Defending the records of Alain Vigneault and Mike Gillis

The three guys leaving on the jet plane shouldn’t be blamed for the ravages wrought by father time.
Photography by Jeff Vinnick via

When the NHL came out of the last lockout, Markus Naslund hit unrestricted free agency for three days. The Vancouver Canucks got him under contract—three years, six-million per—and the city breathed a sigh of relief.

Nobody, I guess, told then-general manager Dave Nonis that you can’t bank on 32-year-old players to bring you the same Art Ross-level scoring touch. With Naslund locked up through his 34-year-old season, a 30-year-old Todd Bertuzzi and a 30-year-old Brendan Morrison, the general feeling in Vancouver was that this team, at the end of their prime years, would get a couple more kicks at the can under Nonis, who spent his first offseason keeping together the same group that Brian Burke had assembled.

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Of course, it didn’t work out. You can’t keep expecting players on the wrong side of 30 to generate scoring. Not when you’re Marc Crawford, an offensive tactician, and not when you’re Alain Vigneault, who is cast as a more defensive coach.

Naslund scored 32 goals, then 24, then 25. Those weren’t world beating numbers, especially when you considered that 30-goal-scorers grew on trees in the 2005-2006 season. Naslund was 2nd in NHL scoring in 2002 and 2003 and 4th in 2004. Between 2002 and 2004, only Jarome Iginla (128) scored more goals than Naslund (123) and no player came close to Naslund’s 278 points. The next was Bertuzzi, tied with Joe Thornton, at 242.

But between 2006 and 2008, Naslund was 41st in goals, tied with Erik Cole and Joe Sakic. He was 43rd in points tied with Chris Drury. Bertuzzi isn’t found on the list.

Nonis had Crawford fall on his sword after the 2006 team fell out of the playoffs and made a large number of sweeping changes to his roster. He flipped Bertuzzi for Roberto Luongo, traded for Taylor Pyatt, signed Willie Mitchell and oversaw Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows becoming everyday players.

None of those moves, though, significantly altered the franchise. Bertuzzi and Naslund could have kept playing under Marc Crawford and it may not have made a lick of difference. They were older than people thought. Naslund’s contract was only three years, considered “long-term” in 2005 and not structured in a way that made the final years any cheaper. The Naslund contract was a disappointment and he left along with Dave Nonis not in the good graces of ownership. His tenured captaincy had failed, the furthest he had gone was the second round of the playoffs…

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The Nonis moves didn’t make a huge difference. Bieksa was an adequate Ed Jovanovski replacement, Alex Burrows was a Trent Klatt-Trevor Linden hybrid and Mitchell became an extra defensive piece. The only saving grace for the franchise after the loss of Naslund’s scoring touch was the Sedins. Younger lottery picks waiting for their chance.

Naslund peaked at points-per-game at 29 in 2003. Generally, forwards peak between 25 and 26. Henrik Sedin peaked in points-per-game at age 29, in 2010. Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy that year on the last day of the regular season and Markus Naslund lost the Art Ross Trophy that year on the last day of the regular season.

It’s absurd that the blame in this town lies, apparently, on the feet of Vigneault for Henrik Sedin not being 27 years old again. Consider, for example, that Henrik  Sedin won a scoring title under Vigneault, at 29, contrary to the wisdom of the time that suggested only Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would win scoring titles going forward. Henrik’s brother Daniel Sedin won one at 30, at that point the oldest to win one since Mario Lemieux (31) in 1997 (until this season when Martin St. Louis somehow got one at 37).

It’s a dirty little secret but Alain Vigneault’s tactics helped Henrik or Daniel Sedin prolong their offensive peak. Before 2010, forwards were not started so radically at one end of the ice. For Henrik that year, 422 starts in the offensive zone. 309 in the defensive zone. A +113 offensive zone start differential, and no other Canuck centreman was above zero, the closest being Ryan Kesler at -66.

The zone start numbers got crazier and crazier, and “the Sedin treatment” became accepted as a descriptor for a coach giving offensive players soft minutes. Everywhere from Edmonton, to Boston, and beyond, people understood that the prime of the twins was extended.

