VANCOUVER — John Tortorella knows the comparisons with Alain Vigneault are inevitable.
The two coaches flip flopped jobs after both were fired last summer, with Tortorella taking over the Vancouver Canucks and Vigneault heading to Broadway to lead the New York Rangers.
Their first seasons on opposite coasts couldn’t have gone much differently with the teams set to meet Tuesday night in Vigneault’s first regular-season game at Rogers Arena since his dismissal.
After a slow start, the Rangers find themselves firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, while the Canucks were quick out of the gate only to falter badly, leaving their post-season hopes in tatters.
“We’re losing games so I’m the idiot, and he’s winning game so he’s the smart guy — and rightfully so,” Tortorella said after Monday’s practice. “When you lose games and you struggle, you’re going to get scrutinized.
“That’s part of the business, and I should be scrutinized.”
Vigneault led the Canucks to within a victory of the 2011 Stanley Cup and won a total of six division titles — twice leading the team to the NHL’s best record — during his seven seasons in Vancouver.
He took the high road when asked his thoughts on the Canucks’ season, as well as the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider goaltending controversy that ended with both being traded away.
“I’m 3,000 miles away,” said Vigneault. “I have no idea what’s going on here.”
Tortorella, who had his New York homecoming back in November, similarly tried to deflect focus away from his former team: “I’ve been gone long enough. I don’t do too much reminiscing right now.”
The Canucks and Rangers were clearly looking for changes in direction after last season, and one of the biggest differences between Tortorella and Vigneault is their style of coaching. Each man focuses on defence, but the fiery Tortorella preaches a puck pressure in all three zones, while the soft-spoken Vigneault is a progressive thinker with a more of a laissez-fair attitude towards his players.
While Tortorella has seemingly tried to impose his system on the Canucks, Vigneault said he recognized that what worked for him in Vancouver wasn’t necessarily going to succeed in the Big Apple.
“You’ve definitely have to tailor (your system) to the team that you have and the personnel that you have. I don’t have the same personnel now,” said Vigneault. “There are some things that we do similar, but it’s a different team.
“We play a good game, play north-south. We’ve got good speed on our team, we use that speed to defend and we use that speed to generate some good offence when the opportunity is there.”
While refusing to get into specifics about the Canucks, Vigneault added that Vancouver’s core group, including Daniel and Henrik Sedin, are still “elite players.”
“They’re professionals that compete real hard,” he said. “I don think that has changed.”
There’s no arguing that the Canucks have suffered a number of devastating injuries, but it has nevertheless been a season-long adjustment switching to Tortorella’s system.
“It’s much different. In all three zones it’s different,” said forward Alex Burrows, who has just five goals and nine assists in 43 games. “I don’t know if there’s one (system) that’s better with different players. There’s a lot of different guys in the locker-room this year.
“We’ve shown signs that the system really works. If we’re playing it to a tee, I think it works.”
For their part, the Rangers couldn’t be happier with Vigneault despite a rocky 3-7-0 start that had some questioning if he was the right fit.
“I think he’s come in and done a wonderful job,” said Rangers forward Rick Nash. “Sometimes you see it’s tough for a coach to come in in his first year, but it’s all been positive stuff.
“I’ve had a fair amount of coaches in my career and he’s a great one. He really lets us play our game and do our thing.”
Canucks forward Ryan Kesler agreed that among Vigneault’s attributes is his ability to let the players have space.
“He did a great job of giving us the (locker-room),” said Kesler. “We played the right way, like he used to say, and we dominated teams.”
The Rangers (42-30-4) sit second in the Metropolitan Division with 88 points and seem destined for a first-round playoff matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, while Canucks (34-31-11) can only dream of the post-season. Vancouver has 79 points, five back of the second Western Conference wild-card spot currently owned by the Phoenix Coyotes.
According to the website sportsclubstats.com, the Rangers’ chances of making the playoffs heading into Monday’s action were 99.7 per cent, while the Canucks’ hopes sat at a minuscule 0.5 per cent.
“I don’t know what the arithmetic is. Losing the other night (a 5-1 defeat loss to the Anaheim Ducks), it puts us in a real precarious spot. We all know that,” said Tortorella. “Are we going to get in? It’s very slim and we’ve known that, but it still doesn’t stop you from working at your business with your team.”
Despite the Rangers’ slow start to the season, Vigneault said it was important not to panic.
“There’s some teams that progress and some teams that sort of fade away,” said Vigneault, who made his first trip to Rogers Arena as a visitor during the pre-season. “If you want to get into the playoffs and challenge, you’ve got to be one of those teams that progresses, and we have progressed.”
Progress is not something the Canucks have done during the 2013-14 campaign. With just six games to go in this lost season, there could be some tough decisions coming for a franchise that is not used to saying its goodbyes in mid-April.
A visit from Vigneault and the Rangers only hammers that point home further.
“The situation we’re in, the situation they’re in, I’m sure there’s going to be a number of things going on as far as comparisons,” said Tortorella. “But that’s part of the business.”