I’ll be the first to admit: when I heard the news last June that Canucks GM Mike Gillis had hired John Tortorella as coach, I feared an unmitigated disaster. By all accounts, Tortorella had worn out his welcome with the New York Rangers, disrespecting journalists and losing the dressing room (or at least stars like Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist).
To me, and to many Canucks fans, the hiring conjured up the dark days of Iron Mike Keenan – quite possibly the most disappointing era in Canuckville. But Gillis believed in his man, and when Torts arrived, the new coach was heard saying all the right things, such as promising to maybe try a kinder, gentler approach this time around.
Countless examples can be found of gruff, irascible NHL coaches or GMs who still managed to earn both success and respect. Darryl Sutter for example, may be a grumpy ol’ codger, but at least he remains widely respected. Glen Sather couldn’t hide his disdain, but again, he had no trouble gaining respect for his body of work. Brian Burke wanted his players to be as truculent as some of his infamous sound bites, but respect for him remains high (especially outside Toronto, but then again, who cares what they think?).
Tortorella, on the other hand, with his frequent and well documented run-ins with the press, especially with the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, had generally lost respect with his schtick. And rightly so: from across the continent, the ‘highlights’ of his recent resume include berating and disrespecting those just trying to do their jobs (eh,Brooksie?!).
But let’s examine the facts of Tortorella’s reign with the Canucks thus far:
The players all claim that training camp and practices have been faster paced and better organized than they were under the easy-going Alain Vigneault. For good or bad, AV had a ‘laissez-faire’ approach to coaching, putting the onus on his players to show up in shape and maintain their work ethic throughout the season. Torts, on the other hand, subjected the players to more bag skates during the first few weeks of his reign than AV did during any given season.
Next, prior to the game against the 1-5 Philadelphia Flyers, Torts was asked if he feared the Flyers less because of their record, and he claimed he rarely looked at the standings; rather, he insisted the only thing he cared about was his players and preparing them as best he could.
I’ll confess, I was shocked when I heard this. How could he not look at the standings?! He must be lying.
But the more I thought about it, the more I came around. Psychologically, this approach might be a better way of approaching an NHL game. The fact is, any NHL team, on any given day, can beat any other team in the league, regardless of the current form of either team. As the cliché goes – that’s why the game isn’t played on paper; it’s played on the ice, where anything can happen.
Ignoring the standings can help in two ways: if your opponent is doing poorly, it’s all too easy to become overconfident that you’ll win; and if your opponent is burning it up of late, the propensity is to become fatalistic and assume you’re going to lose. Torts’ approach is a novel and naïve way of looking at it, and maybe serves as a wake-up call to stats junkies (like, ahem… myself) who too often focus on the game on paper, and the Vegas odds (that are never wrong… right?!).
Lastly, the ‘craziest’, most radical thing Tortorella has done this year: splitting up the Sedins. Although the experiment is rather new, a great deal of talk has been dedicated to it already, including Rob’s excellent analysis right here on this blog.
The risk of splitting them up is obvious – perhaps too obvious – and that’s why it hasn’t been done too often by previous coaches: the Sedins are so mystically in touch with each other that no other duo could possibly achieve what they do on a nightly basis.
But what about the rewards? There are two that jump out: the first is that Daniel and Henrik make their teammates better. They’re both Art Ross scoring champions, and 33 years old or not, they’re still world class players. And if they’re stuck on one line, they can only make one other winger, plus the defense pair, better. Split them up and they have the potential to raise the games of four other linemates, and maybe even rouse the sleeping lion, Ryan Kesler.
The second great benefit to splitting them up is that it throws a mighty big wrench in the game plan of any opposing coach wanting to line match, or looking to get his best D-pair to shut down the Sedin line. With the Sedins on two lines, how do you line match?
Suffice to say that Tortorella’s tactics have so far been surprising, refreshing, and – dare I say – encouraging. It’s still early days, but I for one am willing to give the coach the benefit of the doubt. So far, so good.