VANCOUVER – The eruption is expected to occur almost any day now.
Observers are wondering how long it will take fiery new Canucks coach John Tortorella to do a Mount Vesuvius impression as a new era begins in Vancouver. It’s just a matter of time, they feel, before he spews the kind of rage that eventually got him fired from his previous job with the New York Rangers.
Tortorella’s explosive temper is just one of the hot topics circulating in Canucks camp as the 2013-14 NHL season approaches. Many are questioning whether he can reinvigorate a team that made first-round playoff exits the past two springs.
Other prominent storylines include goaltender Roberto Luongo’s return to No. 1 status following Cory Schneider’s trade to New Jersey; a healthy Ryan Kesler’s play after two injury-plagued seasons; perennial scoring leaders Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s production; winger Zack Kassian’s potential increased role; highly-paid, enigmatic winger David Booth’s recovery from injuries and inconsistency; and backup netminder Eddie Lack’s promotion to the NHL from the minors.
Tortorella’s task is to win with the same veteran core that reached the 2010-11 Stanley Cup finals but has faltered amidst high expectations since then. Kesler admits that he has not been good enough the past two seasons, but takes exception with people who question whether the Canucks are on a downward spiral.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be a great year, not just for me but for the whole team,” he said. “We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong—all those doubters out there. We’re going to make them eat their words.”
He and other Canucks have welcomed the harsh criticism that Tortorella is expected to dish out.
“I don’t think anyone in that locker-room will say they’ll play their best for 82 straight games,” said Kesler. “But I believe he’s going to do a good job when we’re all in that lull. He’s such an intense, passionate guy that he’s going to go in there and motivate us—get that spark, get that fire, get that energy—so we go out and compete every night.”
But heading into a season that will include a reduced salary cap and divisional realignment, the Canucks face a battle to prove their critics wrong. While general manager Mike Gillis pledged to hit the reset button after the Canucks were swept by the San Jose Sharks last spring, only one significant change occurred as Schneider was traded for the ninth overall draft pick that landed Bo Horvat. The 18-year-old centre is a candidate to make the team, but could need more seasoning with the OHL’s London Knights.
Winger Hunter Shinkaruk, Vancouver’s other first-round choice (24th overall) this year, is also vying for a spot along with 2012 first-round pick Brendan Gaunce and 2011 first-rounder Nicklas Jensen, who is currently injured.
Injuries to Booth and Jordan Schroeder and Kassian’s five-game suspension, incurred in the pre-season, could enable Horvat and Shinkaruk to stay up to nine games before they must go back to junior or have their entry-level contracts kick in.
Meanwhile, journeyman forward Mark Santorelli appears to have found a new home after impressing in exhibition games, and former Los Angeles Kings winger Brad Richardson joins the Canucks after signing as a free agent in the summer.
Additions on defence could include Frank Corrado, who played with the Canucks late in the regular campaign and playoffs last season, and former Montreal Canadiens defenceman Yannick Weber.
But barring any unforeseen hot streaks or injuries to key players, the newcomers will play minor roles as veterans bear the biggest burden.
“Obviously, the success of the season depends on your best players playing their best,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “Injuries factor into that. Sometimes, there’s things out of your control. But when there isn’t and everyone’s healthy and able to play the full season, we need the most out of everyone.
“We need (Kesler) going, we need (Luongo) back to form and the (Sedin) twins, obviously, doing their thing. All the defencemen have to play well. Our role players are going to have to be contributing. It’s a tough league, and it’s hard to win night in and night out.”
But winger Chris Higgins likens the new upcoming campaign to a renaissance rather than a chance at redemption.
“I think everyone’s open to having a new beginning with the coaching staff,” said Higgins. “I think we lost a little bit of our identity last year. I think we’re trying to re-establish that this year.”
Tortorella claims he does not want the Canucks to do much differently with a team that won back-to-back Presidents trophies in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and six Northwest Division titles under former coach Alain Vigneault. Still, Tortorella expects his charges to play a “more complete and consistent” game than the offensive-oriented one that Vigneault espoused.
“Everybody wants offence,” said Tortorella. “Everybody wants those pretty goals. Everyone thinks these new rules (intended to curb obstruction) are going to bring in these pretty goals. We all see what happens. You still need to have some bite and grind in the game.”
But no matter how much the coaching style or system changes, Vancouver’s hopes, as they have many times in the past, will rest largely on Luongo. After the uncertainty of the past two seasons and a widely expected trade that did not occur, the goaltender is looking to prove himself worthy of being No. 1 again.
Known for an October swoon, he is anxious to get off to a strong start and “leave all that other stuff behind and move on.” He has extra incentive to play well early, because the first half of the season will also serve as his Canadian Olympic team tryout.
Although his desire to remain in Vancouver was questioned following Schneider’s departure, Luongo insists that he is happy to be a Canuck. But after appearing to be unwanted by management after the past two seasons, Luongo expects to face an adjustment period.
“What’s happened over the two years, it’s a process, and I’ve just got to feel it out and see how it goes,” he said.