NHL preview: Time for the Canucks to get tough

John Tortorella was brought in to Vancouver to toughen up the Canucks.

Most hockey observers look at the Vancouver Canucks and see a team whose championship window is closing, if not slammed shut.

The Sedin twins are 33, Roberto Luongo is 34 and it’s been more than two years since the Canucks were oh-so-close to winning the Stanley Cup. Back-to-back first-round playoff exits — the most recent, to San Jose, being “straight-up embarrassing,” according to defenceman Kevin Bieksa — have left many to believe the talented core of the Canucks has missed its opportunity. Yet, despite the prevailing pessimism, there will be plenty of regret if that ends up being the case.

Enter John Tortorella, a proven winner who was brought in to kick and cajole more out of this team than Alain Vigneault ever could. That, of course, won’t be accomplished with a group hug or Kumbaya sing-song. But the fiery Tortorella’s toughest task will be shifting the team’s focus to the defensive side of the game after years of success under a more offensively minded bench boss.

So what does that really mean for the Canucks? Well, for starters, Henrik and Daniel will be expected to start killing penalties. By extension, the second- and fifth-highest NHL scorers over the past five seasons will also have to throw themselves in front of opponents’ shots. That is a mandatory requirement for everyone who plays for Tortorella.

“Blocking shots develops a culture,” he explained. “When you have a Sedin blocking a shot, watch what the bench does. It’ll be 10 feet tall.”

Everyone is going to be pushed outside of his comfort zone. Except Luongo — all the coach wants to see from his No. 1 goalie is that he gets back into his. Tortorella believes the goaltending circus finally left town when Cory Schneider was traded in July and has made it no secret that Luongo is now the most important player the Canucks have. As is true in every other NHL city, Tortorella’s success is inextricably linked to the performance of his top goalie.

But, despite the malaise that’s set in since Zdeno Chara hoisted the trophy at Rogers Arena, what still makes Vancouver a contender is its top-notch supporting cast. Ryan Kesler is healthy to start a season for the first time since 2010–11 and will be reunited with super pest Alex Burrows. Winger Zack Kassian will be asked to fill a bigger role, possibly as a linemate for the Sedins, while a solidly built blueline should benefit from a better overall commitment to team defence.

The Canucks could be a very good team; maybe even a great one. In that sense, nothing has changed.

And yet, with Tortorella around, everything has. As a result, it isn’t a stretch to say that the season hinges on the players’ ability to adapt to life with a new boss — and one who, even after guiding the New York Rangers to the Eastern Conference final in 2012 and the second round last season, was fired this summer amid whispers of a players’ revolt.

“This is the 13th season for Daniel and I, and we’ve had two coaches [Marc Crawford and Vigneault],” said Henrik Sedin. “Most guys in the league have had five or six by that time. It’s a learning curve for us. It’s no secret. It’s going to be different.”

For all of the talk about Torts softening his image this season, there is really no way he can be anything but a hard-ass behind closed doors. And that just may be what’s required. After all, the old way clearly wasn’t working.

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