But there’s only so many ways to put lipstick on a pig, and by now, half the teams in the NHL have caught onto what the Vancouver Canucks did with Sedin. Zone matching isn’t a secret anymore, it’s a tactic employed to varying degrees by most coaches. Player deployment has become a talking point by analysts—television and online—as statistics about match-ups and player use has become more common.

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I think people suggesting that Vigneault is a defensive-minded coach and that that’s cost the Canucks on offence may have lost the plot. If you look at deployment, nobody helped his star forwards more than Vigneault did between 2010 and 2013. The Sedins aren’t point-per-game players anymore and the town is going to have to come to terms with that. It’s not on Vigneault, it’s on older knees and arthritic wrists. Scorers, frankly, have a limited shelf life compared to goaltenders and defencemen.

The Canucks in 2002 for instance, were 1st in the NHL in offence. They went to 2nd in 2003, 7th in 2004 and 12th in 2006. It wasn’t on the coach, it was that the Canucks’ star players were getting older, and older players have more trouble scoring. They had the Sedins as insurance, lottery players from 1999, playing an intelligent, European style of game that kept them better for longer, but ultimately they aren’t as good as that lottery players from 2004 and on. Rick Nash, the 1st overall in 2002 is showing signs of slowing. Ilya Kovalchuk, picked 1st overall in 2001, had an MVP-calibre year last season and followed it up with a fantastic playoffs. He was barely a point-a-game.

My honest reaction to the Vancouver Canucks firing Alain Vigneault was “meh”. Vigneault ran a good ship in Vancouver, but his deployment is known to the world now, and there’s a lot of institutional knowledge in the front office and they can work that mindset into the thinking of the next guy. Vigneault meanwhile will bring a lot of new thoughts to the next team he coaches, and that team will have a lot of success and win a lot more games.

But coaches are coaches, and coaches matter so little in relation to the players. Marc Crawford couldn’t save the Canucks, an excellent batch of scorers on paper, in 2006. (The paper omitted players’ ages).

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The fault of the 2013 Canucks roster doesn’t have to lie on Vigneault, or Mike Gillis, or lucky charm Mark Donnelly who has overseen five consecutive home playoff losses. The structure of the NHL and pro sports in North American hands out talent to the worst-run franchises, so teams need to get lucky with drafting if they want to rebuild on the fly.

Those teams include San Jose, who got Logan Couture, and… well, no other team has been able to successfully transition from one core to the next without a brief lull picking inside the Top 10 (even so, Couture was a 9th overall pick, earned by the Sharks when they dealt goaltender Vesa Toskala). The Canucks are at that stage. While their possession numbers were good this year, they were good, and that’s about all you can say. There are lots of good hockey teams, and the Canucks are going to be a little worse for a while until the bottom falls out, they get a couple of good prospects thanks to high draft positions, and start it over again.

The thing you can criticize about Gillis’ draft record is that his theory on drafting older players isn’t one that’s shown to have worked. It was worth a try, and you aren’t going to be any more wrong than you were previously, but Canucks drafting hasn’t provided the team with adequate reinforcements.

But that’s not exactly a fire-able offence. NHL teams shouldn’t be run like the front organizations of James Bond villains and gas anybody who hints at failure. Nobody in the sports management business should be scared of thinking outside the box, and adapting, evolving and changing. Most of Gillis’ moves from 2008 to 2011 were aces. The ones since have been duds.

There’s no sword to fall on, here. It’s the reality of a closing window and Vigneault was the one who got his fingers in the way. It’s a lateral move that likely won’t cost the team but satisfies the locals’ thirst for some blood.

Stats and stuff from Hockey Reference and Behind the Net.

  • KleptoKlown

    Interesting reading the parallels between the 2 generations of Canuck teams. Of course Dan Cloutier is the largest reason for Naslund/Crawford’s Canucks failing to make it past the 2nd round.

    I still like Marc Crawford as a coach, maybe not a head coach, but if the Canucks do bring someone inexperienced as a head coach, Crow as an assistant could be beneficial. Colorado is probably thinking the same thing with the newly hired Patrick Roy.

  • KleptoKlown

    “It’s absurd that the blame in this town lies, apparently, on the feet of Vigneault for Henrik Sedin not being 27 years old again”

    Ok….then why are they still here with the franchise??????? If you had an employee who wasn’t doing his job anymore, do you still keep him or her? Excuse me but I thought this was a pro hockey franchise, not a feel good charity, if the coach and certain players suck now, why keep them, cause you enjoy losing?

