Coach Vigneault has to go
By Josh Martin, Sports Editor
Last Monday, I made a pitch at The Other Press meeting to write about how the Canucks’ head coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Mike Gillis’ jobs were in jeopardy over the team’s recent performance. A day later, the Canucks beat the St. Louis Blues on home ice, 3–2. Two days after, that they took down the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona, 2–1. Vigneault and Gillis can consider themselves safe… for now.
It seems a little absurd to consider firing Vigneault or Gillis at this point in the season. After all, the Canucks are fifth in the Western Conference with a 15–9–6 record and 36 points. Considering they’re tied for the Northwest Division lead with the Minnesota Wild in terms of points, I’d say they’re doing pretty decent. But this team is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender. It was only two years ago that they lost in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins. Coming off of two consecutive years where they captured the Presidents’ Trophy, as the team who finishes the regular season with the most amount of points in the league, it makes you think “What happened this year?” The season isn’t over, and there is still a considerable amount of hockey left, but when you look at the Canucks, do you really think this squad can go all the way?
When you take a look at why the Canucks haven’t been dominating the league this year, it all falls under the bench-boss and the main-man in the press box. You can argue that Gillis is the culprit to blame over Vigneault; he hasn’t done a whole lot for the organization since the run to the Cup Final in 2011. In fact, he’s arguably made the team worse. Gillis didn’t re-sign defensemen Christian Ehrhoff after losing to Boston—who played a vital role on the Canucks’ blue line scoring 44 points in his first season as a Canuck in the 2009–10 season (14 goals, 30 assists) and 50 points in his last season (14 goals, 36 assists). If that wasn’t bad enough, Gillis let fan favourite Sami Salo walk this past offseason because of his rule of “no signing players once they’re 37,” because they’re, “too risky.” Even though the right-handed juggernaut—who has one of the hardest one-timer slapshots in the game—tallied 25 points (nine goals, 19 assists) including seven power play goals last season.
Some of Gillis’ other highlights include acquiring defensemen Keith Ballard in a package deal that saw prospect Michael Grabner move on. Grabner instantly became a hit on Long Island with a breakout season, scoring 34 goals and 18 assists in 76 games—a year after he scored just five goals and six assists with the Canucks in 20 games. Ballard on the other hand went from being a top-four, 30 point average/season defensemen to being a healthy scratch in the Canucks lineup who has amassed a total of 15 points in his last three seasons combined.
Gillis also went out and got David Booth from the Florida Panthers last year—who had a career-high 31 goals and 60 points in the 2008–09 season—in hopes of bolstering the team’s offence. So far the winger has three points in 12 games this season. Not to mention the infamous trade of Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Zack Kassian and the off-season signing of defensemen Jason Garrison—who is struggling to fit in with only seven points this season after a 33-point year with the Panthers.
The one piece that is playing in favour of Gillis right now is the fact that he still has two top-notch starting goaltenders in his lineup: Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. But one of these guys has got to go soon. With Luongo tied up at 10 more years in his contract at a hefty price, a lot of teams have lost interest in the expensive stopper. Schneider has two more years left at $4 million a season, which is a very reasonable price considering his calibre of status between-the-pipes. This move will be the toughest one yet for Gillis in a hockey-mad city, a move which will affect the Canucks organization for years to come.
On the other side of the hot seat sits Coach Vigneault. Currently in his seventh season as the boss-behind-the-bench, Vigneault has led his team to two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, a Stanley Cup appearance, five Northwest Division titles, and six playoff appearances. His 302–164–56 record with the Canucks makes him the number one ranked coach in franchise history with 302 wins, surpassing former leader Marc Crawford’s 246.
An exceptional resumé to boot, Vigneault has identified himself as one of the best at his job in this league. But when you look at the players that have gone in and out of the Canucks lineup, it seems they were more successful on other teams. Gillis has done his part in bringing in the goods (with the exception of Hodgson for Kassian), but those goods have not met their potential—the aforementioned Ballard, Garrison, Booth, etc. The recent slump before the Canucks’ last two wins was near to hitting rock-bottom. The Canucks power play is ranked 29th in the league at a terrible 13.3 per cent and their penalty kill is ranked 16th at 80.7 per cent. This is after finishing fourth and sixth on the power play and penalty kill last season. Vigneault is accountable to both of these team statistics—you just can’t win hockey games with poor special teams. Perhaps having the same coach for seven years is too long for this Canucks team. Maybe the answer lies with another coach.
Vigneault’s impressive history with the team means he’s safe for at least the rest of the regular season. If the Canucks have another early-round exit in the post-season or don’t qualify for the playoffs, then expect a new boss come next fall. Gillis is safer than Vigneault at this point for bringing in potential players to this Canucks lineup—for at least a season or two, anyways.