As the regular season ends and praise is heaped on the coach and netminder, let's not forget the GM who made it all happen
Roberto Luongo has been more than any Canucks fan could have hoped for. And Alain Vigneault deserves plenty of credit for implementing a system his players bought into even when it looked like they had run out of goals only six weeks into the season. Both have done a remarkable job in their first year with the Canucks, and both deserve the many accolades that have been heaped upon them. But lost in all of the excitement about this hockey team–in the playoffs for the first time since 2004–is the necessary praise for the man who put all of the pieces of this puzzle together.
Dave Nonis took more than his share of verbal darts when things weren't going well in the first half of the season. Had he given up too much to get Luongo? Had he given the netminder too much to agree to the long-term deal? Had he acted too soon to make Marc Crawford the fall guy for the team's inability to make the playoffs last year? Had he made the right call with Vigneault, a winner wherever he'd coached but a guy who hadn't coached at the National Hockey League level in six years? Had he overpaid to land Willie Mitchell as an unrestricted free agent last summer? Had he missed the boat by not re-signing Anson Carter to a multiyear deal? Had he made a mistake in letting Ed Jovanovski dart to the desert? Did he know what he was getting when he brought in Taylor Pyatt? What was he thinking when he signed Jan Bulis, Marc Chouinard, and Tommi Santala? Why did he have so many players who appeared to do the same thing, almost none of whom could score goals? How long was he going to sit by and watch his team struggle before pulling the trigger on a big trade to get some offence? Did he make the right moves adding the depth guys he did at the NHL trade deadline? Ultimately, was Nonis the right man for the job?
Nobody seems to be asking those questions anymore (okay, some are still waiting for answers about Chouinard, Santala, and Bulis). But through patience and a belief in himself and the staff he's assembled around him, Nonis has done more than provide answers. He's brought the excitement of the playoffs back to town, and with them he's given Canucks fans reason to believe that this team has the ability to make some noise this spring.
For the longest time, he was trapped in the shadow of the man he replaced in the summer of 2004. And last season, Nonis tried to make a go of it with the same cast of characters Brian Burke had shown unwavering loyalty to for years and years. But it was obvious by the end of last season–on the ice and in the locker room–that the time had come to burn the Burke blueprint for the Vancouver Canucks and start over.
First went the coach, followed closely by the brooding star forward, and it now looks like Nonis could not have made better moves for his hockey club if he'd had a crystal ball to see how it would all play out. Replacing Crawford with Vigneault has looked like a stroke of genius for a hockey club that needed a new approach and required accountability from its star players and grinders alike. And with the coaching change, Nonis was only getting started.
Merely getting Mike Keenan to take Todd Bertuzzi and his ample baggage off the Canucks' hands would have been a victory in itself. Getting the Panthers to throw in Luongo has already become a trade hockey people will point to for years as one of the most lopsided deals the game has ever seen.
Now, it's not just Nonis–he'd be the first to tell you that–but also his management team, which includes Steve Tambellini, Lorne Henning, Stan Smyl, and others who deserve kudos. However, Nonis is the guy who took the heat in the first half of the season, so he deserves the lion's share of the praise as well.
It couldn't have been easy and certainly not much fun in the first few months of the year to watch his team struggle to score the way it did (or didn't). And even with out-of-this-world netminding, the Canucks knew they'd have to put a few pucks in along the way if they were going to win hockey games.
It would have been easy–and few could have faulted Nonis–if the Canucks general manager had made a few moves prior to Christmas in an attempt to jolt his team out of its funk. But he didn't. He held firm in his faith that his guys would eventually figure it out. They did, and Nonis is looking smarter by the day because of it.
Nonis was part of the front-office structure that tried to build a Canucks team with panache. It was fun to watch in the regular season but a colossal flop at this time of year. So with two bold moves, Nonis turned the outlook of the organization 180 degrees and went with a defence-first strategy in front of a virtually impenetrable netminder–and look where the Vancouver Canucks are.
They're Northwest Division champions and in the postseason for the first time in three years, which is where the GM always believed they could and would be. It's up to the coaching staff and players now to see how far they can ride the wave they've been on since Christmas.
Luongo is going to be called on to carry the Canucks on his sturdy shoulders, and Vigneault has to find a way to keep pushing all the right buttons. And although those two are bound to receive much of the credit for any playoff success the Canucks have, hockey fans would do well to keep in mind the man who brought those two to town–and who, in his own quiet style, transformed the Canucks into a winner again.
Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org