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30 in 30: Whole new world in Vancouver

by Mike Battaglino

There is only one Vancouver Canucks player who knows firsthand what a season with coach John Tortorella is like.

Chris Higgins, take it away:

"He wants your compete level to be 100 percent at all times when you're on the ice. He wants to play his best players. He wants his best players to be his best players night after night, and a lot of pressure falls on them. But the main thing he wants out of all his players is their compete level to be the highest it can be."

Initiation begins at training camp.

"He runs a pretty high-intensity camp, so I think make sure you're in shape is step No. 1. Then it's all about the process. Throughout training camp he's going to build you up every day, he's going to make you work a little bit harder, and implement his style a little bit more every day, and I think you just have to be open every day to incorporating those little lessons he puts in to your workout."

It's a brand new world for the Canucks, who in 2013-14 head into a different division being schooled by Mr. Tortorella instead of player-friendly Alain Vigneault, fired in May after seven seasons.

Tortorella, a 2004 Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning and for parts of five seasons coach of the New York Rangers, admits to knowing little about the players he's inheriting, other than Higgins, whom he coached for one season in New York.

"I won't know them, they won't know me, until we get in that room and we start camp," Tortorella said. "That's where the interaction happens, that's where the coaching happens, that's where maybe sometimes there's conflict that comes into play and you find out about one another through some conflict, which is a very healthy thing in our game. … Where there's conflict there's honesty. I think that's when you start finding out about one another.

"So I'm trying to learn, but there's no better learning than being in a coach's uniform, them on the ice, and going through what you do each and every day getting ready to be a competitive hockey club."

There's no arguing the Canucks have been competitive for quite some time, with a points percentage of .623 since 2002-03. Vancouver won the Presidents' Trophy back-to-back in 2011 and 2012, has won five straight division titles, and finished with at least 100 points four seasons in a row (and seven of nine) prior to last season, when the Canucks were 26-15-7 and the third seed in the Western Conference.

But since taking a 2-0 lead in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, the Canucks are 2-12 in the playoffs, and were swept last season in the first round by the San Jose Sharks, costing Vigneault his job.

It seems the team -- and its fans -- have yet to recover from a 4-0 home loss to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Final two years ago.

"Everyone changed after that seventh game," general manager Mike Gillis said this summer. "What happened in the city changed us, what we felt about the way the series was played changed all of us, and it's taken a while to come back."

Tortorella was hired to provide tough love. The coach wants his team to be as difficult on its opponents as he sometimes can be with the media.

"I think we need some more bite," Tortorella said. "I think the attitude of just being a stiffer team is going to come to the forefront as we try to build this to get it to another level."

It will be an interesting transformation to watch. Making the media rounds after he was hired, Tortorella sent the message that he would ask more from each player, mentioning all-star forwards Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin every time.

"I know he's honest, he's going to treat everyone the same way," Henrik said. "… I don't think it matters if you're 35 or you're 19, you can have expectations to perform, and those might be different for different guys, but you're going to be held accountable if you don't play the way you can, and I think that's good."

Tortorella also brings a reputation as defensive-minded with him from New York, though that wasn't his primary focus while in Tampa Bay.

"We want to go," Tortorella said of the pace he wants to play. "I think I've been kind of coined as a defensive coach because we didn't score a lot of goals in New York. I kind of argue with that. It's tough to score goals, period, in this League for a lot of teams. But we certainly want to be aggressive."

He'll find his new team has fewer top-level scoring options than the Rangers had. Henrik Sedin led last season's Canucks with 45 points in 48 games, and Daniel Sedin was next with 40. No other player had more than 27 (Jannik Hansen). The top-scoring defenseman was Dan Hamhuis with 24 points.

After ranking second in goals in 2009-10, leading the League in goals in 2010-11, then finishing fifth in 2011-12, the Canucks were 19th last season, with 122 goals -- four fewer than the Rangers.

"We want to play a hard, in-your-face style, but we're always looking to try to create some offense," Tortorella said. "We're going to go about our business that way."

Tortorella most likely won't have a goalie controversy to navigate, now that Roberto Luongo again is the team's No. 1 following the draft-day trade of Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.

Tortorella, Gillis and team owner Francesco Aquilini each reportedly made separate trips to visit Luongo and smooth over any hard feelings, but the 34-year-old goalie publicly has been quiet and hired new representation even though he has nine years and more than $47 million remaining on his contract.

"We had a really good conversation," Gillis said. "From the outset, Roberto is a consummate professional, he's a great goaltender, and what happened could have been the result all the way through. … At the end of the day we had to make a choice, and we made the choice to go with Roberto."

Thirteen Canucks who appeared in at least 30 games last season return, with the top eight older than 26. That does not include forward Ryan Kesler, 28, who was limited to 17 games by injuries to his shoulder, wrist and foot.

Gillis added free-agent forwards Brad Richardson and Mike Santorelli, and defenseman Yannick Weber, leaving a few spots open for prospects. Forward Bo Horvat, taken with the No. 9 pick acquired in the Schneider trade, is a possibility, as are forwards Nicklas Jensen and Brendan Gaunce.

"One of the reasons that [Tortorella] was so appealing for me as a head coach is young players have thrived in New York," Gillis said. "And we need to have young players in our lineup. Now whether Bo's ready, we'll find out."

Rather than tear down the roster and start a rebuild, Gillis opted for a veteran coach he hopes can lead an experienced team on another postseason run or two.

"I'm not prepared at this point to break up a core group of players that I think are really solid players and really solid people," Gillis said. "I think they deserve another opportunity, and with [Tortorella] here I'm really excited about what he's going to bring to this team and this organization.

"When I talk about a reset for us, this is the reset, right here. And I am very, very confident that we are headed in a new direction with a new voice, and I'm excited about it."

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