By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER – Prior to getting axed after one disastrous campaign with the Vancouver Canucks, John Tortorella didn’t mince words when assessing the club’s veteran core.
“I felt from Day 1 that it’s stale,” the team’s soon-to-be fired head coach said on April 14, 2014, after Vancouver missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. “That’s not their fault. This is a group that has been together for a long time.”
But fast-forward one year and Tortorella is a distant memory, while that “stale” nucleus of older players â€” the one that led Vancouver to two Presidents’ Trophies and within a game of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup before stumbling badly in 2013-14 â€” has the Canucks back in the post-season and buoyed at the chance for another run.
“For us personally, it was tough to miss the playoffs last year,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “It was just really tough to sit on the sidelines and watch. A team that was so used to being in the playoffs, and not only being there, but competing, we were hungry. We wanted to get back and do whatever it took.”
What it took for Vancouver, which opens its first-round series with the Calgary Flames at home on Wednesday, were bounce-back campaigns from a number of veterans.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin returned to form after tough offensive seasons to record 76 and 73 points, respectively, Alexandre Burrows stayed relatively healthy to score 18 goals, and Jannik Hansen found new life on a line with rookies Bo Horvat and Ronalds Kenins. On defence, Alexander Edler put an NHL-worst minus-39 season behind him to lead the Canucks with a plus-13 rating, while Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis battled through injuries to contribute down the stretch.
“You have to believe in yourselves to play this game at a high level,” said Bieksa. “This year we’ve been tested, we’ve overcome a lot of adversity (and) we’ve bounced back.”
Tortorella was one of many voices calling for the Canucks to go into rebuild mode, but the team’s brain trust led by president of hockey operations Trevor Linden and general manager Jim Benning saw things differently. Rookie head coach Willie Desjardins brought in fresh systems and a renewed belief in the club’s leaders, while the players were determined to make amends for a lost season.
“As a person, whatever you do, when people don’t expect you to do good I think you want to show them that they’re wrong,” said Daniel Sedin. “No one expected us to make the playoffs. We weren’t supposed to have bounce-back seasons, but we all showed that we can still play.”
Tortorella said in his final press conference that the veterans needed to be surrounded with some youth, and that’s what happened to a certain extent with the emergence of Horvat and Kenins, while the easy-going Eddie Lack moved into the No. 1 goalie job after Ryan Miller got hurt in February.
Other parts of the retool included Ryan Kesler getting dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, with Miller and Radim Vrbata, who led Vancouver with 31 goals, added in free agency.
“I’ve always felt like we have a very tight group in here,” said Lack, who looks poised to get the nod in Game 1. “I feel like we’re a more happy group this year and everyone seems to be buying into roles.”
Like the Canucks, the young Flames weren’t expected to be in this position back in October. Calgary is making its first playoff appearance since 2009, with the Sedins the only holdovers from the teams’ last post-season meeting, which the Flames won back in 2004.
With that rivalry set to be renewed, the Canucks and their veteran core are eager to show there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank.
“We’ve been questioned a lot over the years. We were really disappointed last year. No question about that,” said Henrik Sedin. “(Motivation) has got to come from inside. You can’t look at what other people are saying. It was a tough summer after last year with what happened. We came back and we felt good about this team.”
Notes: Vancouver went 2-2-0 against Calgary in the regular season, with the Flames picking up an extra point in the series thanks to an overtime loss in December. … The Canucks have lost six straight home playoff games.
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