“My job this year is no different than other years: I've got to win. In a couple of years, a lot of people are going to realize how special and how classy this group was.”
-- Canuck coach Alain Vigneault, to The Vancouver Sun, April 24, 2013
SAN JOSE, Calif. – He knew what was coming. Everybody did. After seven seasons with the Canucks, 313 National Hockey League wins, six Northwest Division titles and two chances to win one game for the 2011 Stanley Cup, Alain Vigneault understood these playoffs could be his last stand.
His job is to win in the first round and beyond, and he is failing. The Canucks have so not won against the San Jose Sharks, who are stronger, deeper, more disciplined and just generally better. They can sweep their first-round series here tonight, which would be the Canucks' first 0-4 exit from the playoffs since 2001.
“I have to believe and I think this group also believes that we can win one game,”Vigneault said Monday, the day after another third-period unravelling by the Canucks led to a 5-2 loss in Game 3. “That's what we're up against tomorrow. We've got to win one game. We haven't beat this team once this year. Can we beat this team one time?”
Possibly. But can they beat the Sharks twice? Can they beat them four times in a row?
Almost certainly not.
In NHL history, teams that trail 0-3 are 3-for-172 at coming back to win a series.
If the Canucks win only once, they'll be out of the tournament as quickly as last season and nobody pegged that 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings as the over/under for measuring success this spring.
Vigneault may not have to win 16 playoff games – the Stanley Cup – to save his job, but consecutive first-round exits probably isn't going to do it. Losing nine of his last 10 playoff games isn't going to do it.
General manager Mike Gillis, as responsible as his coach for what we're seeing, was conspicuously absent from the rink on Monday.
Gillis doesn't seek counsel from fans or reporters, but he answers almost daily to owner Francesco Aquilini, who admits he is a fan at heart and always seems sensitive to what people say about his team.
Things will get really interesting if the owner wants the coach gone and the general manager refuses. Gillis didn't take Dave Nonis' job five years ago to top up his pension and work until retirement age.
He is an unconventional GM with sensibilities different than a lot of “old school” hockey people and he may walk away rather than fire the winningest coach in franchise history – if Gillis thinks Vigneault is not to blame.
There is also a market correction looming for the Canucks, who have sustained a level of superiority for more than a decade and a generational change in players. But poor drafting – and the annual sacrifice of second- and/or third-round picks to bulk up for the playoffs – has left the Canucks without the next wave of players willing to step into the NHL behind Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and the veterans on the defence.
The biggest difference between the Canucks and Sharks, second only to Vancouver in wins the last five regular seasons?
San Jose has groomed and developed excellent young players like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Matt Irwin, Justin Braun and Tommy Wingels to support and eventually supplant established stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle.
On the Canucks, there remains an Angel Falls-like dropoff behind the Sedins and Kesler.
If Gillis is going to voluntarily close the window to win on this Canuck team sooner than the players' ages dictate, he'll need more in the pipeline than Frankie Corrado, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Eddie Lack
And as far as trading the Sedins or anyone else to facilitate a quick remake – or to satisfy the shrill cries for full-scale changes – nearly all the Canucks' core players have years remaining and no-trade clauses on their contracts.
Chances are the Canucks remain largely intact under a new coach next season and take another run at the playoffs, hopefully with the long-neglected issues of depth, size and grit at forward finally addressed.
“We don't care about that,” Canuck captain Henrik Sedin said Monday. “We're focussing on tomorrow. It's not up to us to make (roster) decisions after that.”
Asked if he felt at all responsible for jeopardizing Vigneault's employment, Sedin said: “Of course, you always feel responsible. You feel responsible now. Down 3-0, it's tough to go through. As the top players, you're the ones who are supposed to score and help your team win. If something happens, the onus is usually on the top players and it's no different for us.”
It is a myth that NHL coaches are frequently fired for not winning championships. They're fired mostly because their teams are lousy.
Of the 70-plus NHL head coaching changes since 2005, nearly half came in-season and on underachieving teams. Of the others, rare is an example of an elite team dumping a winning coach because the manager or owner was dissatisfied with playoff performance.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan, however, got his job in 2008 because Ron Wilson couldn't succeed in the playoffs the way he did in the regular season. So McLellan knows what is at stake here.
“If the series was the other way, that guillotine would be over Todd McLellan's head,” he said. “It's just the way it goes. Alain is a tremendous coach. Do I think that Alain deserves that? By no means do I. I think he's an excellent coach and will coach for many years.”
But probably not one more for the Canucks.
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