The Lozenge Laughs Last
Alain Vigneault’s offseason has been interesting thus far, to say the least. Criticized for months by a vocal segment of the Vancouver sports media, many expected Alain Vigneault to lose his job following the Canucks first round flame out at the hands of the Western Conference Championship Kings in April. The speculation reached a fever pitch when Vigneault didn’t appear at Mike Gillis’ season ending press conference (as he customarily does), and then left town without facing the music from the press.
While Vigneault spent the past month playing poker in an undisclosed location with Dick Cheney, however, it became increasingly apparent that General Manager Mike Gillis – who inherited Alain Vigneault when he was given the keys to the club in the Spring of 2008 – was committed to sticking with his innovative, spread-sheet loving head-coach.
Today, after a long delay and much speculation, the Canucks have made it official: Alain Vigneault has been given a contract extension and will be back behind the bench next season. Here’s the official Press Release from Canucks.nhl.com.
Read past the jump for more.
Alain Vigneault has coached the Canucks for six seasons now, he’s the winningest coach in franchise history and is coming off of two straight President’s Trophy wins. Under his watch, the core of the team have blossomed into stars – though that hasn’t stopped some Canucks fans from lamenting Vigneault’s apparent inability to develop young talent.
While the Canucks have yet to win hockey’s ultimate prize under Vigneault’s watch, they’ve been consistently successful posting five 100 point seasons, and winning the anemic Northwest Division nearly every year. Head coaches are often popular scape-goats when teams fail in the playoffs, however, I’d argue that most of the Canucks postseason failures have come against superior teams, and that coaching matters a lot less than the average fan thinks it does.
For all of Vigneault’s strengths – and there are many, including his innovative zone based line matching, his use of micro-stats like scoring chances, and his understanding of how to protect his best offensive players and take advantage of favorable matchups, he does inarguably take some things off of the table.
In particular, Vigneault is often impatient with talented, high-event players, and there are some talented guys who simply won’t succeed under his watch (see Ballard, Keith). While the issues with Cody Hodgson seem to have been fissures rather than mere cracks, Vigneault’s handling of Hodgson (and his public comments about Hodgson’s back injury) were blunt, and probably unfair. Vigneault is also prone to personnel decisions that totally boggle the mind (why was Maxim Lapierre used so fleetingly this past season as the third line centre – after being so successful in that spot during the 2010-11 cup run?).
Indisputably, Vigneault is a wicked technical coach, and in terms of tactics and his use of advanced stats – Vigneault is well ahead of most of his NHL contemporaries. Even an ungenerous assessment would place him among the top-10 NHL bench bosses. But, possibly the most concerning issue for Canucks fans, as regards Alain Vigneault’s coaching ability, stem from Mike Gillis’ comments about the team "peaking" emotionally in January – and failing to get back to that emotional level for four months over the balance of the season!
That was a striking admission from the club’s GM, and has to call into question Alain Vigneault’s skills as a motivator. The fact is that the Canucks have often come out flat in essential moments during Vigneault’s tenure, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. While I think these concerns are fair, I’m not in the room, and what’s clear is that Vigneault is well regarded by the players and by General Manager Mike Gillis.
That said, we’ll be able to gauge the level of commitment the team has actually shown when the term of the extension is revealed. If Vigneault has been given merely a two year extension, rather than the typical three year extension, that will speak volumes. Of course, I’ll update this post when those details leak.
The Right Process
On a personal level, it’s nice to root for a mature, analytical hockey club that doesn’t react emotionally to "failure" (like the team’s first round exit this past season) and instead makes sober, calculated decisions based on what’s best for the team. Whether or not Vigneault can lead the Canucks to the promised land remains to be seen, but the thought processes behind bringing him back for next season – despite public pressure and a disappointing result in round one – suggests to me that this is an organization with an intelligent and loyal approach. Let’s hope the hockey gods reward it.