Not the same old Tortorella

Some things never change, but new Canucks coach is learning to adjust

Updated: October 31, 2013, 5:08 PM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

John Tortorella is not ever going to be a guy who lets a cell phone ring during one of his news conferences. He's not going to field questions about the opposing team, nor will he indulge anyone simply looking for canned clichés or mindless television sound bites.

He's not going sugarcoat his criticism of players or substitute family-friendly euphemisms for his abrasive outbursts behind the bench. But after all the criticism he earned for his brash, unforgiving coaching style -- one that hastened his exit from the New York Rangers last spring -- Tortorella seems to understand that his approach needed to change, at least a little.

It would be a stretch to ever characterize the hard-edged Boston native as "mellow," but it has become apparent in the first few weeks with his new team in Vancouver that Tortorella has at least tempered the way he treats his charges.

"In a number of circumstances, yeah," Tortorella said last week when asked about the transition. "I think you need to respect where the athletes are in their career."

The Canucks are better for it too, with an impressive 9-4-1 start to the season, good for third place in a dominant Western Conference. 

[+] EnlargeJohn Tortorella
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJohn Tortorella is still fiery, but he has learned to temper his style to fit his new team.

Tortorella hasn't been afraid to make bold moves in the opening month of his tenure in Vancouver. He has split up twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin at times. He moved center Ryan Kesler to the wing (a grand idea considering Kesler has five goals and eight points in the past six games). Tortorella also isn't hesitant to load up his top two lines with heavy minutes, a technique that was evident in the Canucks' recent victory.

This is a veteran team, Tortorella recognizes, and he is trying to treat the players accordingly.

"We're going to push, you know that's going to happen," he said. "We're going to push and play hard and be a tough team to play against -- we're certainly working on that part of it -- but I also have to understand the personnel and where they're at there."

Tortorella, 55, preached the importance of self-awareness in his players while in New York. When he was shown the door after the team's disappointing playoff exit in the second round last May, it forced him into some introspection.

"It stung," one person close to Tortorella said.

But, instead of letting himself grow bitter or become distracted by the pangs of regret, Tortorella seems to have channeled that painful experience into making himself a better coach. A message delivered with his ferocity day in and day out can make players grow weary, and he realizes that now.

"There are times when he has to be stern, and he does that, but for the most part, he's a little more [mellow]," Canucks forward Dale Weise told ESPN.com last week.

Weise, a gritty fourth-liner who played under Tortorella in New York, said the coach's basic principles have remained the same, but the team's veteran presence has warranted some adjustments.

"He's adjusted to us as a bit of an older team," said Weise, who has since been sidelined because of injury. "He's said it in the media that he's got to change a little bit and I think I see that change."

Some things won't ever change, of course. Weise half-laughed, half-shuddered when talking about Tortorella's notorious preseason conditioning tests ("I think the team is already dreading training camp next year," he said). And Tortorella's structured, black-and-blue style hasn't yielded.

"If you're not blocking shots, you're not going to play," Canucks winger Tom Sestito said.

The regime change has, so far, delivered results for a Canucks team that fired coach Alain Vigneault after being swept in the first round of the playoffs last season. Through Wednesday's games, Vancouver was three points behind the league-leading San Jose Sharks (though the Sharks had two games in hand) and has posted an impressive 6-3-1 road record.

The difference in leadership isn't only on the ice, either. Tortorella has a markedly more hands-on approach in handling his team, particularly during games.

"He's more involved during games, with the way you play. [Vigneault] was more ... [he] left the room to us a little more, let us run with it a little bit, but Torts is going to be in there after every period with how you've played, what you need to do better," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who extended his point streak to nine games Monday night.

"I think it's been very good so far. That's how you want it to be."

Sedin, who has 18 points through 15 games, first met the fiery coach at an All-Star game a few years back. Their first encounter in Vancouver included little hockey talk. Instead, the two talked about their dogs. And while Sedin might know now that the easiest way to elicit a smile from Tortorella is to bring up his beloved rescue pit bulls (yes, the whole crew joined him in Vancouver), he will be getting straight talk only when it comes to the team stuff.

"He gives you the truth. If you haven't played good enough, he's going to tell you," Henrik Sedin said. "I don't know if that's how it has been in the past, but I think it's been good so far."

If the mark of a good coach is his ability to adapt -- making modifications as needed but keeping the fundamental philosophy intact -- Tortorella seems to be mastering that at the moment. He has made concessions for an older, more experienced team, but he also has stayed true to his basic beliefs and principles. Those won't be changing any time soon.

"He's still the same guy," longtime assistant coach Mike Sullivan told ESPN.com. "He's meat-and-potatoes. That's why he's such a great coach."

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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