In a way, the rebuilding of the Vancouver Canucks began long before the team traded goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday in exchange for goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom and center Shawn Matthias, per Corey Masisak of NHL.com.
On June 25, 2013, the Canucks handed John Tortorella a five-year contract to coach the team, which seemed like an odd choice at the time. Tortorella had success in his four-plus years with the New York Rangers, but he inherited a young team that he molded into his own image—a tough, hard-working team that followed his orders or felt his wrath.
The team developed a thick skin, and Tortorella’s work culminated with the budding Rangers reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 and conference semifinals in 2013. Not long after the Rangers were bounced by the Boston Bruins in five games last year, however, Tortorella was fired with one year remaining on his contract.
The players instilled with toughness and grit that was nonexistent when Tortorella arrived in New York turned on him. Veterans and young players alike had enough of the coach’s abrasive style, and despite his success, Tortorella was told his services were no longer needed.
There was a similar process when Tortorella became coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2000-01 season. That squad featured Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards, both 20 years old at the time, and a 25-year-old Martin St. Louis. Three years later, that young team had grown into a Stanley Cup champion.
That brings us to the Canucks, an aging, veteran-laden, declining team. Not a team that was heading for a top-five pick in the draft by any means, but one that was showing signs that its days of contending for Stanley Cups in the highly competitive Western Conference were over. The Canucks finished with 111 points two years ago, but were waxed in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings in five games. They followed that with 59 points in 48 games last year and a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
The Canucks were a team whose top players were all in their 30s, with Ryan Kesler heading into his age-29 season. They weren't exactly bursting with top prospects who needed to be shown the ropes of playing in the NHL.
It's not exactly a roster that screams, "We need John Tortorella!"
This isn’t to say general manager Mike Gillis was fully expecting to drop a bomb into his dressing room in March when he hired Tortorella in June, but it had to be in the back of his mind that he had the right coach for a rebuild if things went sour.
Yet here the Canucks sat one day before the trade deadline at 28-25-10 and two points out of a playoff spot, and Gillis said, “Blow it up.” He read the writing on the wall and made the difficult choice to trade Luongo, knowing full well he dealt potential franchise starter Cory Schneider to the Devils for Bo Horvat five days after hiring Tortorella.
Looking at the Schneider-Luongo deals together, it's fair to say it appears Gillis didn't really have a plan in place as recently as eight months ago. The Canucks have had the look of a team that’s been wandering aimlessly through the woods without a compass the past two-plus years, but maybe now Gillis has figured out the direction he wants to take.
The 24-year-old Markstrom is not the same ballyhooed prospect he was a few years ago, but the 31st pick in the 2008 draft still has the potential to be a starter in the NHL. Markstrom’s numbers with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL aren’t going to knock anyone over—he’s 12-11-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .918 save percentage—but he’s a nice acquisition whose contract doesn’t run through the end of time like Luongo’s deal.
Matthias, 26, has second-line center potential, but is probably better suited for a bottom-six role. How he will fit into a team coached by Tortorella remains to be seen, but he’s an inexpensive risk with a $1.75 million cap hit through 2014-15.
This is likely the beginning of a series of moves that will reshape the Canucks. Kesler was reported to be unhappy and to have asked for a trade by Louis Jean of TVA Sports, although the 29-year-old later told reporters he was happy in Vancouver.
Defenseman Alex Edler might be moved. Heck, there isn’t anyone on this roster who couldn’t be had outside of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who signed four-year, $28 million extensions during the season.
And they must be thrilled about unwittingly getting locked into a rebuild.
Tortorella is an old dog that can’t be taught new tricks. The same can be said for veteran hockey players, and that mixture is like oil and water. If both sides dig in their heels, it’s going to lead to friction, and when no success is coming of it, changes are going to be made.
Tortorella just got there, so he isn’t going anywhere. He likely spent the first 60 games of this season identifying the players he feels can contribute playing his style of hockey, the players he feels have the mixture of toughness, talent and willingness to follow orders without hesitation.
You can question Tortorella’s methods, but you can’t question the success he’s had with them. He took a moribund Rangers franchise and brought it respectability and led a once inept Tampa Bay Lightning franchise to a Stanley Cup.
All good things come to an end. They’re coming to an end in Vancouver, but if anyone can bring them back again, it’s Tortorella.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
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