set up defenceman Ryan Stanton’s first NHL goal.
The reconstituted Canucks played well enough to overcome a great game by beleaguered Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller (the subject of much trade speculation, along with forward Thomas Vanek) and a so-so one by Luongo.
“Quite honestly, I think they welcome it and I think it’s going to make them better players,” Tortorella said of the celebrated split.
Henrik Sedin did not disagree.
“Has it been a big deal?” he said with a smile. “I don’t know. I haven’t really read anything. For us, it’s not a big deal. It’s happened before, it will happen again.”
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