VANCOUVER - It was not wrong to fire Alain Vigneault. It was wrong for anyone to believe that firing him would solve the Vancouver Canucks' problems.
It was simplistic and wrong also to think last June that hiring John Tortorella would restore the Canucks' status as a Stanley Cup contender, that with largely the same lineup that failed Vigneault the last two years in the playoffs, Tortorella would somehow transform the Canucks into a “stiffer,” tougher out.
But you'd have to be an April fool to think now that Tortorella is a kind of lone gunman who has sabotaged his own National Hockey League team.
He didn't crouch behind a sixth-floor window sill or hide behind a grassy knoll. Tortorella stood atop a stage and did exactly what he said he would, installing a go-go-go system where everybody chased up and down the ice, top forwards all killed penalties and played more than nearly anyone else in the NHL (and damn the West Coast logistics), and a primary defensive strategy would be to collapse around the net and block shots.
You can blame Tortorella for a system ill-suited to his players, which it is, but not for misleading anyone. He has been honest. To a fault, it turns out. Owner Francesco Aquilini and general manager Mike Gillis hired Tortorella with eyes wide open. How did they think he was going to coach?
Still, the coach is the one who looks like a goner. And when he goes, it will be a little like the Calgary Flames firing Mike Keenan a few years ago and complaining that the coach's team lacked structure. Just like every team Keenan coached lacked structure.
Aquilini and Gillis knew what they had in Vigneault, but punted the most successful coach in franchise history because the team had gone stale and it was easier to fire the coach than freshen and upgrade the roster. The owner and GM also knew what they were getting in Tortorella.
The opposing trajectories of the coaches' teams intersect tonight when Vigneault's New York Rangers play the Canucks.
The Rangers are 22-11-2 in the second half of the season, the Canucks 11-20-4. Only the Buffalo Sabres have done worse than Vancouver since Game 41. The Rangers are going to the playoffs, potentially opening the first round at home. The Canucks will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and post their worst season in 14 years.
With a pile of good, young Ranger players coming of age in the NHL, Vigneault may be at the helm for a new golden era of hockey in Manhattan. Tortorella is probably one and done unless Aquilini is unwilling to write a cheque for the four years and $8 million he still owes his coach – an astounding deal leveraged, ironically, off of the Rangers' recruitment of Vigneault.
Vigneault tried to veer as far as possible around the Canuck wreckage when he met reporters after the Rangers' practice Monday at Rogers Arena. But while talking about his own team, Vigneault's answers could be easily parsed as indirect criticism of what has happened in Vancouver.
“You definitely have to tailor (your coaching) to the team that you have and the personnel that you have,” Vigneault said when asked if he runs the Rangers the same way he ran the Canucks. “I don't have the same personnel now. There are things that are similar, but it's a different team.
“This group is different and I'm handling it different. You have to. Every time you change a piece of a team, the dynamics change. You've got to adjust and that's what I'm trying to do there.”
Ranger veterans Brad Richards and Henrik Lundqvist praised Vigneault's patience and calmness. Richards, wary of being drawn into comparing Vigneault and Tortorella, conceded the Rangers have the puck a little more this season and this suits players and their skillsets.
Of the Rangers' second-half success, Vigneault said: “As I mentioned to you guys quite a few times over the years, in a regular season, as a team, there's some teams that progress and some teams that sort of fade away. And if you want to get into the playoffs and challenge, you've got to be one of those teams that progresses.”
The Canucks didn't fade away. They fell off a cliff. Among the Canucks' key forwards, former ironman Henrik Sedin was injured for the second time this season trying to throw a check nine days ago, Ryan Kesler has become ineffective and Daniel Sedin invisible, and Alex Burrows, injured four times this season, went 35 games without scoring a goal. There has been a systemic collapse in the offence, undermined by the league's 27th-ranked power play.
“It would be unfair for me to comment in any shape or form,” Vigneault said of the Canucks. “I'm 3,000 miles away. I have no idea what's going on here.
“All I can say about that (is) when you talk about the core guys who have been together a long time, they are good players. And they are good players that are real professionals and they compete real hard. I don't think that that has changed. They're elite players.”
But no Canuck has played that way this season.
Vigneault talked enthusiastically about the development of Ranger players like Ryan McDonagh, 24, Derek Stepan, 23, Derick Brassard, 26, Chris Kreider, 22, and Carl Hagelin, 25.
That's a generation of players the Canucks don't have. When they build one, their coach will be successful. Whoever it is.
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