At Friday’s season ending press conference, it was clear that GM Mike Gillis is not about to press any panic buttons. What is unfolding is all seemingly part of his “plan”. It would seem unequivocally that Alain Vigneault is a partner in that plan. We find this interesting to say the least.
What can we say about his four years here as head coach? Well, the regular season results for the most part speak for themselves with 3 division titles in 4 years including a Coach of the Year award in his first season here. But to be fair, the ONLY reason he won that award was because he had the good sense to roll out Roberto Loungo for 76 games while Roberto was undoubtedly at the peak of his career. At any rate, we’re sure that ownership is more than happy with the sellout streak and the guaranteed home playoff dates.
To his credit, he has shown that he can adapt his coaching style to suit the players he has available to him - succeeding initially with a pop gun offense and a rope-a-dope defense backstopped by Luongo to what we see now, a more uptempo and entertaining team that scored the most goals in the conference. We certainly like this trend.
We also like that fact that he, for the most part, is frank and fair with his players, banishing those deserving of the doghouse to the press box, but also allowing the same dogs (hello Kyle Wellwood and Shane O’Brien) chances to redeem themselves (unless, of course, they’re named Mathieu Schneider - a move that boggles the mind considering Schneider’s pedigree and our lack of depth at that position).
We’re NOT impressed by his team’s general lack of discipline and their tendency to run hot and cold (the horrible finish to his second season and the massive midseason losing streak in season three that almost got him fired being notable examples). At an even more micro level, this year’s team won not because they came up with 60 minute efforts, but because they could now outscore the opposition late. We’re also not impressed by his tendency to frantically juggle lines at the first signs of adversity, but this is likely minor quibbling.
In the end, what we find most troubling is how the seasons have ENDED the last THREE seasons. Three years ago, the Canucks stumbled horribly down the stretch losing 6 of 7 to barely miss the playoffs. This collapse, stunning as it was, cost GM Dave Nonis his job; but Coach Vigneault, after lengthy meetings with his new boss, amazingly managed to escape the noose getting a one year contract extension in the process. Last year, with the Canucks leading the Hawks 2 games to 1 and ahead 1-0 in the third period of the third game, he changed tactics; the Canucks retreating into a defensive shell that enabled the Hawks to win that game and the next 2. Despite this, Coach V was offered another contract extension - this time for THREE years. As we know too well, this season against the same opponent, ahead 2-0 in game 2 after easily winning game 1, the Canucks would again became unglued. So much so that on home ice in games 3 and 4, they could do nothing but take undisciplined penalty after another and that’s ultimately where the series was lost.
Why all these late season collapses? Is he being outcoached? Probably. Winning only one game on home ice in six tries against the Hawks the last 2 playoff seasons would indicate he is. Does he not have the right personnel? Well, regular season results would indicate he does. Have his teams been consecutively seriously wounded at the wrong times? Is this just all bad luck? Well, injuries are part of the game especially at playoff time and significantly all of the core players were healthy at these times. Does he not know how to win the big games? Probably not. Before arriving in Vancouver, Vigneault had coached 9 seasons (4 as an assistant and 5 as head coach) at the pro level. In those 9 seasons, his teams made the playoffs TWICE (and only once at the NHL level), losing in round 2 both times. To borrow from baseball lexicon, that kind of batting average is below the Mendoza line.
So here we stand with Coach Vigneault on the hook for another 3 years. So what gives? Why is Mike Gillis so in love with Alain Vigneault? He’s a Dave Nonis holdover. He’s not a proven winner. And his teams have a tendency to be undisciplined so much so that they crap the bed when the going gets tough. Does Vigneault have the same pictures of Mike Gillis that Rick Ley had of Pat Quinn? In all seriousness though, when Gillis arrived here he promised “bold” moves. He told us there would be “out of the box” thinking. Well, with the Luongo captaincy, the $20 million dollar offer to Mats Sundin and seemingly unwarranted long term coaching extensions, he is doing just that. But make no mistake, Mike Gillis is a smart man. He’s done the math. With all these damn sellouts and 11 playoff home games in the last 2 years, he can roll the dice on Alain Vigneault for one more year before he has to pull that trigger to save his own job.