It’s not the different voice that the Vancouver Canucks are most challenged by this pre-season, but the different system that voice commands.
For players, the hardest thing about John Tortorella so far is not the style and manner of the coach but the style he wants his team to play. The Canucks are struggling to understand new structure and responsibilities in the defensive zone, a 1-3-1 prevent defence in the middle of the ice, and an aggressive, go-go-go attitude on the forecheck.
“The system, for sure, is the biggest change for us,” winger Daniel Sedin said Monday morning when asked about the change to Tortorella from former coach Alain Vigneault, who will be in Vancouver on Thursday with the New York Rangers.
“It has been a transition, but we’re getting there. I think we’re excited about it. It’s going to mean more of a forechecking game and more skating and I think it suits our team. We’re excited.
“It’s not that tough if you’re a smart enough player. But you’ve got to get everyone on the same page. You can’t have four guys doing this and the fifth guy is doing something else. It’s not going to be perfect, but in any system you’re not going to be perfect.”
As you would expect with new coaches and new strategy, the Canucks have been mighty imperfect this National Hockey League pre-season.
Even Monday when the Canucks became the last NHL team to win an exhibition game, using an NHL-heavy lineup to thump the Phoenix Coyotes 6-1, their relief and satisfaction were tempered by the loss to suspension of first-line candidate Zack Kassian.
Kassian was suspended the first five regular-season games by NHL justice minister Brendan Shanahan for the winger’s reckless battering of Edmonton Oiler Sam Gagner’s jaw and dental work on Saturday.
That was the game Canuck winger David Booth, rarely healthy since his trade from the Florida Panthers two years ago, did not play because he hurt his groin before making a pre-season appearance.
So, the Canucks still have no idea if Booth will open the season on the second line but have some lineup certainty with Kassian, who won’t play on the first line or anywhere else until Oct. 12.
The other key lineup question at forward — who will centre the third line? — remains unresolved although Vancouver-born journeyman Mike Santorelli has been easily the best newcomer.
But things can always be worse and 12 minutes into the first period Monday they seemed to be when goalie Roberto Luongo, upon whose re-establishment the Canucks’ season is predicated, required medical attention on his left wrist after a superb save and pileup in the Vancouver crease.
But Luongo was able to continue, which was a good thing, as was the runaway victory against the Coyotes. Now, the Canucks need a few more good things before opening their regular season in nine days.
With only two pre-season games left, including tonight’s contest in San Jose against the Sharks, most of the positive momentum will have to be generated during practices.
“It’s coming along,” Tortorella said after his first unofficial win in Vancouver. “Tonight was encouraging with some things, but there’s still a number of things. I think there are habits one way and we’d like to try it another way that we’ll continue to work at it as we go through the next couple of weeks.”
As assistant coach Mike Sullivan told reporters earlier Monday: “Any time a new coaching staff comes in, there are going to be changes. In discussing some of the ways the team played last year versus some of the points of emphasis that this coaching staff is bringing, I think there are some significant changes in the sense we’re trying to become a more aggressive team.
“Part of that adjustment is a mindset and that takes a little bit of time and we understand that and will continue to work at that. System play is always a work in progress. I don’t think you ever arrive. You can always get better in all areas of the game. For me, I don’t think it’s a question of: ‘Hey, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got this down by the first game of the season.’ ”
Sedin said the biggest change is in the defensive zone. Not only will forwards collapse nearer the Vancouver net, leaving Luongo to face more screened point shots, but the Canucks will no longer man-mark opponents.
“We used to be man-to-man more,” Daniel said. “Now, we’re not going to be. At all. That’s the biggest difference. We’ll play our area and defend that — a lot of sitting and waiting for them to come to you instead of chasing guys. That will be the biggest thing, I think.”
The biggest thing, Tortorella said, is the mindset.
“And that translates into playing the way we want to play — having an aggressive attitude about it,” he explained. “The situational play is understanding what’s going on in the game — the momentum swings, the surges, how you handle them, how you keep them on your side. That’s not Xs and Os, that’s awareness.”
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