Does Vigneault Get "out-coached" in the postseason?

Thomas Drance
April 16 2012 02:02PM

As I've already written today, we'll start with the Canucks postmortems when that becomes appropriate: when the Canucks season is done, dead, and buried in the ground. At the moment, the season is on life-support, but I'm interested in seeing how the Canucks respond to their current deficit before wading into the muck and thoroughly analyzing what happened to the team this season. 

Other bloggers, like our buddy Wyatt over at the Legion of Blog have already started in on the "Vigneault's future and expiry date" discussion. That's fair enough, and while we'll still wait until after the season to perform our more detailed autopsy - I want to briefly cover and debunk a widespread, and patently false misconception that many Canucks fans subscribe too: that Vigneault is consistently out-coached in the postseason.

We'll examine the fossil record, after the jump!

This is Vigneault's sixth full season as the Canucks head-coach, he's the winningest head-coach in franchise history, his radical deployment strategies are clearly innovative, and he's brought the team to within a game of hoisting the most storied championship trophy in all of sports. In his six seasons at the helm of the Canucks, he's only missed the playoffs once and while this will likely change over the next week, none of his teams have never been eliminated in the first round of postseason.

This current series against the Los Angeles Kings will be Vigneault's eleventh playoff series as the club's head-coach, the team has six and lost four (with a fifth loss looming). In Vigneault's first season with Vancouver, he steered the club past the Dallas Stars before falling to the Anaheim Ducks, the eventual Stanley Cup Winner, in five games in the second round. In his second season with the Canucks, the team missed the playoffs due to the fact that they weren't very good to begin with and the percentages caught up to them late in the season. In his third season, the club steam-rolled the St. Louis Blues in four, before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks, and the next season they snuck by the Los Angeles Kings in six before losing again to the Blackhawks.

The following season, Vigneault steered the club past the Blackhawks (after the team had a mighty hiccup), past the Nashville Predators, decimated the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final and ultimately fell short against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. That brings us to this season, where Vigneault and the Canucks have lost the first three games of their series against the Los Angeles Kings, and will almost certainly go out in the first round.

If we're relying on the underlying numbers, the same numbers I used to predict the Los Angeles Kings winning this first round series against the Canucks, Vigneault's Canucks have only once squandered a series against a team with an inferior fenwick tied. Sadly, that series was the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, but when the opponents goaltender stops ~.960% of all shots on goal - it's tough to win a series, and I'm not sure that's on the coaching...

Fenwick tied percentage is the predictive metric I trust the most for forecasting long-term team success, and in every Canucks series loss since 2007, the team that defeated the Canucks was a better possession side than Vancouver was during those seasons. Vigneault has, however, been at the helm while the Canucks swept a club with a superior Fenwick tied (St. Louis in 2009) and defeated another opponent that was a superior possession side (Dallas in 2007). When and if the team does lose their fourth game to the Kings at some point, Vigneault's record of having only lost a single series against an inferior possession team will remain intact.

Canucks fans always bring up the way Joel Quennville, apparently, man-handled Vigneault during the three Blackhawks series. The fact is, however, that the better team won in all three of those series.

In the first Chicago series, the Canucks took it to the Blackhawks in the first several games. Then, in the second intermission of game four, with his team behind 1-0 (hilariously, on a Darcy Hordichuk go ahead playoff goal) and in danger of falling behind in the series 3-1, Quennville made an essential adjustment. Stop me if this seems familiar, but the Blackhawks had a rental defensive centreman on their roster who was getting his teeth kicked by Vancouver's top-line. That centres name was Samme Pahlsson. Coach Q replaced Pahlsson with Bolland and that was all she wrote, the Canucks had no answer and were checkmated (Willie Mitchell's giveaway to Marty Havlat with ninety seconds left in that game, didn't help matters any). 

