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Comparisons continue between Vigneault, Tortorella

Tuesday, 04.01.2014 / 12:09 AM / NHL Insider

By Kevin Woodley - NHL.com Correspondent

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Comparisons continue between Vigneault, Tortorella
New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was fired by the Vancouver Canucks last summer after another early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With his new team on the verge of the playoffs, Vigneault heads back to Vancouver to face the Canucks and former Rangers coach John Tortorella.

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella understands his unlikely job swap with Alain Vigneault last summer makes for easy comparisons between the two.

With Vigneault and the New York Rangers back in Vancouver to play his former team at Rogers Arena on Tuesday, Tortorella is also very aware those assessments don't flatter him right now.

Hired to get more out of veteran group that had been knocked quickly out of the past two Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tortorella has the Canucks on the verge of missing the postseason altogether for the first time in six seasons with 79 points. Vigneault's Rangers are second in the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference with 88 points after winning six of their past seven games.

"You guys are going to make your opinions and talk about it because it's kind of a unique thing that happened with Alain and I," Tortorella said. "We're losing games, so I'm the idiot, and he's winning games, so he's the smart guy, and rightfully so. When you lose games and you struggle, you're going to get scrutinized."

There has been no shortage of scrutiny lately.

Under Tortorella, who was fired by the Rangers last summer after five seasons, the Canucks have taken a step back in most standard statistical measurements from the year before. In addition to sliding down the Western Conference standings, the penalty kill, power play, goals scored and goals against have all gone the wrong way during Tortorella's first season in Vancouver, leaving many to wonder if there will be a second.

Vigneault wanted nothing to do with that discussion.

"It would be unfair for me to comment in any form," Vigneault said. "I'm 3,000 miles away, I have no idea what's going on here."

Tortorella hinted some of his critics might not either.

"Style of play, I think sometimes there's not a true understanding of what's going on," Tortorella said.

Injuries to top players played a role, as has a move to the tougher Pacific Division after dominating the old Northwest Division with five straight titles. But perhaps the most damning record in a market that grew accustomed to seeing lots of goals under Vigneault may be the drop in scoring, with an offense ranked 28th in the NHL at 2.36 goals per game.

The decline from the top-scoring team in the League before getting to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 has been ongoing and is tied largely to a power play that has sagged for two seasons. Advanced statistics hint at a slight improvement in 5-on-5 possession for the Canucks in their first season under Tortorella, according to ExtraSkater.com.

Though Vancouver slipped slightly from 52.8 percent last season (eighth in the NHL) to 52 percent (ninth) now in Corsi (which measures all shots directed at the net), their Fenwick percentage, which does not include blocked shots, rose from 51.9 percent (12th) to 52.1 (ninth). But even if those metrics don't indicate a substantial fall in overall play, the drop in the standings has left many wondering if Tortorella's style of play, with its collapsing, shot-blocking defense and an aggressive forecheck, as well as his early insistence on playing his top forwards more and harder minutes, is a fit for the skilled but aging Canucks.

Daniel Sedin, who is on pace for his fewest points in a decade with 42, said that's not the case. He pointed to a three-game season sweep of the Western Conference-leading St. Louis Blues as a sign they can succeed playing Tortorella's way.

"When we played our best, we've played with the best teams so it's not a question in my mind," Sedin said. "When we play the system 100 percent, we're successful. We got away from that from Game 40 to Game 60 and that's why we are where we are."

Sedin cited injuries for a tendency to sit back too much during a 5-16-4 slump to start 2014, but with Vigneault in town Tuesday, few will look beyond the standings. The rest of the statistics are less polarizing.

The Rangers also endured a skid that threatened their season amid a lot of early travel, but New York is posting similar numbers in its first season under Vigneault as it did in its last under Tortorella. Scoring is up a bit in terms of goals (2.64 per game now, compared to 2.62 last season), but the Rangers dropped from 15th to 18th in the NHL. The defense is slightly worse, dropping from fourth to fifth while going from 2.25 to 2.38 goals against per game.

The Rangers remain a top possession team. Corsi is up a bit (from 52.7 to 53.1 percent), while Fenwick is down from 54.1 to 53.5 percent, but the special teams have improved significantly. The power play is up 10 spots from 23rd (15.7 percent) to 13th (18.4), and the penalty kill going from 15th (81.1 percent) to sixth (84.6) in the League.

"He really lets us play our game," forward Rick Nash said. "Sometimes it's tough for a coach in his first year, but it's all been positive."

It didn't start that way.

When Vigneault first returned to Vancouver with the Rangers in the preseason, his new team was struggling to adjust to the style and system changes. New York lost seven of its first 10 games but worked through the problems together.

"There was a lot of meetings, trying to figure us out, trying to figure him out and the way we wanted to play," center Brad Richards said. "But in the end, we got through it. We've just kind of grown together ever since."

The Canucks have yet to definitively take that step under the more controlling Tortorella. Seeing their old coach come back triumphantly Tuesday with the Rangers won't quiet those who wonder if they should get another chance to take it together next season. Neither will hearing Canucks players heap praise on Vigneault.

"He had a good system and made everyone fit the system really well," Sedin said. "He had all the right people in the right spots."

Quote of the Day

The biggest part for us is that it's a home game. We know how special the fans here are and how much the fan base has grown in the last decade, and how passionate they are. I don't think a lot of people around the hockey world know that or appreciate that yet, and I think that it's great that this city is getting recognition for how passionate they are about hockey.

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