The Tortorella Canucks vs the Vigneault Canucks

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Former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and the New York Rangers are in town to play the Canucks on Tuesday night and comparisons between the two coaches are inevitable. 

That’s what happens when two big name coaches on high profile teams exchange jobs in the same offseason. The Rangers are headed to the playoffs while the Canucks aren’t, so one might conclude that the Rangers got the better of the deal, but it isn’t that simple.

This isn’t an article about how the Canucks shouldn’t have fired Alain Vigneault. Vigneault, while a good coach, had grown stale with the current group of players here in Vancouver and a new voice was needed.

In hockey, it’s not always about having ‘the best coach’, rather it’s about having the right fit. Clearly it appears that AV is the right fit in New York while John Tortorella isn’t in Vancouver.

Personality

Image Courtesy: Toronto Star

Image Courtesy: Toronto Star

There is no missing the difference in demeanor between Tortorella and Vigneault. Vigneault does a good job of appearing calm, cool and collected, while Tortorella shows his emotion. Of course, each one of those personalities is seen as a positive/negative, depending on if the team is winning or losing.

I think Tortorella has done a good job in controlling his emotions, with regards to his relationship with the Vancouver media. This hasn’t been a repeat of New York in that regard, at least not yet.

I like the fact that Tortorella isn’t shy about using his timeouts, which I think has been a positive development for the team. Vigneault seemed unwilling to use his timeout, no matter how lethargic his team looked in front of him.

Vigneault was heavily criticized for letting the players ‘run the room’, while Tortorella is being criticized for being too involved (and also for trying to ‘run’ the other team’s room). The involvement is reversed for game day skates, where Vigneault is involved while Tortorella lets his assistants run practice. Torts is apparently too busy commuting back to his place in Point Roberts to run practice (despite the fact he may have a Murphy bed installed in his office according to Jason Botchford).

Playing Skilled Players

John Tortorella has sided with playing defensively responsible players over more skilled players on his forward lines. Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen (predominantly third liners under Vigneault) have been used a lot more as top six forwards under John Tortorella. Tortorella has given little to no opportunity to skilled players Zack Kassian and David Booth (correctly, with regards to Booth in my opinion) to play as top six forwards. Even more perplexing is the fact that Jannik Hansen has averaged more power play time than Kassian.

Playing Young Players

Tortorella was trumpeted as a coach who is good with young players, but that appears to be a bit of a red herring. Age has nothing to do with what Torts likes in a player. Torts appears to have an even shorter leash than Vigneault, taking away ice time from young players that make mistakes defensively.

Power Play

The power play and penalty kill are often run by the assistant coaches, but the head coach also takes ownership. The Canucks power play was a sore spot last season, ranking 22nd in the NHL with Alain Vigneault/Newell Brown at the helm. Tortorella/Glen Gulutzan has somehow found a way to make the power play even worse, as it currently ranks 27th in the league.

Tortorella’s Canucks have focused on shot quantity rather than shot quality, with those shots coming predominantly from the point (many of those shots were Jason Garrison shots that sailed wide of the net). That doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of the team’s two best players, Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Tortorella has also been quick to change personnel on the power play, with a revolving door for the team’s defencemen (Garrison, Edler, Hamhuis, Bieksa, Weber and Diaz have had turns on the top unit). Vigneault, for better or worse, tried to keep the power play units the same for most of the season.

Shot Blocking

The biggest talking point about John Tortorella’s system was his emphasis on shot blocking. The Canucks are 6th in blocked shots, up from 27th last season. The team’s penalty kill relies on their ability to block shots (their forwards line-up in an I formation), which I think has been a tactical improvement. In terms of even strength, I have seen a lot of gaffs from players being taken out of position by trying to block a shot. Here is an example of this from Saturday night’s game (skip ahead to the 1:20 mark):

http://youtu.be/PnjYJxhsMMc?t=1m19s

Stanton blocks the initial shot, but only partially, which leads to a 2-on-1 down low.

Forecheck

One of the positives from Tortorella’s coaching style has been the increased energy and aggression on the team’s forecheck. The Canucks looked like a team that didn’t care on too many nights last season and that isn’t the case this season, despite the losses. The team appears to work harder under Tortorella, although perhaps they aren’t working ‘smarter’.

Ice Time

The biggest indictment of John Tortorella in my view is the amount of ice time that he has given to his best players. It seems fairly evident that Torts has run his players into the ground, giving his best players more ice time than they can handle. Ryan Kesler leads the league in ice time among forwards, while Daniel and Henrik Sedin are 9th and 11th, respectfully. The Sedins were actually ranked even higher in average ice time, but have had their minutes pared back in the last couple of months (perhaps an admission of guilt by the head coach).

Tortorella essentially ran his bench as if he were in the Stanley Cup playoffs during the months of October, November and December. Fourth liners received less than 5 minutes of ice time while the Sedins and Ryan Kesler were well over 20 minutes per game. Those players seemed to handle it early on, but it seems awfully coincidental that the three of them all appeared to break down, both in terms of level of play and injuries.

Here is a comparison of average ice time for forwards under Tortorella (2013-14) and under Alain Vigneault (2012-13):

2012-13 2013-14 Difference
Kesler 18:57 22:03  + 3:06
Higgins 16:24 19:24  + 3:00
D. Sedin 19:01 20:57  + 1:56
H. Sedin 19:20 20:56  + 1:36
Burrows 18:54 18:05  – 0:49
Hansen 17:33 15:54  – 1:39
Kassian 13:28 12:44  – 0:44
Booth 12:45 13:26  – 0:41
Schroeder 13:42 12:23  – 1:19
Sestito 6:37 6:24  – 0:13

The Sedins have been playing more, which can be attributed to their increase in penalty killing time. That time has appeared to come out of the pocket of Jannik Hansen, who hasn’t killed penalties until only recently. 

Tortorella said before the season that he didn’t believe in fatigue, that it was simply a mindset. With so many players under-performing, it appears that either players aren’t getting the right mindset or fatigue isn’t a matter of fiction after all.

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Rob Williams Sports Editor at Vancity Buzz covering all sports in Vancouver.
@robthehockeyguy

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