Canucks coach Alain Vigneault fired for losing the games that really counted
General manager Mike Gillis’s ‘reset’ starts with easiest thing to change
VANCOUVER — The National Hockey League is a results-driven business, except when it isn’t.
Alain Vigneault, easily the most successful coach in Vancouver Canucks' history, was fired Wednesday because he didn’t win enough games that really mattered and didn’t fit the template of general manager Mike Gillis’s organizational “reset.”
Vigneault’s dismissal, widely expected after a second straight, first-round playoff exit, ends a seven-year run that saw the Canucks win 313 games, six Northwest Division titles and get within one victory of the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Vigneault was so successful he raised expectations in Vancouver that became impossible to meet the last two years when Gillis underestimated the NHL trend towards bigger, stronger teams and failed to improve the Canucks after their Stanley Cup Final loss to the Boston Bruins.
But Vigneault owned the Canucks’ 1-10 playoff record since Game 5 of the 2011 final, and was accountable for special-teams problems this past regular season and playoffs and his team’s lack of discipline in the San Jose Sharks’ four-game playoff sweep of Vancouver.
There are other arguments for firing Vigneault, from nonsense about his ability to develop young players and coach offence, his handling of goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider and the charge he was responsible for Keith Ballard’s inability to play dependably after Gillis’s disastrous trade for the defenceman three years ago.
Agendas, however, can be harpooned by simple wins and losses. Vigneault squeezed every regular-season point he could from his flawed roster. But at playoff time, when intensity and physicality increased, the Canucks weren’t good enough.
Still, they should not have lost as badly as they did against the Sharks and, the previous year, the Los Angeles Kings.
But most of the numbers were still in Vigneault’s favour this month, except for the last 11 playoff games and the seven years he has been with a team — a tenure that pre-dates owner Francesco Aquilini’s hiring of Gillis in 2008 to replace former GM Dave Nonis.
“We’re at a point now in the evolution of this team … where a change is required,” Gillis explained. “There’s no other motivation other than that. We didn’t get the result that we wanted to get.
“You have to keep evolving and keep moving because it’s a very fluid business. Alain has been a great coach here. He’s a terrific person. But in our evolution, it’s time.”
Gillis offered no timeline for hiring a new coach. Only Vigneault and Marc Crawford have coached the Canucks in the last 14 years.
Vigneault has two years remaining on his contract. Top assistants Rick Bowness and Newell Brown, fired with Vigneault, have one year owing.
While Gillis focused Wednesday on recent playoff failures and dubiously suggested Vancouver was favoured to beat San Jose — the surging Sharks had only two fewer points in the regular season while playing in a much tougher division — he needed to change his coach in order to reset the organization.
After seven years of Vigneault, changing the coach-player dynamic in Vancouver is not a bad thing unless Gillis hires the wrong guy to replace him.
It seems pretty obvious that the sameness on the Canucks was not going to be changed by changing players because Gillis is still largely committed to the Canucks’ core.
Vigneault, wary of becoming a voice tuned out, years ago took a calculated step back from the dressing room and empowered a “leadership group” to establish expectations and police accountability through peer pressure.
The group includes Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, and amid this environment the Canucks won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and nearly a Stanley Cup.
But this leadership model also detached Vigneault from players. He once explained that, under other circumstances, he probably would really like infuriating defenceman Shane O’Brien on a personal level, but as a coach he had to maintain his distance.
Vigneault maintained that buffer with all his players so when he crossed the hallway from his office to the dressing room at Rogers Arena in order to reprimand a player, no one should take it personally.
The Canucks’ next coach is likely to be more involved in the dressing room, more involved with players on a personal level, especially if Gillis achieves his goal of making the Canucks younger.
All the Canucks did under Vigneault was win.
Players rarely left his teams and did as well or better elsewhere.
And those who did — Michael Grabner, Willie Mitchell, Cody Hodgson — were beyond the coach’s responsibility, unless anyone thinks Vigneault should have played Hodgson ahead of centres Kesler and Hank Sedin.
“When I took this job, the assumption was five years ago that Alain would be fired,” Gillis said. “We found a way that we could work together, were successful together. I believe it’s been the best five years in the history of this franchise. But the last two years, we haven’t done the job … and we’re in a results-oriented business and we have to look at the results.”
Vigneault is surely the first NHL coach fired while riding a streak of five straight division titles. But clearly, the mandate is to win a Stanley Cup and Vigneault and everyone else in the organization, including Gillis, has failed at this. Equally obvious, the team as configured isn’t good enough.
The Canucks’ trajectory, ascending for most of Vigneault’s time as coach, has flattened with the age of players and will be angling perilously downward unless Gillis buttresses and re-energizes his team.
He chose to begin with the coach. It was the easiest place to start.
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