Alain Vigneault racks up wins and criticism in Vancouver.
Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty
Alain Vigneault has been under fire in the Vancouver market since, well, for as long as I can remember anyway. It’s clear that he rubs media and many fans the wrong way, and ultimately his record is judged through the same prism with which we view other quality regular season coaches in other sports who’ve failed to win a championship (Andy Reid, Jerry Sloan, etc.). The bottom line is that the Canucks have fallen short of the ultimate goal with Alain Vigneault at the helm, and to many that outweights all of the positives of his tenure.
To top it off, Alain Vigneault is having a rough week. The Canucks have relinquished their lead in the Northwest Division following a series of no-shows against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. The power-play is a mess, the team isn’t scoring enough and auspicious possession numbers aside – the effort put forth by Vigneault’s players has seemed inconsistent at best this season. As such Alain Vigneault’s seat is heating up like Vesuvius. So I figure, what the hell, this is as good a time as any to look at his track record and evaluate what he brings to the table and what he removes from it.
Read on past the jump.
Let’s start this off with a massive qualifier: I’m not in the room, and I can’t evaluate Alain Vigneault’s relationship with his players. Anyone who confidently asserts things like "the players have tuned him out" or "don’t like him" or anything like that should probably be regarded with skepticism.
So much of what a coach does happens behind the scenes and beyond the purview of what any analysis of this sort can accurately criticize. So I’m going to stick to the limited scope of what I can confidently assert based on the underlying data and the public record. Okay, let’s get to it.
Pro – Modern Strategic Thinking:
Alain Vigneault’s deployment patterns – from his disciplined massaging of matchups to his innovative use of "zone matching" – are massive positives that he brings to the table as the Canucks’ head coach. Beyond that, his in-house tracking of micro-stats and, more importantly, his use of that data to inform deployment decisions, give him a big edge over at least half of the other head coaches in the league.
Alain Vigneault is an innovative bench boss and a modern strategic thinker and ultimately that’s been at the heart of my defense of his record in the past. Over the past several months we’ve begun to suspect that some of these innovations originate with Vancouver’s management team rather than with Vigneault himself, but that’s sort of besides the point.
What matters is that Alain Vigneault is willing to "experiment" with his roster and put into practice some of the Canucks’ progressive ideas. In doing so he’s managed to crank out wins and deploy his roster so that they’re at or near the top of the league in terms of the possession nubers and the standings year after year.
Con – Tactically Stubborn:
Occassionally it seems like Alain Vigneault is too slow to adjust to the opposition. Whether or not he’s too slow to adjust or too tactically stubborn with how he wants to attack his opponents, this is something that has burned Vigneault and the Canucks on several occassions in the past.
Let’s take last years playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings as an example. While Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams were making minced meat out of Samme Pahlsson, Alain Vigneault stuck with his over the hill defensive centreman as the primary matchup against Los Angeles’ top-line for every game with one exception.
That exception was game three, when Ryan Kesler was Anze Kopitar’s primary matchup (when Vigneault was able to avoid Sutter’s prefferred matchup of Kopitar v. Henrik Sedin). In that game Kesler more or less played the Kopitar line to a draw, but Dustin Brown scored a bit of a lucky goal off of a Cory Schneider rebound and the Canucks were quite suddenly down three to nothing in the series. The next game, Pahlsson was back battling (and losing to) Anze Kopitar.
Looking at it in retrospect, Ryan Kesler won the head-to-head matchup against Anze Kopitar in that series, so the fact that Pahlsson was back playing his ineffective clutch-and-grab game against Kopitar in games four and five of the Western Conference quarterfinal is a bit mystifying.
We have to be careful using hindsight as an analytical tool. If Vigneault’s judgement was "I need Ryan Kesler to give me some offense if we’re going to come back in this series and he can’t do that if he’s wasting his energy battling Kopitar" then it’s a defensible tactical choice. I don’t think it’s the right one, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight which gives me an unfair advantage over Alain Vigneault circa April 2012.
Generally speaking however, I think it’s fair to say that the Canucks coaching staff failed to anticipate how difficult it would be to matchup against Los Angeles’ first line. Once it became clear in game one, Vigneault was too slow to put Kesler on Kopitar and too slow to reunite his ace shutdown pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis in an effort to contain Los Angeles’ first line. Then once those adjustments were made, he arguably went away from it again too quickly.
