Willes: Canucks need to heed hiring history in coach hunt
They fired one coach when it wasn’t his fault, hired another who didn’t fit, and now have to start search again
VANCOUVER — If you just walked into the Canucks’ press room, it was like falling into a time portal and coming out in 2011.
There was Alain Vigneault, unfailingly cheerful without being terribly revealing, candid to a point but mindful of the line which crossed into controversy. There were the same jokes. There were the same reporters. T.C. Carling, the Canucks’ former P.R. director, was even there to enlist Vigneault in an initiative for his Canadian Men’s Health Foundation.
The only thing missing was someone asking a Mason Raymond question.
But Vigneault is gone, long gone, and while he did his best to steer clear of the irresistible storyline with his former team and John Tortorella, it was hard to miss the significance of his return to Vancouver with the New York Rangers.
Vigneault was shattered when he took the bullet for the Canucks’ playoff failures in 2012 and 2013, but he’s since landed on an original-six team which features at least two Hall of Famers (Marty St. Louis, Henrik Lundqvist; Rick Nash might get there) and a bright young nucleus in one of the world’s greatest cities.
The Canucks, meanwhile, have become a three-ring circus, although we still have the ocean and the mountains.
Tuesday night, Vigneault's Rangers downed the Canucks 3-1 in a spirited affair which highlighted the divergent paths the two teams have travelled since they changed coaches. The Rangers, who've gone 23-10-2 over their last 35 games, have the look of the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs. Against the Canucks, they parlayed first-period goals by Dan Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot, an outstanding goaltending performance by Henrik Lundqvist and a shortie from Marty St. Louis into their eighth win in nine games.
How good have the Rangers been? St. Louis' goal was his first in 15 games since coming over from Tampa at the trade deadline. They're 10-4-1 in those games.
The Canucks, for their part, tried real hard, produced 35 shots on Lundqvist, and managed to score one goal.
Vigneault, it’s now apparent, got out at precisely the right time. Given the hand he was dealt last season, his firing from the Canucks must have felt unjust, but as things have transpired, he’s done all right. The Rangers have rebounded since their slow start and now have the look of the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs. The Canucks are now looking at their third coach in three seasons, the fans are in an uproar and everyone from the owner to the general manager to the East Coast regional scout is under the most uncomfortable scrutiny.
“It would be unfair for me to comment in any shape or form,” Vigneault said. “I mean, I’m 3,000 miles away.”
Maybe. But his laptop is never that far away, and you have to know the Rangers’ coach is very much aware of everything that’s happened in Vancouver since he left.
The accepted wisdom, of course, is Vigneault’s time had come with the Canucks; the players had tuned out his message or he wasn’t reaching the players or any of the other rationales that are trotted out when a team starts to head south. There was something to that, and everyone who steps behind an NHL bench is aware of the ground rules when they start coaching.
But the Canucks just wish they had the problems now they had under Vigneault.
Admittedly, you can spin this a number of ways, and the Canucks’ membership in the Northwest Division as well as the presence of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in net gave Vigneault a competitive edge unavailable to Tortorella. But Vigneault still led them to the equivalent of a 101-point season last year with a centre-ice position that didn’t have Ryan Kesler but did have, in no particular order, Max Lapierre, Andrew Ebbett and Jordan Schroeder for much of the campaign. Just bringing that up in case you still think the Canucks’ problem was the coach.
Vigneault, in fact, contributed to his own demise by creating the impression there was still a champions’ DNA in this group; that with the right voice, the Canucks’ core could be re-invigorated and sent on another Cup run. This led to his firing, the hiring of Tortorella and the tire fire we’ve seen this season. But this story is hardly done as the Canucks head into another tumultuous offseason, and this time, there’s a lot more riding on the organization’s decisions than there was a year ago.
When they make their next hire, the Orcans would do well to remember life under Vigneault. He wasn’t a miracle worker. Here’s a news flash: No one is. But he had a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this team and played to those strengths and weaknesses, which is exactly what he’s done with the Rangers.
He also brought a level of calm to his position in Vancouver, and the importance of that can’t be overestimated.
“I might be tuned differently, but it never affected my job and I never took it personally,” Vigneault said of the pressures of working in a large Canadian market.
“I understood if we lost one, fans would be upset and the media would be upset. It never bothered me. I think you have to be tuned in a special way to handle all the things that can go on in a market like this.”
As much as anything, the Canucks need that now; someone who can come in and turn down the temperature; someone who can return some semblance of normalcy to the organization while maintaining a high standard of professionalism.
They had that during Vigneault’s run here. You just hope they understand what they’ve been missing.
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