Usually when an NHL team cleans out its front office and coaching staff, it takes a few years until that team contends again for a playoff spot. The Vancouver Canucks made those big changes last offseason and yet have managed to be in a playoff position with less than two weeks left in the season.
When John Tortorella was hired to become head coach of the Vancouver Canucks prior to the 2013-14 season, the hockey world immediately questioned the decision.
How would the fiery Tortorella get along with the laid-back Sedin twins? Could “Torts” coexist with mercurial goalie Roberto Luongo? Could Torts make his imprint on a line-up built by then general manager Mike Gillis?
In the end, the Tortorella experiment proved to be a disaster. Luongo was traded to Florida after being benched for the outdoor Stadium Series game at B.C. Place. The Sedins saw their offensive output drop dramatically and the Canucks missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Sweeping changes came quickly. Both Gillis and Tortorella were fired. Former Canuck captain Trevor Linden took over as president of hockey operations and alternate governor.
Linden’s first move was to hire Jim Benning as general manager. The hire had a touch of irony to it as Benning was the associate GM of the Boston Bruins, the team that defeated the Canucks in a bitter seven-game Stanley Cup final in 2011.
Benning’s first course of action was hiring a new head coach. Instead of going for a big name, Benning decided on the less heralded Willie Desjardins. To say that Desjardins is the opposite of Tortorella would be an understatement.
In fact, Sportsnet columnist Mark Spector described Desjardins as the “anti-Torts.” Humble, quiet, and unassuming, Desjardins brought a sense of calm to the west coast. Desjardins, the Climax, Saskatchewan, native stated:
“I coach because I love coaching. It’s not like it’s even my career. It’s something I’ve been lucky to do all these years.”
His low-key style was a breath of fresh air for the players who had enough of Tortorella’s dictatorial style. Canucks forward Jannik Hansen explained in an interview with the Vancouver Province:
“Obviously it’s two different worlds. John was ‘my way or the highway.’ The player-coach relationship was different. Willie is a lot more down-to-earth. I don’t think I’ve heard him chew out a player yet.”
It also had to do with the confidence Tortorella had in his players and how they were used.
“It’s four lines,” Hansen said. “[Desjardins] wants us to be a deep team. John’s thing was we have to win this game, then we’ll worry about the next game. He played some guys too much and didn’t trust the fourth line as much.”
The results have been positive. The Sedins have seen their point totals increase dramatically. Daniel has gone from 47 points in 2013-14 to a team-high 68 points in 2014-15. Henrik has seen his total rise from 50 to 66 points in one season.
Benning made his imprint on the Canucks roster by trading Ryan Kesler and a draft pick to Anaheim for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and draft picks in the first and third rounds. While Kesler was a key member of the Canucks 2011 playoff run, he was unhappy with the direction the Canucks were heading in and requested a trade.
Benning wasn’t done as he signed free agent goalie Ryan Miller to a three-year deal. The move surprised many, but Benning defended the move.
“His pedigree speaks for itself,” Benning told the Globe & Mail. “His competitiveness, professionalism, and commitment to being involved in the community are the qualities we want to see in our players.”
Miller may not reach the heights he once reached with Buffalo, but he has been decent for the Canucks, posting a 2.47 goals against average, a .913 save percentage, and six shutouts. Miller suffered a lower body injury on Feb. 23 and hasn’t returned yet. Eddie Lack has filled in admirably during Miller’s absence, recording a 2.48 goals against average and a .919 save percentage.
Upon arriving in Vancouver, Vrbata joined the Sedins on the top line and they gelled immediately. Vrbata has tallied 31 goals and 29 assists in 74 games this season, which is an improvement over his 20-goal, 31-assist campaign in Arizona last year.
“I’m a big guy for chemistry and knowing what each other is going to do in certain situations, so playing with the Sedins is what I like,” Vrbata told the Vancouver Province.
“When you’re with the Sedins, I know they are the guys who have the puck and are great playmakers and I’m looking for my spots and I have to shoot, be the finisher.”
The Canucks have also received key contributions from Bo Horvat. The 2013 first-round pick has plenty of pressure on his shoulders since he was acquired as part of a trade that sent goalie Corey Schneider to New Jersey.
“His weight has gone up but his fat percentage has gone down,” Desjardins told Global News recently about Horvat. “That’s a sign he’s getting stronger. You can see it. He is stronger.
“It’s a lot of hockey and you worry about that. His role is a big role, but he’s handling it great right now and I just hope he keeps going that way.”
The Canucks won’t enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as favourites like they did in 2011, but the organization and their fans should be quite pleased on how this season is going.
Unlike last year when the Rogers Arena sat empty come playoff time, it will be filled to capacity with “Towel Power” in full force. Not many saw that coming earlier this year.
Jeremy Wiebe has written for The Hockey Writers and other web sites. A sports fan all his life, Jeremy follows hockey, football, and soccer with keen interest, but also dabbles in basketball and baseball. Currently residing in Winnipeg, his Twitter is @jstar1973