Marc Staal kept trailing off.
The New York Rangers defenceman was trying to describe the end of the John Tortorella era. “It just seemed like we had no…” he said, not completing his sentence. “There was a lot of negative…”
Staal never finished the thought. But he acknowledged that things got “stagnant” under the disciplinarian coach.
“Management thought we needed a fresh voice as something that would spark us up a little bit,” he said. “I think there’s excitement to have a fresh voice and fresh ideas that are going to come into play.”
That fresh voice belongs to former Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. Tortorella replaced him with the Canucks, and culture changes are in the offing in both places.
“It’s just a different look,” Canucks centre Ryan Kesler said. “Hopefully it energizes both teams.”
That’s the idea behind coaching changes, including the Edmonton Oilers hiring Dallas Eakins to replace the fired Ralph Krueger and the Dallas Stars bringing in the seasoned Lindy Ruff to shepherd a litany of changes.
In Edmonton, Eakins is being counted on to get the Oilers back to the playoffs for the first time since their 2006 trip to the Stanley Cup final. The former coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies could be well-suited for a talented yet growing group that includes Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz.
“I think it was a great situation for him to go to Edmonton because it’s a young team, it’s what he’s used to dealing with,” said Binghamton Senators coach Luke Richardson, a friend of Eakins dating to their time with the Peterborough Petes. “I know his philosophy is in great, great conditioning and most players are, but he goes that extra step. His teams are really going to skate well, be in great condition. They’re all young, good players there in Edmonton right now, so I think it’s a good situation for him.”
Those young players understand the pressure is on them to perform on the ice. Eberle remembers the Oilers dominating at times last season but not being able to maintain consistency.
“I think we need to get a winning mentality back,” he said.
Richardson is one of Eakins’ biggest supporters as his fitness-first mentality gets a run at this Edmonton team.
“I think an organization, as good of players as you have and talented as players you have, you really have got to have good coaching and good structure and have that respect there to have all those players playing together,” Richardson said. “Otherwise, if you don’t play together and every other team is, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
Perhaps that’s why Eakins was so sought-after during the off-season. The Canucks were interested in hiring him, before the Oilers made room for him by firing Krueger.
“Think there was talk of Vancouver really wanting him but him deciding his fit would be Edmonton better,” Richardson said. “It sure seems to be a better fit.”
But Vigneault was also a hot commodity. As Stars general manager Jim Nill remade the roster by trading for centres Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley from Boston, Shawn Horcoff from Edmonton and defenceman Sergei Gonchar from Ottawa, he interviewed Vigneault.
Nill wasn’t surprised that Vigneault withdrew from consideration and took the Rangers job. So he moved on and hired Ruff because of his experience, credibility and knowledge.
“All these attributes were checked off,” Nill said.
Ruff and Vigneault don’t share much in terms of coaching styles, but both came close to winning the Stanley Cup. Ruff and the Buffalo Sabres lost to the Stars, coincidentally enough, on Brett Hull’s infamous overtime goal in 1999, while Vigneault and the Canucks fell short against the Bruins in 2011.
That 2011 Cup final created plenty of tension between the Bruins and Canucks, but it also Boston centre Patrice Bergeron a look at how Vigneault teams tend to play. That experience will be vital now that he’s behind the Rangers’ bench.
“I think the Rangers were already a team that was hard to play against,” Bergeron said. “I think (up-tempo) is his style. Playing against Vancouver, that’s the way that they were: an in-your-face type of team and lots of offence but also lots of grit.”
The Canucks could present the same challenges. With Daniel and Henrik Sedin leading the way, Vancouver is built for skill but now coached for shot-blocking and sacrifice thanks to Tortorella.
“Obviously a guy that expects a lot, wants a lot from his team and a guy that wants more and a guy that’s going to hold everybody accountable,” Kesler said. “It’s going to be good for us.”