Raffi’s reformation gives Sharks extra bite
Former Canuck Torres changes reckless style, now hurts teams in more effective ways
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Even reformed, Raffi Torres still hurts opposing teams.
It wasn’t out of nostalgia or sympathy that the Vancouver Canucks tried to get him back at the National Hockey League trade deadline one month ago. They’ve been paying for not paying after the San Jose Sharks’ outbid the Canucks for Torres.
Torres has been the playoff X-factor for the Sharks, playing elevated minutes and an elevated role as San Jose took a 2-0 series lead over the Canucks into Game 3 here Sunday.
When the season started, Torres was like an endangered species in the NHL, a pariah serving a 21-game suspension and on the verge of being legislated out of hockey.
The 31-year-old wondered if he had much of a career left.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t,” Torres said Sunday morning. “I was fortunate I was still under contract (to the Phoenix Coyotes) because who knows what could have happened. When I start thinking about it, there are a million different ways my head could go. For me, I knew I had to make some changes. I still play my game the way I need to play to be effective, and I feel I’m doing that and contributing the right way.”
Torres changed, and so have the Sharks since they gave the Coyotes a better third-round draft pick than the Canucks could offer to acquire the hard-hitting winger.
His reformation isn’t quite as astonishing as Matt Cooke’s in Pittsburgh, but then Torres was never as dishonest a player as Cooke. Torres just aimed himself too high and too recklessly into opponents until the NHL issued him the third-longest suspension in league history for targeting the head of Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa during last year’s playoffs.
The initial 25-game ban was reduced upon appeal to 21, but that still meant Torres had to miss the first eight games of this season — one-sixth of the lockout schedule.
After his third suspension in two years for headshots, Torres had to adapt or perish as a pro hockey player.
“At one point, I wondered what was going on and why was I getting penalties for stuff I’d been doing my whole career,” Torres said.
“But the game changes and you have to be careful. The game gets faster and stronger every year, and the last thing you want is to see players getting carried off the ice and having their careers end early because of dangerous hits.”
San Jose coach Todd McLellan said: “The game has changed in so many different ways. We’ve got (assistant) Larry Robinson sitting in our coaches’ office ... and the number of times the game has changed throughout his playing and coaching career, it’s umpteen times. A lot of that has to do with the size and strength of the players, the rules, expansion, CBAs — you name it. Players who have played for a long time go through those evolutions. Raffi has been around for a while. He has had to adapt his game to stay in the league and he has done a good job of it.
“We thought we needed an energy player, someone willing to play extremely hard and fast and he fits that role, and we’re happy that we have him.”
The Canucks wish they had him. Torres, who was allowed to leave Vancouver two years ago as an unrestricted free agent, has the game-changing physical presence the Canucks lack among their top nine players.
Torres’ six hits in Game 1 included seismic jolts to Ryan Kesler and Frankie Corrado. He had only one hit in Game 2, when the biggest blow delivered was his overtime winner — Torres’ first playoff goal in Vancouver since his overtime score against the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
His celebration on Friday was understated. Torres wouldn’t say much about it on Sunday, but the subdued celebration may have been out of respect for Vancouver and the Canucks, whose one-year contract with Torres in 2010-11 allowed him to reverse the downward trajectory of his career.
“Inside, you want to skate across the ice and do a bunch of things, but it’s not necessary,” he said of his reaction to scoring.
“When I talk about calming everything down, that kind of thing is part of it. Just slow down and enjoy the moment.”
Torres is an unrestricted free agent this summer. And just as at the deadline, he should be at the top of the Canucks’ list. But Torres will be on a lot of lists. Apart from still packing a wallop when he hits, the forward had seven goals and 18 points in 39 games this season. He took only 17 minutes in penalties.
“It was obviously flattering and it would have been nice,” Torres said of the Canucks’ interest in re-acquiring him. “I’ve said all along the organization is first class and the group of guys in there want to win. It would have been easy for me to go there, but everything happens for a reason. At the end of the day, with the way my career has gone, who knows what will happen in the future.
“It was a long road over the summer. I feel a lot better now. I’m more relaxed, in a better place mentally and physically.”
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