Alain Vigneault will be back in Vancouver tomorrow night, leading his playoff-bound Rangers side against John Tortorella and the Canucks, who will almost certainly miss the postseason for the first time since 2008.
A few weeks ago, I listed three things the Canucks have struggled with under Tortorella, starting with this:
1. They can’t move the puck
Specifically, from their end of the ice and into the attacking zone. Which is important in hockey, and also something the Canucks used to do really well during their salad days with Alain Vigneault behind the bench.
Mike Babcock — a good coach, we can all agree, right? — is always talking about the importance of getting the puck moving out of the defensive end in order to transition quickly through the neutral zone and into the opponent’s end, WITH POSSESSION.
So you can imagine I perked up when I read the following passage by Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes:
Talked to a longtime NHL scout on Wednesday in St. Paul who delivered the defining word on the Vancouver Canucks under John Tortorella.
“They play so slow,” the scout said.
The problem, of course, is they aren’t built to play that way.
To be clear, playing “fast” doesn’t mean skating fast. It means making fast plays, pushing the puck and not giving your opponent time to get set defensively.
Here’s a great quote from Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, during the summer Olympic camp:
“I think the sucker play is you have more space, you have more time, so the tendency is to take more time. It’s the big mistake. When we play well as Canadians, we play fast defensively and even faster offensively.”
Hitchcock was actually talking about playing on the big ice, but he preaches the same thing with his Blues.
“To me, transition … the whole game has to be played behind people,” Hitchcock said back in 2011, per In The Slot blog. “It’s not so much chipping it in, it’s just making people turn. That’s the whole focus of the game. If everybody’s on that page, then you play faster. You don’t slow down to make a play.
“The whole attitude is you’re converging pucks, bodies and traffic at the net, so your whole game is towards the net. But in order to do it, you have to make people turn. We’re trying to create an environment where we make them face their goalie as much as we can so that they can’t defend facing up ice.”
When Vigneault was coaching the Canucks, there were a lot of fans who thought he treated Keith Ballard unfairly. Despite the veteran defenseman’s healthy contract and good skating ability, he was often made a healthy scratch.
Well, here’s what Ballard said after he returned to the lineup in the 2011 playoffs and was pleased with how things went while paired with Chris Tanev: “We were solid. It was probably what they wanted out of us. We got the puck up to the forwards as soon as possible.”
What does that tell you? It tells you Ballard was being told to get the puck moving faster. (Pretty much the same thing, by the way, that Ian White was being told last season in Detroit, where he was often a healthy scratch under Mike Babcock.)
Under Tortorella, getting the puck up to the forwards as soon as possible doesn’t seem to be a priority.
That, or the Canucks’ defensemen aren’t doing a good job of it.
That, or the forwards aren’t in good enough position to receive passes.
The result is defensemen holding on to the puck for what seems like forever — often being forced to circle back, or pass it back and forth with their partner — and no chance of a dangerous transition.
The result is an offense that ranks 28th in the NHL.
The result is a style that is boring to watch.
The result is empty seats.
The result is a coach that may be fired after the first year of a five-year, $10 million contract.