VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks arrived for training camp Wednesday with high expectations following two first-round playoff exits.
Fiery new coach John Tortorella is likely to be more demanding than laid-back predecessor Alain Vigneault, the winningest coach in team history. Vigneault was fired last spring and took over Tortorella’s previous job with the New York Rangers.
But with few roster changes expected as Tortorella’s era in Vancouver begins under a reduced NHL salary cap, some veterans are looking for motivation from within.
“We accomplished quite a bit, this core group, in the last five, six, seven years,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “But obviously the last two years, we’re not happy with at all. Two first-round exits. Last year was just straight-up embarrassing.
“So we have a lot to prove to ourselves and everybody else obviously. Expectations in the (dressing) room are always going to be higher for us than from the media or the fans. We want to win. We want to win now. We’ve been together for a long time and we’ve put in a lot of work.”
Players also expect to work hard under Tortorella, who was fired by the Rangers at the end of last season. He’s attempting to change his reputation for having a hot temper, little tolerance for reporters’ questions and a tendency to browbeat players.
But Tortorella, who is also known for physically demanding training camps, said it will still take him some time to figure out which players need extra incentive to play at their best.
“It’s not always looking to kick a guy,” said Tortorella. “That’s what happens sometimes when we talk about this (reputation), that all I’m doing is kicking people.
“That’s not what this is about. It’s watching, observing (and) that’s why I can’t wait to get going. I want to get to know them. I want them to know me, and then you go through your day-to-day situations and what comes up that day, react to. I’ll make mistakes. I hope I correct them and go the right way, but you can’t forecast, you can’t predict, how you’re going to (motivate players.) You need to take each day at a time.”
The Canucks held off-ice physical tests Wednesday at Rogers Arena and will conduct on-ice testing at the University of British Columbia on Thursday before hitting the ice for workouts back at their downtown rink Friday.
Winger Zack Kassian, 22, acquired two seasons ago from Buffalo in the Cody Hodgson trade, is one player who appears likely to receive an extra push from Tortorella. The coach reached out to Kassian in the off-season in a bid to get him going early.
“I want to give him every opportunity to be a huge part of this team, and I’ve told him that,” said Tortorella. “I want to give him an opportunity because of what people have told me about him. It’s something that I think the team needs as far as his willingness, as far as his playing into a bigger role within the team. I’d like to see it happen.”
He wants Kassian, who may get a chance to play as a top-six forward in pre-season games, “to step out of himself” and become a “big part” of the club. Kassian, who has played on all four lines without establishing a clear place, said it’s up to him to show what he can do and earn a bigger role.
“It’s always tough when you’re bouncing around on lines, but I don’t want to use an excuse,” said Kassian. “I need to get more consistent. The mental side of the game, I felt like I’ve grown this summer, and I come in more mature and stronger and in better shape than last season, and that’s all you can expect.
“I think I’m going in with open eyes this year.”
He was Buffalo’s top draft choice (13th overall) in 2009, but has yet to live up to his billing as a prototypical power forward. The LaSalle, Ont., native recorded seven goals and four assists in 39 games with the Canucks after the lockout and had 21 points (8-13) while toiling for their former Chicago Wolves farm club during the labour dispute.
Tortorella also hopes to get more out of centre Ryan Kesler, who is healthy again after hip, shoulder and wrist injuries limited his training in the past two off-seasons. Kesler spent the summer getting his body “where it needs to be.”
Kesler believes he and Vancouver’s emotional new coach can get along.
“I think we’re a good fit,” said Kesler. “We both want to win, we both hate losing, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
While players go through a feeling-out process with Tortorella, goaltender Roberto Luongo will “just try to feel it out” when it comes to staying with the Canucks after the club indicated it would trade him in the past two off-seasons.
While Luongo said he could not ask for anything better than being a starter in the NHL, he has yet to express pleasure about staying in Vancouver.
“I’m not saying I’m unhappy,” he said. “Right now, I just want to be playing and then we’ll see how it goes.”
Defenceman Dan Hamhuis said all the Canucks are eager for the season to start under Tortorella.
Hamhuis, a 30-year-old Smithers, B.C., native said players must be mentally tough when dealing with criticism from the new coach, who pledged to implement a culture that allows players to be highly creative on offence but still play strong defence.
“He’s going to raise his voice and yell at us if he’s not happy with our performance,” said Hamhuis. “We’ve got to expect that and we can’t get down on ourselves and get down and be upset in a way that it’s going to negatively affect our play.
“We have to understand that he wants the best for us, and he’s not trying to put us down as individuals. He’s trying to build us up.”
Notes: Winger David Booth remains out with an ankle injury suffered last March. General manager Mike Gillis said Booth has still not been cleared to play.