We were ecstatic yesterday when consistently successful and innovative head coach Alain Vigneault received a two year extension from the Canucks. He’s not without his flaws as a bench boss, but generally speaking, he’s among the league’s best and the Canucks have morphed from an over-matched defensive squad into a perennial contender under his stewardship. His record as a hockey coach is unassailable for the most part, the fact that he hasn’t won a championship during his tenure being the only blemish. His persistent foot-in-mouth disease, however, is another story.
Read past the jump.
Yesterday, while addressing the press he’s avoided for a month since the Canucks were eliminated, Vigneault made a couple of controversial comments that have left him vulnerable to a couple of lines of compelling criticism from the press and the fan-base. First of all, he took some shots at Ryan Kesler’s wilting performance last season saying notably that you couldn’t blame Kesler’s shoulder injury for his lack of production (quotes via Jim Jamieson of the Province):
"Obviously, Ryan had a shoulder issue and the decision was made at the end of the season to operate on that shoulder. That being said, though, that was not, in our mind, the reason for his diminished production.
I’m sure if you were to ask him, the injury wasn’t the reason his production fell. His rehab and the way he stayed on top of that permitted him to play at the pace he was used to playing but for whatever reason, his performance slipped this year. We’ve got to get on top of that and we’ve got to get him back to where he was before that.”
These comments didn’t sit well with Ryan Kesler’s agent, who took shots at Vigneault on Vancouver radio station News 1130 and told Jamieson (same article linked to above) that you’d have to have fallen off a "turnip truck" to think Kesler’s play wasn’t affected by his injury. Boom.
Alain Vigneault’s comments on Kesler’s injuries strike me, frankly, as a refusal on the part of the head coach to use injuries as an excuse for the team’s failings this past season. (He played the injury card in last years Finals, and may have been reluctant to do so again). That doesn’t change the fact that the comments should strike any long-term Canucks fan as exceedingly odd.
After all, if you want to criticize Kesler’s performance this past season, there is plenty of material: his lack of production, his habitual "puck hogging", his constant looking to officials for calls, his rampant and hilarious diving. An inability to play through injury, however, isn’t something that Kesler – a guy who once asked team doctors to amputate one of his broken fingers so he could return to a playoff game – should ever be criticized for in my honest opinion.
Also, as Wyatt Arnt exhaustively documented earlier today at the Legion, Vigneault’s comments about Kesler can be perceived as another example in a long line of instances where Vigneault has severely down played the impact of his own player’s injuries. The Canucks bench boss famously alienated a young Cody Hodgson by writing off the impact of the high-maintenance young centre’s mysterious back injury in the 2009 preseason. Yesterday, he admitted that he was unconvinced that Daniel Sedin even had a concussion this past Spring. Just this past season, he lost patience with David Booth while Booth was attempting to return from a knee injury.
I wouldn’t call this a "troubling trend", clearly Vigneault expects his players to be tough and to lay it all on the line for the team – but I would suggest that it’s bad optics. The fact that Vigneault’s most recent comments about Kesler have apparently infuriated the teams recovering second line centre just adds to that perception.
The other big messaging misstep Vigneault made yesterday was when he "confirmed" to French Canadian sports network TVASports that Luongo would like to get a fresh start in another hockey market. According to occasional Canucks Army translator Stuart St-Amant, one of the commentators asks Vigneault whether or not a "fresh start" away from Vancouver would be good for Luongo. Vigneault then responds with "It’s what [Luongo] presently desires and what we have to do is what’s best for the organization […he then rambles saying exactly the same thing again]."
So why is this a communications misstep? Because, Gillis has gone on the radio twice in the past month and tried to posture as if the Canucks have endless options in dealing with the Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider situation. Contrary to his public statements, Gillis’ options may be dwindling, as evidenced by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who went out of his way to say his team wasn’t interested in dealing for Luongo today. Having the head-coach explicitly admit that Luongo wants out publicly, even though we all knew that was the case anyway, contradicts Gillis’ official party line and thus diminishes his leverage.
So Alain Vigneault celebrated his shiny new two year extension by putting his foot – rather than his typical lozenge – in his mouth. Undeniably handling the press is a big part of being an NHL head-coach and it’s an area in which Vigneault has occasionally struggled. (Though handling the press in Vancouver is, in fairness, a monumental task). While these communications missteps were clumsy, neither incident strikes me as likely to be costly to the organization. It’s mostly just a reminder that Vigneault was extended because of his ability to coach a hockey team, rather than his ability as a doctor of medicine, or of spin.