    ” But that’s not exactly a fire-able offence. NHL teams shouldn’t be run like the front organizations of James Bond villains and gas anybody who hints at failure.”

    Eeerr…right. We should give them more and more time to fail. Let me remind anyone who doesn’t know that most human beings in the western world live around 70 years of age give or take. This franchise hasn’t won anything for over half of most peoples life times. The original fans have ever left or stopped caring. 10 years of futility, then 10 more years, over and over. If the club or its fanboys don’t want to win. jut come out and say it, stop making excuses for the clubs failures. And they are failures.

    I knew someone would come out and write another ” it’s no ones fault, here are the excuses why” article. Cam, are you sure you’re not the Canuck apologist, Don Taylor?

  • Canooks

    I also forgot to mention that I am a stupid doochey troll who lives in my mothers basement and furiously masturbates to hairless baboons while listening to Justin Bieber music on a daily basis.

    • KleptoKlown

      Don’t thank me, you exposed yourself as a Canuck apologist. Next time try to remember that in pro sports, it’s all about winning, no making excuses for LOSING.

  • Canucks prob aren’t going to get draft picks in the top 10 any time soon (short of trading Schneids or Edler which they ain’t doing). But what Gillis will do is buy himself some good prospects.

    I don’t have any inside knowledge, except to say Gillis is a very intelligent person who lives outside the box. He knows he has an older team, he knows the UFA market this summer sucks and they will continue to suck for a long time. He knows and has stated multiple times he’s getting this team younger. Gaunce, Jensen etc are not ready, you can not make players ready – they need to develop. Gillis is going to do the smart thing here…..with financial help from the owners.

    Botchford has said twice now that Canucks are looking to use 1 or both of the compliance buyouts to purchase themselves some good pieces. Initially, they were considering buying out both Booth and Ballard, but have decided the compliance buyouts are to valuable. So now they plan to keep Booth and hope to trade Ballard so they can use both buyouts on other options.

    I think it’s brilliant. I think you need a pretty generous owner, but in turn – it’s an investment. Canucks will have a $40+M commitment coming off the books this summer, they can use part of that and and re-invest it into their future. Say taking on a $24M Dipeitro contract – get 2 young, big prospects in return. Suddenly, they’ve got younger, bigger, players on ELCS who fit under the condensed cap, and they gave up NOBODY from their roster or prospect system to get there. It’s a win/win.

    I see the Canucks going this route if they can find a dance partner or two.

  • orcasfan

    Interesting, Cam. But, you know, it’s a bit of a miscast if you are saying that this team is too old and THAT is the reason they’re not winning! I don’t buy it. This team is not that old! Let’s compare the Canucks to the Redwings…
    8 players age 30 plus
    14 players between 24-30
    2 players under 24
    4 players age 33 plus
    oldest player is 38

    9 players age 30 plus
    12 players 24-30
    3 players under 24
    0 players age 33 plus (Twins will be 33 in Sept)
    oldest player – Sedins at 32

    Now it seems to me, that just based on age, the Canucks are in fine shape compared to Detroit. And, Detroit, this “old” team is handing Chicago their asses!

    The difference between the two teams has very little to do with age, and more to do with the make-up of the players. Detroit (thanks to their GM) has a balanced and more skilled mix that is being coached perfectly.

    By the way, that soon-to-be 35 year old Datsyuk seems to be doing rather well at the moment! Not to mention his junior, Zetterberg, who is the same age as the twins!

    • Being good and sucking don’t have to do with age, it’s just that the players on the Canucks, well most of them, suck. And again, don;t compare Datsyuk to any of the soft chokers on the Canucks. that would be like comparing Mike Tyson to Silvester Stallone as boxers.

    • Mantastic

      please do not compare the canucks to Detriot or the Sedins to Zetty and Dats… not even close to the same realm.


      Good write up. Much better than Thomas’s rose coloured glasses articles when writing about the future of the team.

  • orcasfan

    I agree with canooks, he makes very strong arguments. That baboon thing he was talking about sounded interesting…now is the baboon naturally hairless or has it been shaved? The details of this are important to me. I’m on my way to my mom’s house house and I want to get it right.

