Alain Vigneault needs to conjure up some post-season magic
Coach pulled a rabbit out of the hat this year, but unless he can whip up a Cup, his act may be on thin ice
VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks’ regular season was three months of improvisation.
Wingers played centre, sometimes two of them in the same game. Defencemen played forward. The blue-line ran out of right-handers. Ryan Kesler, the engine of the team, logged 17 games. And with Roberto Luongo wearing a ball cap instead of a goalie mask most nights, $5.33 million of salary-cap space was parked at the end of the bench instead of utilized for centres or right-shot defencemen or any other skaters who could help the team.
And still the Canucks won their division for the fifth straight year — the next longest pennant streak in the National Hockey League is one — and finished with a 26-15-7 record that pro-rates to 101 points in an 82-game season. And since many of you are already pointing out the Northwest Division is a pushover, the Canucks’ record against the tough Central Division was better than their record within the Northwest.
This was arguably the best coaching season for Alain Vigneault, who was already the most successful coach in franchise history.
Naturally, he’ll be the first one fired if things go badly in the playoffs.
“My job this year is no different than other years: I’ve got to win,” Vigneault says, sitting behind his desk at Rogers Arena. “We all know that. That’s the nature of this business.
“I don’t go into the playoffs worrying about (getting fired). I go into it like it’s another great opportunity for this group. Our motivation is going to be so high. I get the disappointment or frustration from fans because we haven’t won the Cup. But since I’ve been here, we’ve had some great seasons and we’re doing our damn best to win that Cup. I hope our fans understand there’s not one player who won’t do everything they can to get this done. We’re going to go out there and kick some butt.”
The Canucks have been kicking butt pretty much since Vigneault arrived in Vancouver seven years ago. He has won six division titles and taken his teams past the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament four times. In the Canucks’ first 34 seasons, they made it as far as the second round only six times. But Vigneault’s failing is that he has travelled past the second round only once, eventually going 0-for-2 in games that would have won the Canucks their first Stanley Cup two years ago.
Despite last season’s second straight Presidents’ Trophy, the team never regained the emotional intensity spent the previous spring and was crushed by the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 in games in the playoffs’ opening round.
The Kings, it should be noted, then steamrolled three other teams in the most dominant Stanley Cup campaign in 15 years.
Still, that first-round loss put a lot of holes in Vigneault’s safety net, and owner Francesco Aquilini may have something to say if the Canucks go out early again.
A small minority in the media have been calling for Vigneault’s firing for years.
A current argument, backed by actual statistical evidence, is that Al Arbour is the only coach who won his first Stanley Cup after six seasons with the same team. A-ha! Therefore, the Canucks’ only hope of winning it all is to fire the coach who keeps putting them in position to win it all.
Here’s another stat: 15 of the last 23 Stanley Cups have been won by coaches in their first two years with the team. So Bruce Boudreau, who has helped resurrect the Anaheim Ducks in his second year, better win the Cup this spring or he’s gone. Same with Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis, Randy Carlyle in Toronto and Paul MacLean in Ottawa.
When the Kings fired Terry Murray halfway through their Stanley Cup season, it wasn’t because general manager Dean Lombardi dutifully checked the analytics and concluded Los Angeles could win a championship if he just fired the coach. He fired Murray because the Kings were 12th in the Western Conference.
When the Buffalo Sabres fired Lindy Ruff in February after 15 seasons, it wasn’t because he was hopelessly past the six-year, best-by date to win his first Stanley Cup, but because his team sucked. The Sabres were 13th in the East.
The Canucks have never sucked under Vigneault, unless you want to blame him for 2008, when injuries forced the team to go through 11 defencemen before it finally expired in the stretch drive and missed the playoffs by three points. Aquilini blamed general manager Dave Nonis, then hired Mike Gillis.
It’s not like Vigneault doesn’t believe he will be fired if the Canucks crash and burn against the San Jose Sharks when the first-round series starts Wednesday. He just doesn’t worry about it.
He has won 313 games with the Canucks and more NHL games than any coach over the last five years. He’s not trying to convince anyone of anything.
He’s just trying to win a Cup.
“Sometimes the guys that don’t agree with me rant and rave the most,” he says. “I think I’ve been treated very well by the fans and very fairly by the media.
“I’ve been around long enough to understand the game. There’s the game on the ice and there’s the game around the game (with the media). Those guys are picking on me because they can’t or won’t pick on other people. Listen, I’m a big boy with big shoulders. It’s fine.
“I’ve never felt in my seven years that players weren’t responsive, at any point, to this coaching staff. All I’ve felt from this group, whether it be our core guys or guys coming into the group, is they want to learn and they want to win. We don’t have the same depth we had two years ago. But when we’re close to being at our best, like we were against Chicago (last week), we’re a very good team.”
This could be Vigneault’s last stand.
“Every day I come here, I don’t feel like it’s work,” he says. “I’ve got great people around me. They’re good people, good to coach. And the players understand the responsibility they have toward this market. They get the environment. They don’t make excuses that it’s too hard.
“In a couple of years, a lot of people are going to realize how special and how classy this group was.
“In the last four or five years, we’re No. 1 in the league in wins, No. 1 in points, No. 2 in goals against, No. 5 in goals for, we’ve played the most playoff rounds with Boston and Detroit.
“We’ve done a lot of really good things, except we lost that seventh game two years ago. Our goal now is to win that last one.”
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The magic man: This was arguably the best coaching season for Alain Vigneault, who was already the most successful coach in Vancouver Canucks franchise history. Naturally, he’ll be the first one fired if things go badly in the playoffs.
Photograph by: Vancouver Sun graphics, .