With playoff pressure on, Alain Vigneault's critics are ready to pounce
There have been widespread rumblings that head coach Alain Vigneault’s job is on the line as the Vancouver Canucks head into the postseason against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday. If the team eventually comes up with anything less than, say, a strong showing in the Western Conference final, Vigneault should start typing up his resume—so say many members of the local blitherati.
It’s the kind of opinion that often turns into self-fulfilling prophecy in hockey-deranged markets like Vancouver’s. But this is one prophecy that no one in their right mind should want to come true.
Vigneault is plainly the finest coach in franchise history—and I say this as a hard-core Pat Quinn fan. After falling a single game short of the Stanley Cup, he’s guided the team to its second Presidents’ Trophy in a row. And he’s done it with a significantly altered roster, a goaltending “controversy” stranger than any in memory, and a season-closing push that included head trauma to last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner, to name just a few of the 2011-12 campaign’s major turns.
It’s easy to view much of this as reflected glory—to argue that Vigneault’s success here has actually been the success of a deeply talented roster. But it’s just as easy to imagine how several key Canucks—Lapierre, Hansen, Higgins, even Burrows, hell, even Kesler—may well have been pretty ordinary players if they’d wound up on another team, in another system, under a less creative and patient eye.
And speaking of systems: name another NHL head coach who, over the course of his tenure, has transformed his club from a smotheringly defensive squad into a scoring juggernaut—and then turned back to a conservative style again, as he has recently, all according to performance and necessity. Ken Hitchcock has never come close to trying this, and he’s regularly hailed as a genius. The Washington Capitals tried it once, last season, attempting to switch from freewheeling hockey to a defence-first strategy. They’ve been a shambles ever since.
None of this is to suggest Vigneault is without flaws. Even with the flexibility just mentioned, he sometimes makes weirdly stubborn judgments about players that undermine their confidence to the point of neurotic breakdown (see: Keith Ballard). But he has plenty of company among NHL head coaches in that respect.
And yes, his media conferences are famous league-wide for their comically dull scripts: any drinking game based on the number of times Vigneault utters “play the right way” or “hard-fought battle” in his public statements would leave most constestants with cirrhosis.
But these add up to a small price to pay for what he’s brought to the Canucks. Local media and fans should remember this if—or, more likely, when—they get the urge to hammer together a plank for this coach to walk.