VANCOUVER – Heavily criticized Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella blamed himself Friday for his struggling club’s woes.
With five games left in the regular season and a playoff berth unlikely, Tortorella took “full responsibility” for a change in the team’s style of play that resulted in a months-long swoon following a strong start to his first, and potentially only, season behind the Canucks bench.
“We were playing a style of game that we wanted to play the first couple of months, those first 35-40 games,” Tortorella said after practice. “It’s a style that we continue to teach right now. When we went to California and went through that twice in two weeks, got banged up a little bit, we did have to change a bit. We lost some guys. My mistake is not shaking us back to aggressiveness quick enough.
“I don’t think we got fully healthy, but I did not do a good enough job of getting us back to the style that we should be playing when we were banged up there. We were conservative. We had to be.”
The futures of Tortorella and general manager Mike Gillis are in question as the Canucks (34-32-11) seek to re-gain some of the offensive prowess that took them within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2010-11. The Canucks have not been mathematically eliminated yet as they head into Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (45-27-6), but face long odds in their bid to claim the second wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
Tortorella’s comments came a day after Gillis went on a Vancouver radio station and called for the club to play a more possession-oriented, up-tempo style of play. The GM vowed that anyone who did not want to play that style would be gone, but admitted his own future was also in doubt.
Many observers viewed the comments as an effort by Gillis to distance himself from Tortorella as the Aquilini family, which owns the team, contemplates off-season changes.
Tortorella declined to discuss Gillis’ comments, but the coach said he believes the style that he and his coaching staff are trying to teach is one that Gillis wants and he and the GM are “on the same page.”
Tortorella said he has a “fantastic” relationship with Gillis.
“As I’ve said, I think he’s an interesting guy,” said Tortorella. “The thing I love about him, and I’ve said it, probably, half a dozen times, he’s looking to turn over any rock to try to find an edge to help this team win. Managers do that, and he does it in a different way in that he’s searching everywhere, and I respect that about him. The Aquilinis spend the money, and we have a general manager here that’s trying to find any which we that he can to help us win. That’s a good thing.”
Tortorella said the Canucks got back to the way he wanted them to play, after an “embarrassing” 6-1 loss in Dallas in early March. But the effort to become less conservative should have happened earlier.
“That’s a huge mistake by me,” he said. “I think we’ve kind of corralled it—a little bit too late, though.”
Before Friday’s games, the Canucks trailed the Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars by six points in the race for the final playoff berth.
Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin, who is expected to return to the lineup after missing four games with a leg injury, said the Canucks “got away” from the aggressive, puck-possession style that Tortorella wants them to play, because injuries and “a lot of things happened.” But it can be highly effective when players are executing it, like they were in December.
“Just because he talks about shot-blocking and being hard on pucks and all that kind of stuff, people read into that in the wrong kind of way,” said Sedin.
Although Tortorella is known for his fiery demeanour and criticizing players, Sedin said public perceptions of how he has handled players are wrong. Even since the loss to Dallas, he has remained extremely positive.
“If honesty and talking to you face to face and saying what’s right or wrong or what he expects from you is old style, then, yeah, he’s an old kind of coach,” said Sedin. “But I think that’s the way you want it.”
Pointing to the team’s success early in the season, Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa said it’s “debatable” how much the team’s style of play has affected its position in the standings.
“I don’t think it matters so much what style of hockey you play,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting the job done.…We had a lot of close games earlier in the season that we should have won.”
Bieksa said Tortorella has given veteran players more power and control over the locker-room and “it’s been a good fit for the second half.”
The Canucks have yet to beat the Kings in four meetings this season. The Kings hold a 3-0-1 advantage.
The Canucks and Kings have waged memorable playoff battles in recent years, with L.A. taking the last series in five games in 2011-12. Kings captain Dustin Brown said it’s unusual to be playing a Canucks squad that has not already secured a playoff spot, but he is still expecting a tough contest.
“They’re definitely going to be desperate,” he said. “But you want to play teams that are desperate because it can get us ready for where we need to be for our playoffs.”
Brown said it’s hard to tell how differently the Canucks are playing from previous seasons, given that they have faced many injuries, tried to bring in new players and traded goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“Every team has an identity, but sometimes you can lose it,” said Brown.
However, Tortorella vowed to keep preaching the same style “until the bitter end”—or his bosses dismiss him.
“It’s not about cowering away from it and changing to make everybody happy—or about trying to save my job,” he said. “It’s about trying to do it the right way, and I still think I’m doing that.”