Over the weekend I read a really interesting piece on whether or not the Canucks are "Tuning out Alain Vigneault" by Joe Pelletier. Joe is a hockey historian, a Canucks fan and an absolute must-follow on twitter, so go do that. While I very much enjoyed his take, I disagreed with it in some respects and I figured it would be worthwhile to elaborate.
Here’s the meat of Joe’s take (I’ve paraphrased to some extent):
The coaches and players always talk about the process and the structure more so than results – the attention to details that lead to success. Last year it was a welcomed, reassuring message for long time fans, largely because it is so true. They sounded like champions. But in the end it all came undone…
Now fans want to see that change, so this season the message, while no less true, sounds tired and old. It makes you wonder if the coaches do not have any further buttons to push, or if the players have tuned them out. Players tend to do exactly that to coaches and Vigneault already has had a longer shelf life than most…
Vigneault’s staid message is obvious in his coaching tactics. Canucks fans are still out for vengeance, but losses this season against New York and Edmonton reek of last year’s falterings. The coach is going with the same strategies and basically the same lines and the result is far to reminiscent of last June for Canucks fans. Were the lessons that cost us the Stanley Cup not learned?
[With the Booth trade] at least management finally made a serious move to attempt to correct last year’s failing. Now it is the coach’s turn. There is a noticeable lack of fire and firepower from the players. Can Vigneault find ways to start that fire? He better hope it does or his job may be on the line.
I think there’s a lot in there to agree with, but ultimately, I don’t buy the main premise (that the team has tuned out Vigneault). I think, rather, that Vigneault is gambling in the early going and playing a "long game" rather than focussing on picking up points in October. It’s a strategy that prioritizes April, May and June and could well be the right one, but as Joe said, it could also cost the Canucks head-coach his job.
What do I mean by AV’s gamble? I mean he is allowing the team to take a short-term hit in pursuit of the long-term health, depth and versatility of the squad. The first indication of this was the way the Canucks handled the preseason. They loaded up on veteran guys on PTO deals, meshed them with the rawest of prospects, played their veterans including rhythm goaltender Roberto Luongo in a grand total of two games, and took their lumps. Most of the results weren’t pretty, and the "Canucks" picked up a number of losses; then they entered the season "cold," and unsurprisingly, the losses continued to pile up.
Then we get to Vigneault’s pairings, which, I wrote about at length last week. Here’s the choice snippet:
Following the game in Detroit, however, the Canucks made some critical alterations to their blue-line pairings in order to achieve a couple of "long-term" goals. First of all, they dropped Salo from the teams second pairing and matched him up with Andrew Alberts on the third pair. Ideally this arrangement would cut down on the injury-prone veteran defender’s minutes, and help preserve his health and energy for later in the season (more on this later). Secondly, they switched Alexander Edler to the right side so as to increase the blue-line’s overall depth and versatility.
Vigneault also separated the lock-down pairing of Bieksa and Hamhuis, who were essential contributors to last years Cup run. Again we see Vigneault prioritizing long-term goals at the expense of October points. If the Canucks were desperate to make the playoffs, Salo, by far the team’s best defender so far this season, would be playing top pairing minutes. Instead: he’s glued to the bench at even-strength while he mans the right side on the team’s third pairing.
Finally we get to Maxim Lapierre – the team’s fourth-line engine. As Jeff Angus wrote today: he’s been possibly the Canucks most consistent skater through October, yet he’s stuck on the fourth line when, based on merit, even Vigneault admits he should be playing in the top-9.
Where Joe sees signs of a team "tuning out their coach" and a coach whose job could be a Jeopardy if the team doesn’t turn it around, I see a coach who is clearly feeling very comfortable in his job security, and has a lot of faith in his players. A coach who "needs to win, and win now" wouldn’t be handling his team the way Vigneault is handling the Canucks. He would have given Luongo four or five preseason starts, he would be playing Salo nearly twenty-two minutes per game and he would have long since demoted Malhotra to fourth line duty rather than giving him ample ice-time to re-adjust.
Vigneault, however, knows that regular season success, especially after last season, doesn’t mean very much to this organization, or this city. And he trusts his roster, he trusts the Canucks to accept and learn new roles, and to be accountable and to win despite it all. I’d wager that far from tuning him out, the team’s veteran core appreciates the trust and autonomy he is granting them. Could his gamble cost Vigneault his job? It’s possible if the Canucks are in, say, tenth in the Western Conference come February, but I doubt it.