Canucks still learning Tortorella's style

Thursday, 09.26.2013 / 3:00 AM
Kevin Woodley  - Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- With one preseason game remaining and just over a week until the shots start flying for real, the Vancouver Canucks remain very much a work in progress under new coach John Tortorella.

After seven years of Alain Vigneault, who ironically returns here as the new coach of Tortorella's old team, the New York Rangers, in their preseason finale Thursday (10 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN), it's going to take some time for Canucks players to adjust to a new voice and mandate.

That voice has come as advertised, with Tortorella making threats if cell phones ring in press sessions, bluntly calling out the fitness levels of Zack Kassian and Tom Sestito, and saying "he couldn't find" top defenseman Alexander Edler in the tape he watched from last season. As promised, he also has delivered those messages bluntly and directly in a locker room Vigneault had left to the players.

"We haven't got one of his classic rants the media talks about, but he is definitely a presence in the room," veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "And you definitely know if you do something stupid you will get called out on it."

But the bigger adjustment to Tortorella has been on the ice. Training camp started as more of a conditioning camp, with players skated so hard that fatigue was cited as a problem after losing the first three preseason games. So, too, was a lack of understanding of system changes initiated under Tortorella, who didn't switch the focus to tactics until Friday.

The differences include forwards collapsing deeper into the defensive zone and the defensemen playing more of a zone down low instead of picking a man. The breakouts and forecheck also have been altered, and there is more of an emphasis on blocking shots. But the biggest challenge for Tortorella is trying to get his new team to be more aggressive and assertive all over the ice.

"It's coming along, but there are still a number of things," Tortorella said. "There are habits one way and we'd like to try it another way that we'll continue to work at. The biggest thing for me is the mindset and that translates into playing the way we want to play, and that's just having an aggressive attitude."

Captain Henrik Sedin agreed, saying the biggest adjustments don't involve X's and O's, but rather not retreating as soon as they lose the puck.

"You got to turn the switch," Sedin told "When we lost the puck last year we were so focused on getting back up the ice, and now it's more getting the puck back as quick as possible. It's a mindset that has to be changed."

It's a process that should get easier in the final week, with fewer extra bodies and more regular lines. But having decisions become instinctual will take time.

"It's going to take a while for sure," Sedin said. "If you think about what to do out there it is going to take you that extra split-second to get where you want to be, and that's usually too late in this League."

While systems and mindset remain a work in progress, two things clearly are different under Tortorella: The Canucks will block more shots, and top players will play more than in the past, including penalty-kill duty for Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

As Tortorella correctly pointed out, the Sedins have asked to kill penalties for years. But there was a reason they rarely got to, as the Canucks, armed with the advanced analytics initiated when general manager Mike Gillis arrived six years ago, preferred to keep them fresh for offensive opportunities and power plays. There was talk of players having peak performance ice time ranges and needing to keep them fresh amid tough West Coast travel. The Canucks even use sleep science to maximize recovery.

So, eyebrows were raised when Ryan Kesler, completely healthy for the first time in more than two seasons, played 26:26 in the preseason opener, a total more than six minutes above his average of the past five seasons.

"Fine with me," Kesler said of the extra minutes.

Henrik Sedin echoed those sentiments, but with a caveat.

"If you play this way it's supposed to give us more puck possession, which is way easier minutes than defending and not having the puck," he said.

The hope is shot blocking will become a seamless part of that. So far that hasn't been the case, with some players falling out of position to get in front of the puck, leaving their goaltender to guess as the puck makes its way through the unintended screens it creates. Given blocking shots never was a priority before -- Henrik Sedin had nine last season -- that, too, will require an adjustment period.

Goalie Roberto Luongo didn't sound like a fan of the shot blocking after allowing four goals on 18 shots in his debut, but has since tempered his thoughts.

"Maybe it will put you in situations you were not seeing so much in the past as far as fighting a screen, but it doesn't change how you play," Luongo said. "Whether you get one or 10 a game, you still have to fight through a screen the same way."

For Luongo, who is famous for slow starts and poor Octobers as he tries to dial in his reads, the bigger adjustment may be to where defenders will be in the new system. He can expect more collapsed in front of him.

"They are not going to block it every time, and you have to find a way to get a piece of it," he said.

It's a trade-off he is willing to accept for more help in front of him.

"Pucks lying around the crease and slot area -- we don't want them there," Luongo said. "Those are the most dangerous to me, so if we can eliminate those and I've got to fight a few more screens a game, I'll make that trade every day."

With so many other adjustments still to be made, it's probably too soon to be sure the Canucks feel the same way about their coaching trade.

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