Gallagher: Vigneault a tough sell to bring back after his team's effort in the last two playoffs
SAN JOSE — When Mike Gillis took over as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks and interviewed Alain Vigneault to see whether he should remain as the team’s head coach, they found common ground in the type of players they valued.
But there has always been a slight difference in where the emphasis should be on the agreed-upon system, with Vigneault always defaulting to his roots of trying to win games with the emphasis on defending — when in fact Gillis was essentially getting him players better suited to the emphasis being on offence.
We stress the word emphasis here because every team needs to play solid defence. You have no chance otherwise in this league, it’s a given. It’s like when Dan Bylsma came into Pittsburgh mid-season in 2009 to replace Vigneault clone Michel Therrien. He kept the same system, changed the emphasis, and the Pens went on to to win the Cup with their stars playing a more up-tempo, offensive style after being mired deep in the standings, out of the playoffs, halfway through the year.
If you are going to put the emphasis on defence you can’t have legions of tiny forwards with great speed, as the Canucks have generally had. Gillis built the team on speed and skill, with a view to playing a little more offensively — having been told by one and all that the game was going to speed, and at times everyone was on board.
When the game changed — and you can almost, almost put a day on it, that seventh game of the Tampa-Boston Eastern Conference final in 2011, when the Lightning’s great power play suddenly got no opportunities and the era of the big banging teams was back — Vancouver was in trouble.
Despite the Canucks being the much better team, the Bruins beat them up and won the Cup and the downhill post-season slide has accelerated in dramatic fashion. Instead of forging ahead and still trying to play offensively with the talent they have — which is really all they can do — the defensive emphasis with such a finesse roster has simply accelerated the downturn to the point where it’s clear these guys aren’t playing hard enough for Vigneault. How else do you lose so much to teams that finished lower in the standings?
“Sometimes when the game is on the line you have to try to make plays,” said Alex Burrows when outlining the team’s approach for tonight’s Game 4, and getting as close to outlining frustrations with the system as you’re apt to hear. “It might be a little bit risky, but you’ve got to try to win.”
Gillis has played the Tammy Wynette role — standing by his man — for a long while now largely because of the regular season success which this roster could achieve with a cardboard cutout behind the bench. And also because there has never been a Bylsma type available, when the time was ripe. There isn’t one now, either, but if this team tries to bring back Vigneault for more of the same next season, even Vancouver’s loyal season ticket holders will be taking their leave, like patrons at a burning theatre. Gillis may even want to bring him back, might even try, but it will be a tough sell.
There is a large contingent of Vancouver players who are not Vigneault fans, no matter what they might say in public. Seeds of those sentiments may have been around for a while but they began rolling in earnest when Mats Sundin arrived, the Maple Leafs hall of famer clearly not a card-carrying member of the Vigneault fan club.
To be clear, you don’t have to like the coach to play hard, and virtually every player has experienced not liking a coach along the way but still busted a gut, because that’s what players must do. But when a guy has been around as long as Vigneault, there has to be respect for the approach from the players to enable the greatest effort when the resistance is the greatest. And in the last couple of years, in the playoffs, we just haven’t seen this from this group, despite the high level of skill which still remains.
There were much earlier signs. How on earth did it take the 2010-11 Canucks seven games to beat Chicago, with such a vastly superior squad? The Hawks’ Stanley Cup team had been gutted by cap constraints, while Vancouver boasted a group that comes along once in a generation. But still there they were, hanging by a thread in game seven overtime after leading the series 3-0. Roberto Luongo made that great save off Patrick Sharp; a Sharp winner would have made it three straight first-round exits, had Vigneault managed to hang around. But they pulled through, beat a vastly inferior Predators squad and a physically mangled Sharks team to reach the final — and Vigneault was promoted into some sort of genius by his fan club in the media.
In reality, he’s a solid coach who will work many years in this league. But he’s better suited to a bigger, grittier team — with a St. Louis-like approach to trying to get the job done.
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