A Torts-ture test: Coach plans to ride top Canucks (with video)
Ryan Kesler's 26-plus minutes in pre-season opener raises eyebrows, questions about long-term sustainability
VANCOUVER — There are things hockey players never say.
“This Stanley Cup ring hurts my finger.”
“It’s nice up here in the press box with the reporters.”
“I hate all this free stuff.”
“Do these hockey pants make my butt look big?”
And, of course: “Darn, I wish the coach played me less.”
No one in the National Hockey League has ever complained about too much ice time.
“Never, no,” Vancouver Canuck captain Henrik Sedin agreed.
So when teammate Ryan Kesler was asked Tuesday about playing 26½ minutes the night before — in a pre-season opener, after being injured for much of the previous two seasons — the centre made the workload sound no more onerous than waxing his abs.
“Honestly, I don’t think I even played that much,” Kesler said after being deployed on the ice for nearly half of the Canucks’ 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Monday night. “It felt like I was out there a lot in the first period. But other than that, I never felt like I was getting overplayed.”
True enough. At the rate associate coach Mike Sullivan, who ran the bench in the first game of the John Tortorella era in Vancouver, reined back Kesler in the final two periods, the 29-year-old would have logged a mere 25 minutes over a full game.
For context, consider that Kesler’s 26:26 of ice time is the most he has played in a 60-minute game since amassing 26:32 during a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 22, 2011.
Kesler’s busiest non-overtime night last season was 19:42, nearly seven minutes less than he played Monday in his first game in four months.
Had the Canucks’ old coach, Alain Vigneault, left Kesler on the ice for 26½ minutes of a pre-season opener, some reporters would have carried pitchforks and torches to the press conference the next morning.
But with Tortorella, well, hey, that’s Torts for you. And it is. The new head coach has always leaned heavily on his best players.
“I’m not a big believer in: ‘Holy, crap, he played him 26 minutes. Does he have anything left for Wednesday?’ ” Tortorella explained, claiming he was unaware of Kesler’s TOI. “I don’t buy it. I’m going to take each game at a time and if this certain person is one of our best players, I’m going to get him on the ice.”
Maybe Tortorella’s strategy will work. Vigneault’s way didn’t work the last two playoffs, although the Canucks, with minutes carefully managed and roles spread throughout the lineup, did manage to win more games than any NHL team the last five years.
But the way the new coach plans to run the team — is running the team — raises issues, including how playing the bejesus out of the best and most important Canucks meshes with general manager Mike Gillis’ long-standing ideals about fatigue management and maximizing player health and performance.
Gillis has said Tortorella fully supports sports science, including the “sleep doctor,” that is among the GM’s core beliefs.
But beyond any conflicting ideologies between coach and manager, there is a profound logistical difference between what Tortorella is accustomed to and where he finds himself now: in the Western Conference and one of the NHL’s most remote outposts.
With the New York Rangers, Tortorella had the easiest travel in the league. With the Canucks, he’ll experience some of the hardest.
It was no coincidence last season that among the top 10 NHL forwards in average ice time, nine played in the Eastern Conference. Three of the top 25 were Rangers. Henrik Sedin was the busiest Canuck forward at 19:20 per game, which was only 42nd in the league.
Tortorella was the only NHL coach who used four defencemen more than 23 minutes a night, and three Rangers averaged more than 24 minutes. Only three other teams had as many as two blue-liners over that threshold. Thirteen had none.
Top Canuck Alex Edler averaged 23:50.
And Tortorella’s goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, was second in the NHL in minutes and started 43 of the Rangers’ 48 games. By the way, none of the busiest 10 goalies in the league made it past the playoffs’ second round.
How will Tortorella’s plan to ride his top players work in the Western Conference?
“There will be no team in this league that has more days off than this team,” he vowed. “I know that. I have gone through that schedule and we are going to take time off. I think there are (better) ways to recover than worrying about only playing 18 minutes instead of 23 minutes. I’ve never bought into that and it’s been asked of me a lot.
“I want to win that game. I want to win Game 2, I’m not looking to Game 5. So if Sedin or Kes needs to be on the ice ... and play 12 minutes in that third period, they will play those 12 minutes of that third period to try to win that game.
“It’s a great question because it’s a major concern of mine, recovery. That’s a huge part of what I need to learn in this conference, especially with our travel schedule. But I believe there are other ways to recover than reducing ice time in a particular game.”
Can Kesler play, say, 22-23 minutes a night and stay healthy while criss-crossing the continent? He has had trouble staying healthy playing 19-20 minutes.
“I think that lays on my shoulders,” Kesler said. “I’ve got to do the job off the ice — nutrition, rest. Do everything to keep myself healthy and keep myself in the best possible shape.
“I’m going to have to get used to playing those minutes again and being fresh every night. He’s going to play the players who are playing the best and it’s going to be good. I’m looking for that challenge.”
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun