VANCOUVER – From the top down, the Vancouver Canucks are a team with something to prove.
There’s the new coach getting another chance after a tumultuous exit from his last job, the goalie who thought he was on his way out of town and the core group of players with just one post-season victory since making the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
The Canucks open the 2013-14 campaign Thursday where their last one ended—in Northern California against the San Jose Sharks.
“I’m anxious—a good anxious. You want to get going,” Canucks coach John Tortorella said after Wednesday’s practice at the University of British Columbia. “I want to see what the team looks like. I want to see how they react in different situations.
“We’re playing for the real stuff here.”
Tortorella was hired by Vancouver in June to light a fire under a club that has far too often failed to match its regular-season success in the playoffs.
Axed by the New York Rangers after last season and replaced by former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault following clashes with both the media and players, the calmer Tortorella looks at his job with Vancouver as a fresh opportunity.
“I’m always trying to be better as a coach each and every day. I make a lot of mistakes, as the players do,” he said. “Coaches don’t get evaluated too much from their bosses. Usually you get evaluated when they kick you out of the organization, so I always self-evaluate each game and each day.”
Apart from a change behind the bench, the goaltending soap opera that dominated Vancouver for two years ended at June’s draft when the Canucks, who were unable to move Roberto Luongo’s huge contract, dealt Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.
That thrust Luongo back into the crease with a team that, for a time, no longer wanted him.
“Given what’s happened over the last little while it’s nice to get a fresh start here and know you’re the No. 1 again and just play hockey,” Luongo said.
After being a perennial Cup favourite in recent years, the Canucks have flown under the radar somewhat in the leadup to the new season.
And with the NHL’s conference and division realignment, Vancouver could find itself in the unfamiliar position of having to battle for a playoff spot late into the season.
“We know inside our locker-room we have a team to go a long way,” Canucks forward Daniel Sedin said. “We haven’t won yet. We’ve got to win—that’s the bottom line and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Added Luongo: “We’ve got a great nucleus. We’ve been through a lot as a team and I think we grew from that.”
Vancouver has won five straight division titles, but lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the second straight year. The Canucks followed that up by getting swept by San Jose in last season’s opening round.
“If you lose out in the first round of the playoffs you always have something to prove,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “That’s no different for us.”
Tortorella said he won’t be using recent failure in Thursday’s pre-game speech.
“I think there’s enough motivation in what we’re trying to do as a team, and that’s trying to win our first game,” he said. “I think there are just way too many things that have gone on around this team as far as expectations that we need to just corral ourselves and take just one day at a time.”
Tortorella has instituted a new system in training camp that emphasizes defence, shot blocking and aggression in all three zones.
“It’s about being just hard to play against,” Henrik Sedin said. “I think we had that a few years back and I think we lost it a little bit of that. We lost that identity of being a tough team and grinding things out.
“The expectations were always on us (that) it didn’t matter what we did in the regular season. The playoffs mattered. Once we got to the playoffs we didn’t have that mindset where everyone knew the way to play.”
The opening test for the Canucks is a tough one. The Sharks have played Vancouver tough over the years, especially at home.
“That is a tough building to play in and we’ve had some issues down there where games are out of hand before they even start,” Henrik Sedin added. “But it’s a new year, we play a different system.
“It’s a fresh start for everyone.”
Follow Joshua Clipperton on Twitter at @josh_clipperton