Big Boy Hockey : The Re-Imagining

Rich Lam

"You never let us have any fun". - Kids to moms everywhere. Also, perhaps John Tortorella to the referees as he confronts the myth of "the refs hate us in Vancouver". It's a Two-fer.

As we reach the "couple of months" mark before real live hockey that means something is back ( 67, but who's counting? ) to once again consume us in CanuckLand, it is almost as if we don't know what to do with ourselves.

With changes big and small, intrigue both on and off the ice to go along with blockbusters of indeterminate value, it has been an off season you better be paying attention to if you want to understand the narratives you'll get later on. This year maybe more than any since AV took over from Crawford.

Back then, it was the West Coast Express style of play giving way to a more defensive style, this time around it is like we have entered some Twilight Zone version of coaching changes. In this episode, '94 rivals the New York Rangers Hockey Club have hired our once "defensive genius" to make their team more offensive. Meanwhile, in LotusLand, our selection from the Coach Lazy Susan is of course the "too defensive" coach, the "just call me Torts", larger than life John Tortorella who is tapped with getting this very good team over that hump.

Because... why not? In what is probably the most media intense environment in the NHL, the coach with the most "media narratives" about him in ages is the perfect fit for a team that is always challenging for that same title ( team category ). We Canuck fans and followers are well aware of the angst. Personally, I am of the opinion of that this is what happens with other teams' fans having to rationalize their team getting it's ass handed to them by said team, at least in the regular season! The big test comes in the playoffs, of course, but let's just focus on what is in front of us before that.

See, last night, through the power of NHL Network, I got to do a little scouting. The particular game was #6 of the first round victory for Torts and his team against the Capitals. It was an elimination game, at home, so you knew you were going to get the measure best of the coach's strategies.

Now, narratives are a funny thing in a sport where we are all so passionate about it. Whether it is being a fan of one of those teams that are "hated" ( translation ; the good teams ), and wondering why they could possibly hate such a player, ( for instance, Alex M.F-ing Burrows. We are well aware of all the "transgressions" on his resume, fans of every other team. Some you've overblown, some not. But there are players all over the league that play the same "all in" style and are lionized for it. And screw you for that "yeah, but anyone could score with the Sedins anyhow" thought you just had #haterz! ;-), when all he does is play hard. I use Mr Everything because he is one of those classic " you'd LOVE him on your team" players, and #1 on the " Rivals Hate Him Because..." players that gets a lot of shit talked about him. Here's his splits from last year as a starting point. Click around.

I honestly believe that Mr. Everything will become the new coach's favorite player as he gets to know his lineup. Why? Because the style I watched last night ( one of a quick transition game from that "pack it in" defensive posture inside the blue line, where shots are indeed blocked ), I could see Burr', both with and without the Twins ( Torts seems the "feel" type coach, for those of you that hated line changes under AV! ) being a perfect player to show the type of drive and all in that the high puck pressure, all the time style that was ultimately successful, at least in this game.

But, again, narratives are a bad drug kids. From the first day, to the season ticket holders, and of course our local media keeping us informed as only they can, "Torts Style" is being described and questioned with the "WHY YOUZE BLOCK SO MANY SHOTZ!?" outlook that invoked "this reaction" in New York. Everyone focused on the Twins with that same narrative in our head coach's intro to this market as well, like AV must have wrapped his scoring leaders in bubble wrap, and will Torts break his new toys by playing too roughly with them being the new concern, but there is so much more to it than that. The excellent outlet pass that the Canucks have so many blue liners able to do, when compared to the Top 3 blueliners that did it repeatedly in the game I watched for the Rangers last night.

So, of course the meshing of Torts style with his new charges will make for an interesting pre - season. Having the Rangers close out that pre-season at Rogers Arena on September 26th will be an opportunity to take advantage of that hype in two huge media markets for fun and profit. For me though, I am interested to see how it goes for the team and coach in the previous five pre-season matchups, with divisional opponents San Jose, Edmonton, and Phoenix here, and the Canucks visiting Edmonton and San Jose over the eight fun filled days from Sept. 16th to 24th that precede the "AV VS TORTS" deathmatch.

So, with a very preliminary amount of info, and in an entirely ( at least attempted! ) prescient manner that is of course entirely speculative, some hits on how what I think of Tort's style will interact with "the most hated team in hockey" to keep the baying hounds of the #CanuckTeaParty and the rest of us satisfied ;

Wonder Twin Powers Reactivate - This one is easy. In the link above about them and shot blocking, Torts already told us the Twins will be playing more on the penalty kill, and, yes, blocking shots. His team was #6 in the NHL in that category last year, with 773 a substantially higher number than the 27th ( 566 ) place Canucks.

