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.
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…
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.
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).
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.