    PS. Hank’s got lots left in the tank. The twins are the least of this team’s problems.

    • orcasfan

      You’re trying too hard to keep your job with that loser franchise. Why try so hard? You’re going to get the pink slip anyways.

      The only thing Sedin has left in the tank was what he had before..which is NOTHING. Go go Sedin powers of INVISIBILITY!

    • Ah, spoken just like the other delusional resident fanboys of other sites of my things online, from cars to camera to sports to whatever. Speak the harsh truth and the delusional fanboys who can’t accept anything but the same drivel from like minded individuals.

      Don’t you fanboys EVER get sick and tired of hearing the same excuses over and over again? Maybe not, seeing as how you guys like and appreciate seeing the same team doing the same old nothing year after year , decade after decade. It’s not my fault some of you fanboys can’t handle the truth and need to pour buckets of sugar to coat the awful truth about why your team is the way it is. Maybe, just maybe fanboys…it’s what is referred to as the TRUTH.

      You know, the truth, something this franchise and it’s enabling fans have had a hard time with for almost half a century. Wake up and stop embarrassing yourself and your own citizens with your shameful support of losing. Losers promote losing, that’s why they are LOSERS. So don;t blame the messenger if the message is true, blame that god awful crap team and its crap system for a change , WILL YA? Jesus, you fanboys are like the same hopeless fools on that TV show kitchen nightmares. You know, where Ramsay has to come and help failing restaurants run by delusional hopeless fools who even in plain sight of their stupidity, won’t accept responsibility or change.

      WAKE up you Canuck TOOL! And stop dragging your own city down with your blind hopes and delusional fanboyism on a loser team and its loser system. Some of US here in the city are actually SICK and TIRED of that club and its delusional fanboys like YOU.Can you handkle that or do you need me to sugar coat that for you as well?

      • UkeeRob

        I agree with Austin, you should be banned. Its not what you say, I actually think there is some credence to your points, it’s how you say it. Your vulgar ness is way over the top. You can make your points without making immature personal attacks towards anyone. You come across as being very crass and for most of us grown people who enjoy engaging in Canuck discussions its annoying.

  • orcasfan

    I second the suggestion of Austin. Thomas, et al, if you don’t want to see this site devolve into some wasteland populated by raving neanderthal trolls, you need to execute your moderator functions! Otherwise, thanks for the opportunity to read and discuss Canucks hockey in a reasoned and interesting way!

  • Canooks is gone.

    I don’t mind disagreement. I like and enjoy healthy discussion and love reading opinions I disagree with, so long as they’re well thought out and introduce an angle I perhaps hadn’t considered. There’s no reason for vitriol.

  • Cam, I think it would help to understand the point of your article if you were more definitive in terms of what records might be defended (if indeed you were trying to defend any records at all).

    Number of times MG or AV or Vancouver have won the SC? Zero.
    In the minds of some there is no defence for that, and anyone who tries to find an explanation for the failures is a loser. I guess the only way not to be a loser is to support the team that wins the SC each year, or at some arbitrarily defined interval.

    Number of times MG/AV have appeared in the SC final? One.
    You might be able to defend that record as there have been 17 teams in the last 5 years who have not appeared in a SC final.

    Number of times MG/AV went 5 or more years between SC final appearances? Zero so far, but of course that number is likely to increase. Since the SC finals of 1971, 24 teams have gone 5 or more years between SC final appearances.
    The point is that you had better enjoy your time on the winner bandwagon because unless you change the team you support each year, you are going to be on the loser side for a much greater percentage of the time.

    • elvis15

      Thanks for that insight, Don Taylor… now I feel better for all the years this team hasn’t won a thing. Once again , who needs winning when losing feels so good? Thanks , Don.

  • I think that generally, no, actually, I’m quite sure that “has won a Stanley Cup in the past != won’t win a Stanley Cup in the future”

    You aren’t looking at what people have done, you look at what you can do. Gillis can build a Stanley Cup winner. Vigneault can coach a Stanley Cup winner.

    I think simply saying “oh, they’ve never won a Cup” doesn’t exactly answer whether they will be able to win one. After all, winning a Cup is difficult, and random. You need to build up to be one of the six or seven best teams in the league and then hope your goaltending is good for two consecutive months.