While one might say that Vigneault failed to adjust to the Bolland-Sedin matchup, this was a result of the Canucks losing to a superior team. Once Q figured out how to matchup most effectively against the Canucks, Patrick Kane was able to go off and exploit the clubs lack of back-end speed (Vancouver's top-four that season included Ohlund, Bieksa, Mitchell and Salo). I'm just unconvinced that there was any way Vigneault could've combatted that.

The next seasons series against Chicago saw more of the same. But that was the Blackhawks team who played Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg (both clear top-line forwards) on their third line. They were historically deep. Is that supposed to be on Vigneault somehow? 

In the most recent Blackhawks series, the one in which the Canucks had that major hiccup and nearly squandered a 3-0 series lead, the Canucks were rather thoroughly unlucky (in game six especially, and also in allowing Toews to get a late shorty in game seven). Despite that, Vancouver's club was pretty clearly the superior squad throughout that series. Vigneault gets points from me for this series, because the club had just lost Manny Malhotra ten games before the playoffs began, and they didn't have the personnel to execute Vigneault's preferred deployment method (third line takes the toughest minutes, Kesler wrecks the oppositions bottom-6).

Vigneault deployed in this series with a sheltered third line, centered by Mason Raymond, while hard-matching Kesler against Toews. Bolland's return allowed Coach Q to feed the Patrick Kane/Marian Hossa line a steady diet of shifts against the modified third line (centered again by Mason Raymond) and they briefly gained an upper hand in the series. While the Blackhawks managed to make that series too interesting for comfort, their matchup advantage wasn't enough and they were still outplayed and out-possessed in both games six and seven. 

In the series against the Nashville Predators, it was Vigneault v. Trotz - who most would agree is among the best coaches in the NHL. Between games two and three of this series, Vigneault made an essential adjustment that paid off big time. He decided that he'd give Maxim Lapierre a shot in Manny Malhotra's third line role. Lapierre was dynamite, and managed to play top-opposition to a draw in three playoff series last year. Lapierre's suitability in the "enabler" role, allowed Kesler go beast-mode on the Preds bottom six, which, he'd done and done very well during most of that season when he played ahead of Malhotra.

I've heard from folks that it was "an obvious adjustment." That's just absurd. If anyone around the league believed that Lapierre could play that well in the top-9 of a Conference Champion, he would've fetched a lot more than a mid-round pick for the Habs and Ducks respectively on the trade market that season.

This deployment strategy (and Niemi's shakiness) also got the Canucks past the Sharks, and while the Sedins were outmatched against Chara and Bergeron, and Kesler couldn't really skate in the finals, Lapierres third line remained effective. That was a brilliant adjustment, it checkmated two quality clubs and it's the type of thing Canucks fans think Vigneault is never able to do. But he's done it before, and he's continued to do it even in the team's current series.

In game one, the Canucks were pulverized at even-strength by Anze Kopitar's line. It became clear that Samme Pahlsson wasn't going to be able to handle Kopitar, and that something had to give. Vigneault's adjustments were perfect, and while the team hasn't turned the tide in terms of "winning games," they've been the better five-on-five team as a result of Vigneault's adjustments in this series.

What are those adjustments exactly? Well he's hard-matched Kesler against Kopitar, rationalized his defensive pairings and loaded his top-six with his actual best six forwards (Hansen, Higgins, Sedin, Kesler, Booth, Burrows). The hope has been that Pahlsson, Lapierre and Raymond can play the Stoll line to a draw (something they have managed to do), and that the club can cope playing with a shorter bench. Pahlsson's inability to counteract Kopitar hurt the Canucks "depth advantage" in the series, but that's hardly Vigneault's fault - and he should be credited for reversing the flow of play, and turning it in the Canucks favour this series.

We're all disappointed that the Canucks are likely to lose in the first round this season, and have yet to win a Stanley Cup with their current core. Some of that is on Vigneault, I suppose, but we'll get into that once this season is properly said and done. In the meantime, the Los Angeles Kings are another postseason opponent that, guess what, were a better possession side than the Canucks were this season. Losing to this Kings team in the first round was always a very real possibility, and that's when we thought Daniel would be in the lineup.

