@PlayNowSports Presents: This Week Straight Up May 13-19


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Tough Questions: Alain Vigneault

It’s time for a change… of footwear.
Photo via @yyjordan.

Jeff Angus: It is a lot easier to replace a head coach than it is to replace most of a roster, which is why coach turnover is very common in professional sports after a team fails to live up to expectations. Coaches usually get too much of the credit when things go well, and too much of the blame when they turn sour.

Thomas Drance: Couldn’t agree more. Vigneault made some moves that confused me this season, but at the end of the day, the Sharks swept the Canucks because they had better players. Even if you disagree with some of Vigneault’s deployments, I think having Kesler closer to 100% or, y’know, a third-line would’ve mattered an awful lot more.

Angus: Yeah. For all of the narratives we have gotten about the need to get bigger or younger or faster or whatever… the Canucks simply haven’t been able to score goals when it matters. They lost to the Bruins because they couldn’t score. It had nothing to do with Boston’s size or physical intimidation. But that makes for a nice story. They lost to the Kings because they couldn’t score. And they lost to the Sharks because they couldn’t score (for the two and a half games before Cory Schneider imploded).

Vigneault was hired back in 2006 after the Canucks missed the playoffs under Marc Crawford. It was time for a change behind the bench, as Crawford’s message had grown stale. Vigneault had spent time in the organization coaching with the Manitoba Moose and he developed relationships with several future Canucks down there, including Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa.

Fast forward seven years (which translates to about 50 in coaching years). Vigneault’s Canucks have been bounced in the first round in consecutive years, winning only once in nine games. Vigneault has done a lot of good things during his tenure with the Canucks, but even the most ardent supporters of his (including yours truly) believe now may be the time for a change in message behind the bench.

Drance: I’m in the same boat. I still think Vigneault’s a really good head coach and will be successful wherever he goes next. But that 1-8 record in the postseason the last two years is pretty much a flashing neon light that says: “time for a change.”

Angus: Yep. But still, AV did some really innovative things during his tenure. Vigneault deployed a radical zone start strategy that helped the Canucks capture both team and individual awards. He played a significant part in developing young talent, including Burrows, Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Edler. He has had his dissidents in the locker room, but almost every coach in the history of sports at any level will have players who don’t like him. Some of the more notable ones have been Mikael Samuelsson, Willie Mitchell, and Trevor Linden.

Drance: Yeah, I mean, show me the middle manager who doesn’t have some tension with some of the people on their staff. I don’t really believe such a person exists.

Angus: Anyways, assuming Vigneault is fired, don’t expect him to be out of work for very long. There are rumours out of Dallas that the Stars are more than ready to snatch him up if he becomes available. Vigneault would be a terrific fit in Big D, as the Stars are a lot like the Canucks were back in 2006-07. Young, gritty, tenacious, and not a lot of roster talent outside of their starting goaltender.

Drance: I agree that he’d be a good fit in Dallas, and would expect the Winnipeg Jets to chase him as well.

I also suspect that he’d be a wicked fit in Colorado too. I see Vigneault as very nearly the perfect guy to take advantage of Colorado’s centre depth, and I’m pretty confident Matt Duchene would enjoy basically never starting a shift in the defensive-zone during his prime.

Angus: A lot of teams would welcome Vigneault with open arms. Is there any concern that he takes some Vancouver trade secrets with him? I don’t think that is enough of a reason to prevent something from happening, though. And Vigneault’s detractors (both in the media and the fan base) will celebrate the day he is let go, but they will soon realize what a good coach he is when success comes elsewhere. Some people can’t logically disassociate the skill/ability of a coach and the need to make a coaching change for other reasons.

How about potential replacements? Do the Canucks go after a proven NHL coach? We have seen Los Angeles (Darryl Sutter) and St. Louis (Ken Hitchcock) go this route. Lindy Ruff is available after spending the last century in Buffalo. Do they go after someone who has earned his chops as an assistant at the NHL level? Look at the success Paul MacLean is having in Ottawa. How about a former player? Adam Oates, after a rough start, has the Capitals playing great hockey, and he has done what both of his predecessors failed to do – forged a positive relationship with Washington’s star players.

Drance: Lindy Ruff’s coaching style is pretty old school, so I don’t know that he’s a good fit with Vancouver’s super-progressive management team. Going with assistant coaches is a bit risky, because you’d obviously prefer to hire a guy who has head coaching experience. Most assistants do – MacLean was a coach in the IHL, AHL and UHL before joining Mike Babcock in Anaheim and then Detroit – but not all of them. The former player option is interesting, but again, I think you’d rather they cut their teeth as an assistant before considering them for a top-job (like Oates did in New Jersey).

Angus: So no Trevor Linden, then?


Photograph by: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Angus: We have a pair of Game 7’s on the schedule tonight, including the Leafs, who pay a return visit to Boston. Do the Leafs have enough gas in the tank after last night’s gritty performance? Did the Bruins get enough sleep after having to spend the night in Toronto due to plane malfunctions? Look for this one to be tight-checking and closely-contested (even more so than the previous six games).

Drance: Up until game six it was a really fast paced, high-event series. I’ll be curious to see if we see both teams pushing the tempo in game seven or grinding it out like they did on Sunday night. I’d expect the latter considering it’s game two of a back-to-back.

Angus: Tuukka Rask has been phenomenal for most of the series. James Reimer’s glove hand still looks shaky, but you can’t argue with the results he has delivered. He’s been fantastic when called upon. However, Boston is deeper and more experienced. Look for the Bruins to prevail in regulation (+174). [PLACE YOUR BET HERE]

Drance: Couldn’t agree more. The Leafs over-achieving in this series is a great story, but I think they’ll fall short in game seven. Bergeron, Marchand and Seguin haven’t had any success this series against Reimer, and I see them coming up big. It’ll be a great game though, can’t wait!

Anyway, there’s a reason my friends call me Prop Joe (I mean, beyond the fact that I’m out of shape). It’s because I’m bold! So here’s my bold move, I’m taking the Senators to beat the Penguins in seven in their second round series (+725). [PLACE YOUR BET HERE]

What the Senators lack in top-end talent they make up for in having three play-driving lines, a dynamite defence-corps, and Craig Anderson. Anderson in particular is a huge advantage in this series for the Senators, though less so if the Penguins go back to Tomas Vokoun.

I think this is going to be a close series, and I like Ottawa to narrowly pull off the upset. I like it even more at better than six-to-one odds.

Angus: If the Penguins do turn back to Fleury, his leash will be shorter than the one Alain Vigneault has had on Keith Ballard. Ottawa has a gritty team, a mobile defense (seriously, how good is Jared Cowen after coming off serious hip surgery?), and they have really forged an identity as a team that competes in all three zones. As lame and cliche as that sounds, Ottawa wins a lot of puck battles and they are able to turn that hard work into scoring opportunities. If they can stay out of the box against the Penguins, they have a shot.