VANCOUVER — It took longer than expected, but John Tortorella has become the latest casualty of the Vancouver Canucks’ disappointing season.
In his first major action with the team, new Canucks president Trevor Linden announced Thursday that Tortorella and assistant coach Mike Sullivan have been relieved of their duties.
They join fired president and general manager Mike Gillis as those paying the price for a dismal year that saw the Canucks miss the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2008.
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"This was a tough decision," Linden told a news conference. "I have a great deal of respect for John and Mike, and what they’ve accomplished in their coaching careers."
The firings come 18 days after the NHL regular season ended and almost a month after Gillis was relieved of his duties. Linden, the former Canucks captain, was hired to replace Gillis as president.
"The more I looked at the situation I felt a change was necessary and a fresh start was needed obviously with the direction we’re going with a new manager," Linden said.
The Canucks will lean heavily on Linden, one of the most popular Canucks of all time, as they try to repair their image and their relationship with fans left disillusioned by the Canucks’ drop from the ranks of the NHL’s elite.
"This is a fresh start for our team and you’ll see us make some other changes this summer," Linden said in a letter to season ticket holders. "It starts with how we shape our management and coaching staffs and the roster improvements we’re able to make. Our goal is to be back in the playoffs next spring as we continue developing this group into a team that can challenge for the Stanley Cup. "
Linden said that Torotorella’s relationship with the Canucks players wasn’t a problem, but other factors, including the need to move forward with a new GM, sealed the coach’s fate.
"This core group of players, they’re a character group," Linden said. "They took full responsibility for the season and their performances. It was really less about that and more about many factors needing to go in a new direction."
Tortorella and Linden met after the season ended but the first-year coach’s departure wasn’t a surprise after the Canucks’ season went in to a tailspin in January.
The Canucks had a good start under Tortorella but finished the year with a 36-35-11 record for 83 points, leaving them 25th overall. The Canucks had just 13 wins in the 41 games since Jan. 1. Vancouver also struggled to score, managing just 196 goals on the season, leaving the Canucks tied for second least in the league. Three years ago the team scored 262 goals.
At an April 14 season-ending news conference Tortorella was blunt when he said the Canucks are getting old and the core needed revitalizing. He also said it’s time for fans and management to stop reminiscing about the Canucks losing in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final.
Tortorella sounded like a man who saw the writing on the wall when asked how he would approach his meetings with Linden.
"I don’t coach to keep my job," he said. "I’m not going to go into any meeting to try to save my job. I just don’t do it that way.
"I am going to tell him what I think. Trevor is very efficient and, from what I understand, is on top of everything. I’m not going to be rehearsed. He is going to ask me questions and I am going to answer his questions. I’m not going to go in there to protect myself. I am going to be honest."
Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup coaching Tampa Bay in 2004, was hired as the Canucks’ 17th head coach last June to replace the fired Alain Vigneault.
Vigneault took over Tortorella’s old team, the New York Rangers, and has led them into the second round of this season’s playoffs.
Tortorella has four years remaining on a contact which is estimated at US$2 million a season. It’s estimated the Canucks owe Gillis $4 million for the remaining four years left on his contract.
Tortorella could be cantankerous, even rude, when dealing with the media during his five seasons with the Rangers. He kept his promise to be different in Vancouver, where he was cordial and often funny when talking to reporters.
On the ice Tortorella preached defence and shot-blocking. He broke from the practises used by previous Vancouver coaches and played star players Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the penalty kill. He also faced criticism for the amount of ice time he heaped on front-line players like the Sedins and centre Ryan Kesler, who averaged 21 minutes 48 seconds of ice time a night.
Tortorella’s decision to start rookie goaltender Eddie Lack in the outdoor Heritage Classic game played at BC Place Stadium frustrated veteran Roberto Luongo. That decision eventually resulted in Luongo being traded to Florida.
A rash of injuries took their toll on the team. Both Sedins, Alex Burrows and defenceman Chris Tanev all missed a significant number of games with injuries.
Noted for his fiery manner behind the bench Tortorella shocked management and the team’s owners when he tried to get into the Calgary Flames’ locker-room following a line brawl in a Jan. 18 game in Vancouver. Tortorella was prevented from getting at Flames’ coach Bob Hartley and was suspended for six games.
The Canucks were 2-4-0 during that period, then 2-7-1 when Tortorella returned.
Tortorella remained unapologetic when asked about the incident at his last news conference.
"I was going to get him," Tortorella said about Hartley. "I’m not going to lie to you. If I got to him, I would have."
Canuck players said they played a role in the fate of both Gillis and Tortorella.
"It’s not a good feeling right now," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "We feel responsible for it.
"The bottom line is if we win more games, then guys don’t lose their jobs. We look at ourselves and think we could have been better, we should have been better."
Linden’s first priority will likely be to hire a general manager. Some of the names mentioned include Jim Benning, Boston’s assistant general manager and a former teammate of Linden; Ron Hextall, the former NHL goaltender and L.A. assistant GM; and Paul Fenton, Nashville’s assistant GM.
"I’m encouraged by the managerial search," Linden said. "I’ve got a real strong candidate list (and) I will be starting the interview process next week."
Topping the list of available coaches is Barry Trotz, who was fired from Nashville last month after 15 seasons with the Predators. Other candidates include L.A. assistant coach John Stevens and former Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher.
Linden said the Canucks can get started on their coaching search before they hire a new GM, but they will want their new executive heavily involved in the final decision.
"I think those two processes can move along together for a certain period of time," Linden said. "Obviously it’s important that the manager have a great deal of input on the coaching direction."