Even without Daniel, Vigneault saw what wasn't working in game one and fixed it, only to be betrayed by the club's disastrous special teams in game two and unfortunate puck-luck in game three. The Vancouver market is turning their blow-torch on Vigneault's seat, and it is doubtlessly becoming a sweltering hot seat indeed. Some of that is fair, some it is weird, and some of it is totally baseless. The notion that Vigneault is consistently out-coached in the postseason falls into the third category.

 

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Dmac
April 16 2012, 02:35PM
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In terms of the Fenwick tied percentage, is there an explanation for why the Kings have a better rating than the Canucks during the regular season, yet the Canucks had so many more points? Is it that this is a predictor of playoff success where winning is dependent on only a few variables, puck possession being one. Looked at the other way, there are more ways to win in the regular season, and thus the Fenwick stat is less predictive in the regular season. Thus playing the same team over a seven game series, puck possession is more important as there is no shoot-out, there are generally fewer powerplays, and less room for offensive players to score on individual plays. Have I got that correct?

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#3 mrbitterguy
April 16 2012, 03:02PM
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so your argument is that av isn't outcoached in the playoffs because he's a mediocre coach in the regular season? basing your measurements on regular season fenwick is just comparing av to himself. and deciding that he's smart to throw lappy out on the third line when there wasn't any other reasonable option on the team is just giving him credit for throwing crap against a wall and using what stuck.

don't buy it, if he was a great playoff coach or even a good one the team wouldn't be possible to win the president's trophy and then get swept by the 8 seed. it also wouldn't be possible to melt down as spectacularly as the canucks have done in the past 4 playoffs. good coaches should have some control over the emotional and psychological state of their teams.

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#4 expat5
April 16 2012, 03:06PM
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I never comment on blogs but I have to say this is an impressive piece of analysis. I don't hold out much hope for the fan base, but I trust that Gillis and his management team will act in a rational manner when the season finally comes to an end.

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#5 Mantastic
April 16 2012, 03:09PM
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AV artificialy boosted the depth of the club by his deployment of his lines. AV relies on opponent teams to have the standard 2 scoring lines, 1 checking line and 1 garbage line for the his team to operate well. Without garbage lines for AV to throw the Sedins at, the club is really reduced to 1 2ndary scoring/2ndary checking line and 2 hard checking lines with extremely minimal offense and makes the clubs very easy to handle.

It's really AV's fault in the fact that, that's how he wants his team to be made. teams with essentially 4 "big body lines" will always give the canucks a hard time because the Sedin's aren't use to that kind of opposition. Sedin's also don't do well against teams/lines are are a strong puck possession because of their poor defensive abilities.

last year was the ideal year for the canucks to make the finals, career offensive years for Daniel and Kesler. the team just isn't good enough to make the finals consistantly without strong output from their top 2 lines.

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#7 mrbitterguy
April 16 2012, 03:30PM
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Thomas Drance wrote:

@mrbitterguy you totally misunderstood what i was talking about. @Mantastic - you wouldn't describe SJ or the Blackhawks last season as teams with "4 big body lines"? This isn't about size, it's about puck possession...

tied fenwick is based on regular season stats, what's not to understand? if you coach a team to underperform in the regular season at 5-on-5 and then underperform in the playoffs at 5-on-5 what are you proving? that you're consistent, not that you're a good coach.

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#8 Mantastic
April 16 2012, 03:38PM
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@thomas

strong puck possession teams do not have 4 strong puck possession lines. competent big bodys which might not have strong puck possession skills against normal teams have a pretty easy time against the Sedins, especially when they can skate.

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#9 petbugs13
April 16 2012, 05:44PM
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Nice write-up and analysis, as usual.

One adjustment I'd like to see is to put Lapierre back with Henrik and Burrows. After Daniel went down, AV tried a number of wingers on that line but I thought it wasn't until Lapierre got a shot that it finally started clicking. It makes the line a bit more versatile and able to match up against a broader range of opposing lines both offensively and defensively.

