Part 3: Tortorella, bounce-back seasons, and the Utica Comets
By Paolo Anzovino, Contributor
This week, we wrap up this three-part series of the storylines to watch this upcoming NHL season. We finish off with the new Canucks head coach John Tortorella, players hoping to have a bounce-back season, and the new Canucks AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets.
After back-to-back years of being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs using the same core group of players that made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, the Canucks needed to make some changes. However, the lack of salary cap space prevented GM Mike Gillis from making any big splashes in free agency, and no-trade clauses on the majority of the team’s most valuable players restricted them to only trading goaltender Cory Schneider. Besides replacing Gillis, the only option was to shake up the coaching staff. John Tortorella was signed to a five-year contract to be Vancouver’s new head coach—replacing Alain Vigneault, who coached the Canucks past the second round only once in seven years—and Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulutzan were brought in to replace Rick Bowness and Newell Brown as assistant coaches.
The arrival of Tortorella, Sullivan, and Gulutzan brings a much needed change to the attitude and mindset of the team. Tortorella wants this team to be tougher to play against, more physical, and stronger defensively—a trademark of his system. Some players may have trouble adjusting to Torts’ style of play, and it will probably take the team a few months to fully learn and implement that kind of hockey. The club has been lacking emotion and intensity since their rematch with the Bruins during the 2011-12 season after their disappointing loss in the finals. And Tortorella isn’t just bringing his intensity to the locker room; he’s bringing a Cup ring from his 2004 Stanley Cup victory with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He knows what is needed to win four straight series in the playoffs.
Another reason Tortorella was brought in was to help the young guys on the team bring their skills to the next level, which he did in New York with Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto, and Chris Kreider. Alain Vigneault was known for not giving young players many chances to succeed, preferring to use veterans who he knew could get the job done; this certainly didn’t assist Gillis in the direction he wanted to take the team. The Canucks will need Zack Kassian, Jordan Schroeder, Chris Tanev, and Frank Corrado to take on a bigger role this upcoming season if they want to be a playoff threat, and Torts can be the motivator they need. More youth will also be injected into the lineup in the next few seasons in the form of Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen, and recent first-round picks Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk.
It definitely won’t be a dull year for the media, and it will be interesting to see how long Tortorella can keep his cool under the very intense pressure of a Canadian hockey market starved for a Stanley Cup.
A few key players had an underwhelming 2012-13 season either due to injuries, poor play, or both.
For one, Ryan Kesler missed most of the lockout-shortened season due to a shoulder injury and a broken foot, which he tried to play through. He has looked good in pre-season games so far, and says that he is completely healthy after being slowed down by injuries the past couple of seasons. Kesler, a gritty two-way player with a lot of intensity, should be the type that flourishes under Tortorella, but most Canucks fans are worried about Kesler staying healthy when Torts wants his players to block shots and make their physical presence known.
Groin and ankle injuries kept left winger David Booth out of the lineup for most of the season as well. But, unlike Kesler, Booth struggled when he was healthy, scoring only one goal (an empty netter) in 12 games. Booth was just recently cleared to play, and will get to take part in a few pre-season games to get into playing shape before the start of the regular season. The Canucks will need Booth to stay healthy and produce offensively like a top-six forward again if they hope to compete for the Stanley Cup this season.
Although neither suffered any major injuries during the season, both Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler had a season to forget with their poor and casual defensive performances. Tortorella and Assistant Coach Sullivan are known for being very strict about their team performing well defensively, so we might see a more rounded game from both players. Or we could see them wind up in Torts’ doghouse…
Roberto Luongo posted the second-worst numbers of his career last season, “topped” only by his rookie year. Tortorella’s defensive system should help improve Luongo’s numbers, and with Cory Schneider traded, he shouldn’t be distracted by the media as much. Luongo likes playing a majority of the games, and he’ll definitely do that this year since he’ll have an inexperienced backup in the form of Eddie Lack or Joacim Eriksson.
Last season, the Canucks had their prospects playing with the independently owned Chicago Wolves of the AHL. As such, they had no control over how much ice time their prospects received. To change that, the Canucks purchased the Peoria Rivermen and moved them to Utica, New York, giving them the name the Utica Comets. While the trip from New York to Vancouver isn’t ideal when needing to call up a player, Utica isn’t very far from the other AHL teams, which is a bonus for a team that travels by bus to most cities. Travis Green was hired as their head coach, and the Canucks have to be happy with their new setup.