A couple things are certain about John Tortorella.
He wins a lot of hockey games—as evidenced by titles on three levels (ACHL, AHL, NHL) and playoff berths in all but three of 14 overall seasons as a head coach.
And when it comes to the locker room, the bench and the press room, he does it his own way.
The scraggly-haired, goateed Tortorella was a fixture in those places for the last five years at Madison Square Garden, and highlights of him delivering terse monosyllabic answers—or full-on putdowns—to the assembled New York Rangers beat writers were as frequent as nifty goals or dazzling saves.
In fact, a 62-second compilation of memorable interactions posted 15 months ago on YouTube has nearly 200,000 views.
I'm not going to give you much information, he said in a post-game press conference during the 2012 playoffs. Some of you guys sit here and tell me I'm curt or whatever. I'm not going to have a staring contest. If you don't ask me questions, I'll just leave. So that's the way it is. I'm sorry I'm not a guy who wants to converse about everything during the playoffs. I'm not.
When it comes to abrasiveness, he’s Bill Belichick on skates with a better wardrobe and a thinner resume. Of course, as is often the case with perpetually cranky coaches who don’t own as many trophies as the hoodied New England genius, the sandpaper ultimately outlasts the success.
Such was the case with Tortorella in Tampa Bay, where he was fired after six seasons with one year remaining on his contract. And such was the case again this spring, when the Rangers axed him after five seasons, four days after the team was dumped from the playoffs—and also with a year left on his deal.
Attracted more to the on-ice wins than the verbal warfare, the Vancouver Canucks scooped up the jobless coach a month later, hiring him to replace a kinder, gentler Alain Vigneault two years after his Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on their home ice against Boston.
On the surface, it’s another team signing on for a passionate short-term romance when the track record shows that the affair will ultimately end in divorce. In fact, Rangers GM Glen Sather was particularly prescient at the Manhattan send-off, saying, “Every coach has a shelf life.”
Tortorella won championships in his first seasons with Virginia in the ACHL and Rochester in the AHL en route to loftier positions. He then went from a postseason miss to a second-round loss to a Stanley Cup in his initial three seasons in Tampa Bay before stalling, and got to the conference final and semifinal in New York before the welcome was overstayed.
Because the cupboard Vigneault left isn’t bare, his Vancouver smile ought to last a while too.
The average age of last season’s forwards was 27.5, which ranked 10th in the league, and the average of the top nine on opening night in October will be 29.2—with four players 30 or older and five players 29 or younger. The defense is in similar surroundings, with an average 2012-13 age (27.4) that was 12th in the league, and an average among the top-three pairings of 28.1 to begin this season.
Of the four teams that reached conference finals last spring, two were older (Pittsburgh and Boston) and two were younger (Chicago and Los Angeles), so one or two long glances at the Cup that just barely eluded Vigneault are hardly out of the question for Tortorella due to mileage.
What’s much more a question mark is how the still-spry personnel will react.
Starting goalie Roberto Luongo was a Jennings Trophy winner with a 2.11 goals-against average two seasons ago, and his fortunes should logically approach those levels again with the new regime, which stresses positional discipline and individual sacrifice in the name of systemic success.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had a 2.05 goals-against average while facing 27.7 shots per game in his last season under Tortorella, 1.5 shots per game fewer than Luongo saw per night while playing 60 of 82 games in his best season of seven since arriving from Florida in 2006.
If the 34-year-old Luongo delivers the comeback he’s promised, the back end is secure.
A harder sell job may be required for front-line twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, whose creativity and playmaking thrived in a more wide-open scheme, and whose role in a different scheme Tortorella immediately addressed upon first meeting the West Coast media in June.
A little less imagination at the start, he said, could result in extended playoff runs come springtime.
“I’ll tell you right now, (they) are going to kill penalties,” he said. “And if they’re going to kill penalties, they’re going to block shots. I think they’ll welcome it because they want to get better, they want to win a championship, and that’s how you win a championship.”
The brothers indicated a willingness to compromise, and likened the arrival of Tortorella to some other coaches they’d dealt with both before arriving in Vancouver and in their first several seasons in town.
What happens first in Vancouver, a Cup win or a firing?
We came up in a system in Sweden where we had to play really well defensively, Henrik said, per the Vancouver Sun. When we were 16 or 17, we had every role on the team—penalty killing, power play, on the ice in the last minute. We had Marc Crawford our first four or five years in Vancouver. We were used to that kind of style of coach pretty well all the way up until we got Alain. This isn't going to come as a shock to us.