This wasn’t the first time Canucks fans had seen such tactical stubbornness from Alain Vigneault in the postseason. Of course there have also been some effective adjustments in the postseason (moving Maxim Lapierre to third line centre following an overtime loss in game two of the Western Conference Semi Final series against Nashville in 2011, for example).
Ultimately his record is mixed in this area, and tactical missteps like the ones made against the Kings in the Spring of 2012 are pretty easy to make. Moreover Los Angeles was simply the better team anyway, and Vigneault has only lost one series against a team with inferior underlying numbers to the Canucks during his tenure. Unfortunately that series was the 2011 Stanley Cup Final…
All of these qualifiers are critical but this is still an area where Alain Vigneault’s coaching has been inconsistent at best.
Pro – Gets the Most Out of His Stars:
In contrast with the likes of Phil Kessel (handcuffed to a replacement level top-six forward in Tyler Bozak, despite the presence of possession monster Mikhail Grabovski on the roster), or Alex Ovechkin (why is his offensive zone-start percentage so consistently low?) – Alain Vigneault has enabled the Sedin twins to excel. Not only have the twins consistently started in the offensive end of the rink at a rate that was previously unheard of in the NHL, but during his tenure Alain Vigneault also found them a perfect and counter-intuitive complement in Alex Burrows.
It’s a similar story with Ryan Kesler. As Kesler’s offensive skill came to the fore, Alain Vigneault began to lean on other players to do the heavy-lifting defensively (Kyle Wellwood and Manny Malhotra primarily). Vigneault started Ryan Kesler more often in the offensive end of the rink, and worked his matchups hard to get Ryan Kesler out on the ice against the third and fourth lines of the opposition.
Obviously Kesler (and favourable puck luck) deserves the lions share of the credit for turning himself into a forty goal scorer, but it’s impossible to argue that Alain Vigneault hasn’t consistently managed to put his star players in an optimal position to maximize their talent and output.
We take this for granted in Vancouver, but outside of a short list of NHL coaches (Coach Q in Chicago, Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, Paul MaClean in Ottawa, Claude Noel in Winnipeg, and surprisingly John Tortorella in New York), there aren’t a lot of bench bosses who have this particular art boiled down to a science. To Vigneault’s credit he most certainly does.
Con – Handling the Media:
It often seems like the majority of the Vancouver hockey media has it out for Alain Vigneault. I’m pretty sure that the Province Sports crew keeps a knife sharpener right in the news room so that they’re ready to carve Alain Vigneault whenever the opportunity presents itself. Oh look here’s a bit from Kuzma doing just that today.
I think a lot of it is unfair, but I also think a lot of it is Alain Vigneault’s own doing. Anyone who has observed this team closely for the past couple of seasons knows that Alain Vigneault has a propensity for putting his foot in his mouth. Let’s take the recent incident with Keith Ballard, and kick it over to Dan Murphy’s stellar recap of the situation. Here’s what Murph wrote late last week:
Vigneault could handle the situation better at times. When Ballard was scratched for the LA game, Vigneault’s reason was that he was going with the six guys that gave his team the best chance to win. He didn’t have to be so blunt with his assessment. He could have softened his answer so Ballard sitting wouldn’t have blown up into such a big story.
How hard would it have been to say that Alberts had waited too long to get into a game so it was time to incorporate him into the lineup? That too would have been an honest answer but Vigneault chose to throw Ballard under the bus a bit.
Managing the media isn’t the most important part of a head coach’s job. In fact it probably isn’t in the top-15 most important parts of their job. But it does matter a bit, especially in a high-pressure market like Vancouver.
Personally I thought Alain Vigneault’s coin-flip comedy bit was woefully unfunny, but it was a good way of deflecting pressure and criticism away from his goaltenders and onto himself. That was a good example of Vigneault managing his relationship with the media well, but my impression is that’s more the exception than the rule.
Frankly, I get pretty exhausted with the Vancouver hockey media at times and I’m just a lowly reader (and opinionated Canucks news DJ). I’d imagine that the constant flow of critcism gets tiresome when you’re dealing with it every day like Alain Vigneault is, especially when it’s so often misinformed. But empathy aside, there’s no denying that handling the media isn’t one of Alain Vigneault’s strong suits as a head coach.
Pro – Matchups Juggernaut:
Alain Vigneault massages his matchups so as to attack the "soft underbelly" of opponent’s rosters better than perhaps any other coach in the NHL. Check out Tyler Dellow’s work on Canucks versus Kings matchups during the first round playoff series last April, and it’s pretty clear that quality of team aside, Vigneault bested Sutter rather cleanly in the matchups game (even when he was on the road and didn’t have last change).