Looking through the numbers though, back before AV ( I went back to 2004, where the Twins were definitely established in the Top 9 from which coaches select at least a few of the PKers that augment the ones form the 4th line ) through to the last full season in 2012 ( Hank had 9 blocks, Daniel 7 in last year's truncated season ). Except for '11, when Hank sacrificed himself 21 times compared to Daniels measly 12 in the same amount of games, both were usually hovering around the high teens. After AV took over, although he did use them a bit initially there, the lack of PK time brought it down into the low teens. So, the numbers say that they never really blocked a lot of shots when they were on the PK in their early years. Will Torts placing some emphasis on this for them lead to a few more shots not making it through to the goalie? Perhaps. More likely, Torts will realize what Crawford did, and what AV knew, even when he went to it on increasingly fewer occasions, that is ; the Sedins are as much an offensive threat on that last 30 seconds of the penalty kill as they have always been, but not his front line PK guys. They may block a few more shots, so, technically, the narrative will play out. Let us hope that those additional blocks are not with those wonderful hands. ( Bonus fact for Torts. The oldest players in your new lineup are usually always the most fit during testing every year, and they're identical looking! )

"Terror Twins You Say? I Like That Nickname" - When you look at the previous lineup that JT had to work with, and try to compare that to the new one, it is an imperfect science. The Ranger's "Mr. Everything", for instance. Ryan Callahan plays the same position as the resident holder of that moniker. But if Burr' is going to match his opposite in this "signature" category for Torts, he's going to have to block more than four times as many shots as he did last year. ( 15 to 66 for Callahan, good for #3 on a list for the Rangers that is almost always a "top 6 are defensemen" afterthought ). Callahan also averaged almost 3 minutes more every game more than Burrows as well, it should be noted.

The big difference though, is that Torts never had anyone like Ryan Kesler as his 2nd line centre. Derick Brassard is a nice player, and Boyle had his moments, but you have to think our new coach is thinking back to the 2010 Olympics and smiling. Common speculative wisdom has been that Torts will reunite the Terror Twins, and I do agree. Let's hope that having such a high personality coach will buy them a bit more leeway with some of their favorite referees though. The Rangers, playing a robust style, averaged 9.2 PIM per game, tied for least in NHL with the Hawks last year, while the Canucks were 7th worst at 12.7 PIM per game. We know that the Torts public and "in the room" reps are entirely different, with the media painting him one way, and repeated reports from past players telling us how they loved the guy. Maybe it's the same with refs, and Torts can help us get less calls? #lol

"I Want To Know More About This Edler You Speak Of" - There is a reason that Torts wanted to know more about our erstwhile #1 blue liner. Anyone just looking at the stat sheet coming into the team can see why. Eddy led his team in blocks, hits from the back end, tied for the lead in blue line goals with Jason Garrison, while being 2nd in total ice time ( and points ) with Dan Hamhuis, and people keep telling the new coach how "inconsistent" Alexander Edler is!

Perusing the lineup for the Ranger back end, his comparable might be Dan Girardi, although the #1 for the Rangers blocked far more shots, and delivered many more hits. He also had about a minute or so more ice time, and was still less offensively productive. The bigger distinction might be that Hamhuis and Garrison, are more complete players than Del Zotto and McDonagh. All of that also totally ignores the blue line "ringer" that will be making Torts smirk when the camera catches him at the bench, Kevin Bieksa. Sure, Marc Staal was injured, and could even be a comparable when you look at the lineups. But, for me, the fact that Tortorella uses his Top 4 defenders more than AV did here last year is going to mean more ice time for players that can play the very style he is accustomed to already. He'll want Eddy to play those top minutes, and this Canuck fan, anyhow, is so very happy that someone is probably going to the whip hand in an effort to make Edler a more consistent #1 blue liner. There is much already there to be happy about, but the idea of getting even more from him fills me with glee.

There will be others or course. I think Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, and maybe even David Booth are "Torts Type" players, for instance. I also think that John Tortorella is far more a proponent of "Big Boy Hockey" than AV was, although I do think he is more to the Hawk archetype than the Bruins one his style gets pigeonholed as. Just look at his style in Tampa Bay, with more offensive players for that. He may have had Rick Nash last year ( and an out of shape Brad Richards. ) but those two's "struggles" were not totally the coach's fault in NY last year, as Larry Brooks and others said. More likely it was the one Ranger superstar adjusting to a new city where people cared, while the second superstar's proclivity for not pushing away the dessert cart during the lockout that bore the blame the coach seemed to take the brunt of towards the end there.

Even there, you can perhaps look at that as a positive in a new marketplace. Torts is no dummy. He knows that he will have a more than willing media that will write terrabytes about him if he says something. Never underestimate the ability of a coach to take the heat off his players in that regard, nor the way the players love them for it when they are struggling.

In the New York media market, Torts was able to, quite rightly by his level of play, bench a superstar because he just didn't have it at the most important time of the year. It was the right call on Richards at that time. That level of accountability is something that many of the fans, at least, felt was lacking in the waning moments of the AV regime, and something that we are looking forward to seeing improvement in this coming season. It takes a big personality to do that.

A big part of Big Boy Hockey is that accountability, and playing hard along the boards and the rest of the ice. Even this years' Champs, the Hawks, could play that style as a part of their game. They beat one of the poster children for bullying hockey, the Bruins. Somewhere between those two solitudes will lie the Canucks, and the new coach will find that balance as he gets to know his team. It should be interesting to see the melding of the team that used to, before this past year, dominate the offensive categories, being in the Top 5 of so many of them with the one that, after all, dominated all those "Big Boy" stats lines this past year. Being Top 5 in hitting ( 3rd, just behind the Kings ), blocks ( 3 less than the #5 team, the Ducks, for 6th, and 24 behind the Sharks, who were 2nd ), as well as being the team that drew the least amount of PIM's per game last year, could be a very tough out if Torts can keep that level of play while bringing back the offense we are all so used to on this "new" Canuck team.

When you start clicking around those stat categories at NHL.com, you'll see that more than a few of our new divisional rivals from California block a lot of shots, and make a lot of hits without getting penalties for them. Almost like our management wanted a team that could beat them at their own Big Boy game, perhaps? Hmmmm?

Peace

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