The one major issue I have with the Canucks' system (and thus AV's coaching) is the apparent irrational need to maintain puck possession at all costs in every situation. Given the number of times that they try to carry the puck out of the zone while being checked or make a pass to someone still in the zone through traffic, it is clear that this is something that has been drilled in to them. And I know possession is the key, but it's better to give up possession by chipping it outside the line than by losing it inside the line...

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#10 dan
April 16 2012, 05:54PM
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"Vigneault's Canucks have never, not once, squandered a series against a team with an inferior fenwick tied. "

Wrong? Only the most important series in Club history. Van ranked 4 fenwick %tied Boston 16th!

http://behindthenet.ca/fenwick_2010.php?sort=1&section=tied

So with this correction, and your logic he has actually underachieved with the club.

"In game one, the Canucks were pulverized at even-strength by Anze Kopitar's line. It became clear that Samme Pahlsson wasn't going to be able to handle Kopitar, and that something had to give."

Yes his prize 'checking line was a colossal failure..One game too late/the underlying numbers have been suggesting this change weeks ago. . Hi failure to start the series this way cost game 1. are possession numbers were terrible. And Pahlsson on ice for winner.

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#12 Dmac
April 16 2012, 07:49PM
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If I understand those posts by Dan and Thomas about the Boston series, then according to the relative fenwick tied stats, the Canucks should have won the cup. One of my concerns about the coaching in that final and in this series, is the desire to be tougher than their opponents. In game one of the cup final, Burrows got into that stupid scrum at the end of the first period which led to the bite. In the second, Hamhuis went for the big hit on Lucic only to hurt himself. Then in game 3, Rome went for the big hit on Horton. All three were disasters for the team. And in this series, they have taken too many penalties trying to show their toughness. Some of that belongs to the coach.

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#14 Dmac
April 16 2012, 09:17PM
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Well there is not much the head coach can do about goaltending. The Bruins goaltending was connected the solid defensive play - just as in the LA series, where the d-men are allowing Quick to challenge the shooters. The Canuck d disintegrated with the loss of Rome and Hamhuis and this hurt them at both ends as Canuck d were big part of offense last year. The combination of the biting, Lapierre's taunt and the Rome hit , had the effect of ramping up the emotion to a toxic level that worked in Bruins favour. Then after game 5, Luongo stepped in it with his comments (pumping tires), and was a mess in game 6 - the game in Boston which the Canucks actually played pretty well. So in summary all these factors, which are not captured in the stats, had a cumulative impact on the series.

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#15 dan
April 16 2012, 09:53PM
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@Thomas Drance

I'm saving my fire AV post til when the season is over..I'll try to refute your arguments and send you the link...enjoy yr passion

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#16 NuckfiSh
April 17 2012, 02:09AM
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Great Analysis... Its good to see some people are still thinking rational with the team on the brink of elimination.

However I do have a question that's difficult to answer with numbers - Is Coach V getting the most out of his players? It is possible that this group of players could have been deployed differently to success...

BUT, with 60 minutes still left on the clock, that question remains TBD. Just barely.

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#17 Evjenij
April 24 2012, 01:44AM
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Canuck fans are so clueless that's why they havent won dick all in 4 decades. Bring in crap players, watch them choke, fans believe, change nothing for next year, then repeat for the next 40 years.it's a pipe dream management always sell to Canucks fans and they buy into it hook line and sinker..every year.next year will be no different. Canuck choke, fans dont want any real changes, repeat the same. it's never the coaches fault, it's never luongos fault, its never the g.m.s fault, its never the players fault. the fans have been getting what they asked for all along...more of the same, more of the same crap, year oafter year. the canucks trade away potential and keep chokers. It's in all their history. Go to gm place, nothing but country club players who have done nothign with their jerseys retired. That is so sad...but not sadder than their clueless bandwangoner fans.

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