Vigneault’s ability to play the matchups game is disciplined and consistently effective. At the moment the Canucks roster is a bit too short-handed for this to pay-off in a major way (Ryan Kesler’s presence is pretty essential to this matchups gameplan) but this is an underappreciated area of Vigneault’s coaching. Simply put he’s among the best in the league at using his resources effectively, and his ability to execute this area of his game plan has been a critical feature of Vancouver’s success over the past several seasons.
Con – Treatment of Young Talent:
This is sort of a mixed bag, frankly, because there have been young players who Alain Vigneault trusted to take on a big role (Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows etc.). But there have also been several young players who have gotten the short end of the stick, bounced around the lineup with limited rhyme or reason, while being arguably misused (Cody Hodgson, Zack Kassian and Jordan Schroeder, for example).
Let’s take Zack Kassian, pretty much the crown jewel of Vancouver’s anemic youth movement. He performed well with the twins early on this season, but he’s since seen time mostly on the fourth line or on the third line alongside Maxim Lapierre and David Booth (neither of whom has much offensive value).
Kassian’s possession numbers are good, but he’s had limited power-play time and been unlucky by the bounces this season. He’s also spent a few games on the fourth-line playing his off-wing. Vigneault is trying to win games with a short-handed team this season, but it would be nice to see a player of Kassian’s ilk given a predictable role on a nightly basis.
The same goes for Jordan Schroeder, who was snaktebit in his rookie season and found himself on the fourth line becasue he was failing to "make plays." Struggling to make plays when you’re playing with Tom Sestito and Dale Weise on an underskilled fourth line and playing out of position on the power-play doesn’t sound to me like the most damning criticism, frankly. I’ll admit, I find it frustrating that Jordan Schroeder wasn’t given a longer look with Mason Raymond, with whom he showed clear synergy through fifteen or so games this season.
Finally, Cody Hodgson wasn’t so much misdeployed (in fact, I’d argue that Alain Vigneault figured out the perfect way to deploy Cody Hodgson) as he was mistreated (arguably). Alain Vigneault’s comments about Hodgson’s back injury following Hodgson’s first training camp very probably played a role in the poisoning of the well between player and organization. Lots of the criticism of Alain Vigneault on the Cody Hodgson front always struck me as unfounded, but there was very probably a grain of truth on this specific point.
Pro – Player Development:
While Vigneault’s handling of rookies often leaves me shaking my head, that needs to be qualified by praising Vigneault’s overall development record. It’s actually pretty astounding.
When Vigneault first joined the Canucks way back in 2006 – after coaching Vancouver’s AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose for a couple of seasons – the cupborad of prospects and young talent was relatively barren (the more things change, the more they stay the same). To Vigneault’s credit he managed to get the most out of the system, and so many mainstays on Vancouver’s roster have evolved from fringe prospects or fourth liners into extraordinarily effective NHL players during his tenure in Vancouver.
The list of players who’ve come up and become quality NHLers under Alain Vigneault’s tutelage includes: Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Cory Schneider. That’s a nearly a third of the Canucks current roster, and I think it’s tough to argue that they haven’t all been overachievers.
Lots of that credit belongs to the individual players, but at least some of it should be credited to the guy who taught them how to survive and excel at the NHL level, and that guy is Alain Vigneault.
Con – Too Conservative with the Lead:
In terms of "Fenwick Close" – an expanded plus minus number that counts up all goals, shots on goal and misses for and against in a "score close" game state – this season, the Canucks are sixth in the NHL. They’re the third best possession team in the NHL by the Fenwick numbers when they’re down a goal, but they’re only the 11th best when they’re up one.
What this suggests is that when the Canucks need to catch up on the scoreboard, they have the raw talent to be a super elite hockey club. But too often they deploy a conservative defensive shell when they’re in the lead, and that conservatism is counter-productive. Alain Vigneault’s conservatism on this end is like an NFL coach punting on fourth-and-one from the opponent’s forty yard line late in a one score game.
Worse, this is something of a trend. In 2011-12 the Canucks were the seventh best team by Fenwick Tied and the seventh best team in Fenwick when down a goal. But they’d still sit on leads to an undue extent and finished ninth in the league in Fenwick when they were up a goal.
It’s the same story from 2010-11 too, the Canucks were the fourth best possession team in score-tied situations, they were the best team in the league when they needed to catch up on the scoreoard, but they were only the fifth best when they were up a goal.