  • orcasfan

    I wish people would stop defining “success” as winning the SC. When we use the term to apply to our own lives, careers, etc, usually it is in a relative way. So, for instance, in one’s career, one can be successful without necessarily achieving the ultimate top “grade” (whatever that would be). What about a politician’s career…can’t they have a successful career without becoming the political leader of their country? Of course they can. Aren’t we really talking about achievements?
    Yes, we all (as fans) want our team to win the SC. That is the ultimate achievement for an NHL team, after all. But it ain’t easy! And it doesn’t mean that a team’s achievements shouldn’t be celebrated, and appreciated, even if they do not win the SC!

  • orcasfan

    I always thought this site was called CanucksArmy for a reason. Because its full of real Canucks fans, not CDC style trolls like Canooks. I hope in the future u guys keep banning these fools as they come. It’s embarassing when OilersNation or LeafsNation jump over here and read our comment section. Let’s keep it legit!



  • “He flipped Bertuzzi for Roberto Luongo, traded for Taylor Pyatt, signed Willie Mitchell and oversaw Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows becoming everyday players.

    None of those moves, though, significantly altered the franchise.”

    Wait, Beruzzi for Luongo didn’t alter the franchise? Like, it didn’t completely alter the identity of the franchise?

    Right, I forgot that it didn’t.

      • “Most of Gillis’ moves from 2008 to 2011 were aces. The ones since have been duds.”

        Gillis made a number of dud moves from 2008 to 2011.

        Making Luongo captain.

        Signing Luongo to a ridiculous, unnecessarily long contract.

        Offering David Backes an offer sheet and, in the process, overpaying for Steve Bernier to save face.

        Offering Mats Sundin a 2 year $20 million contract, though Sunding bailed him out of that one by opting for a 1 year deal instead. In all likelihood, that would have meant the end of the Sedin era.

        “Gillis can build a Stanley Cup winner.”

        Based on what exactly? His poor drafting and trading record? His inability to add a single core player to the roster that wasn’t born in British Columbia? Aside from two years of Ehrhoff, that is.

        “My honest reaction to the Vancouver Canucks firing Alain Vigneault was “meh”.”

        This is something with which I agree. The fact is that a new coach is not going to make the Sedins younger or morph Kesler into a durable player.

        After 5 years, it’s pretty clear that the rise and fall of the Canucks has everything to do with the players Burke/Nonis & Nonis brought into the organization and almost NOTHING to do with Gillis.

        Fortunately, we have another dumb Gillis move to look forward to: giving away Luongo instead of trading Schneider for a quality piece to help the NHL team.

        Gillis’ piss poor transaction record needs to be critically examined. The bad outweighs the good. And it’s not even close.

  • Cam, you make some good points here (esp. on AV effect on Twins), but I do disagree one one of your premises. What do you mean by “But coaches are coaches, and coaches matter so little in relation to the players”? A look at AV’s deployment of Edler this past season says so much in and of itself…

  • billm

    I agree the firing of AV probably won’t make that huge of a difference either way. He got a lot out of this group and just barely failed to reach the pinnacle.

    But, I do have a hard time defending Gillis. While I do think he has some good out of the box thinking I think he lacks the traditional ability to assess player’s talent level. For whatever reason, other than Lou,Erhoff and Manny he has been unable to effectively add to the core and prospects left him by Burke and Nonis.

    The reason the team is aging before our eyes is because Gillis has yet to draft a player that cracked the lineup for any length of time. The only one he did, Hodgson he traded away.

    That’s 1 for 30 in draft picks while he has been at the helm. I also don’t go for the excuse the Canucks are such a deep team a young player couldn’t crack the line up if he was good enough. Detroit,Chicago,LA,SJ, Boston etc etc ALL have young guys making the lineup every year.

    His ability to evaluate and draft young talent is proven below acceptable. Can’t say it enough, 1-30 in draft picks during his tenure.

    With the way free agency works, you can’t build a core from it. Look at this years list. All the big names available are over 30.

    With the new cap the team needs to draft well and get a couple ELC contracts on the big team every season. If he is going to stay on he needs to hire someone with that ability to help him make better choices. I would also say the scouting dept needs some serious light shined on it, both amateur and pro scouting.