Lots of coaches across every North American professional sports league deploy their teams in too conservative a fashion, and Alain Vigneault is no different. It’s frustrating though because he’s an innovative coach in a lot of ways, which makes his consistent reliance on a shell-game late in close contests so frustrating.
As the team’s possession ability when down a goal suggests, the Canucks might be best served trying to outskill opponents consistently regardless of the score. Yes the Canucks have a stellar record when leading after two periods during Alain Vigneault’s tenure, but his pernicious habit of sitting on leads arguably neuters the team’s effectiveness overall.
Pro – Racks up the Wins Despite Adveristy:
Even this season, Vigneault has found ways to win despite being without the likes of Ryan Kesler and David Booth, who have been out of the Canucks lineup for the majority of the team’s games. Injuries haven’t been the only area of adversity Vigneault has guided the Canucks through either this season. If you’d told me in early January, for example, that at the halfway point of this season the Canucks would be getting just average goaltending and that their power-play would be on life-support – I’d have told you that the team was in serious trouble. Instead the Canucks remain among the best clubs in the Western Conference (in terms of possession and even-strength goal differential).
Yes playing in the Northwest Division helps, but Vigneault has this club outperforming expectations at five-on-five this season, and despite the recent run of mediocrity, he deserves a lot of credit for it. Not that anyone will give it to him!
Even during the 2010-11 season, when Vigneault was behind the wheels of a certifiable juggernaut, the Canucks went through 13 defenseman. There were nights when Vigneault’s blue-line consisted entirely of Christian Ehrhoff, Aaron Rome and four AHLers (so, five AHLers. Just kidding, Aaron Rome is the best). The team still racked up the wins.
Vigneault may rub folks the wrong way and have his faults as a head coach, but when the rubber meets the road Alain Vigneault’s teams consistently overachieve (at least in the regular season). That matters.
Con – Dealing with Injured Players
I tend to think this popular Alain Vigneault criticism is much ado about nothing – Alain Vigneault isn’t the first NHL coach to expect his players to play hurt – but it’s a trend that’s worth noting here. In the past Alain Vigneault has seemed to be at odds with a variety of players over their injured status. From Willie Mitchell (who is in a similar situation with Darryl Sutter at the moment, I might add), to Cody Hodgson, to David Booth and Ryan Kesler..
This isn’t as damning as the Canucks-centric naysayers in the Vancouver market think it is, this is a pretty common occurence league wide. But it’s also not nothing.
As I wrote at the start of this piece: there’s so much that Alain Vigneault does as a head coach on a day-to-day basis that happens behind the scenes. In terms of his relationship with players, with management, his intermission rally cries, and his preparation, we have no way of evaluating his abilities with any certainty. We’re not in the room and can’t comment on these areas (and for the most part, I’m pretty skeptical of the folks who say they can).
What we can evauate leaves us with a pretty limited tactical profile of a head coach. But based on that I think that any intellectually honest assessment of Alain Vigneault’s overall record as an NHL bench boss should pretty much conclude that he brings more to the table than he removes from it. He’s not without his faults but for all of the seemingly endless criticism of Vigneault’s coaching in the Vancouver market, there should be no question that he’s among the best head coaches in the National Hockey League (right up there with the likes of Quenneville, MacLean, Babcock, Bourdreau and Tippett).
Were Vigneault to be relieved of his duties as Vancouver’s bench boss, he’d assuredly find employment elsewhere in the National Hockey League in a matter of days or weeks, rather than months or years. He’d pretty much have a new job before shappers, CDCers and Vancouver Province hockey writers were even finished celebrating. And whenever it inevitably happens, and Vigneault moves on to his next job with another organization in the National Hockey League, I’d expect him to have a Bruce Boudreau-type impact.
He’d also bring his new organization a wealth of institutional knowledge that he’s accumulated over his seven years in Vancouver, working under one of the most progressive management teams in hockey. For that reason alone, any decision the Canucks make regarding Alain Vigneault’s future won’t be made lightly.
Alain Vigneault was extended for two seasons this past summer, but I don’t think anyone would be shocked if he were relieved of his position should the Canucks fall short of expectations again this Spring. Maybe the Canucks do need a new voice and a fresh perspective behind the bench, what do I know, but I do suspect that if the Canucks changed course in mid-season it would be something of a mistake. Better to wait until the offseason when you can take your time, figure out exactly who is available, kick the tires on young guys like Dallas Eakins and Jon Cooper and conduct a more thorough search.