Northwest Correspondent, White Cover Magazine
“If you want to hold onto your possession
Don’t even think about me.
If you love somebody, set them free.”
They waited, we speculated, and then the Canucks finally pulled the trigger on a seven-season coach who led them to two Presidents’ Trophies and Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final.
Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff – Rick Bowness and Newell Brown – were dismissed by the Vancouver Canucks and general manager Mike Gillis on Wednesday afternoon, and now the question immediately turns to who Vancouver has in mind to fill his seat, or whether they’ve already begun the process.
If not, well, then you’d have to ask what any move would accomplish right now.
The Canucks have been fortunate to have a coach and a roster that combined to make them arguably the best regular season team in hockey since 2009, but that luxury has also carried them through passed opportunities and missed chances, as well as a slew of stars and hopefuls who you have to wonder about now.
The Canucks let Michael Grabner go in 2011 because they didn’t have room for him. Now, he’s a prime goal scorer alongside John Tavares’s top line with the New York Islanders. The Canucks have not been serious players for any big name free agents for a couple years now – the exception, perhaps, being defenceman Jason Garrison, who they signed last summer – and two years is a long time in the NHL when the interim hasn’t brought you a Stanley Cup. The Canucks have said goodbye to players like Raffi Torres, Christian Ehrhoff, Willie Mitchell, and Mikael Samuelsson. All those players seemed like replaceable assets at the times of their departures, but all four players have seen their stocks either rise or tread water since exiting Vancouver.
Willie Mitchell won a Stanley Cup in 2012 – beating Vancouver along the way – and Torres and Samuelsson are still playing hockey in the ongoing second round (or, at least, their teams are).
(Christian Ehrhoff has not had a victorious two seasons in Buffalo, but he’s been the Sabres’ best defenceman and he was already a star when he left.)
In that same time, numerous high profile NHL coaches have played musical chairs, as well. Bruce Boudreau went from Washington to Anaheim, the Leafs got Randy Carlyle, the Washington Capitals nabbed Adam Oates before anybody else realized he could tutor as well as he could play, and the Los Angeles Kings won a Stanley Cup with Darryl Sutter.
Well, the Canucks have been too good to rebuild but too poor to win.
Even Manny Malhotra, who heads to free agency a marginalized former Selke Trophy candidate after a serious eye injury suffered two years ago, was easily Vancouver’s best defensive forward at the time of his accident.
So, where does the coach come in?
Well, Alain Vigneault’s name has been on the chopping block for some time, even if his teams’ assembly were the model-to-follow from 2010 to 2012. Like Vancouver’s last longtime coach before him, Marc Crawford, Vigneault was given a dandy team and didn’t have enough magic up his sleeve. His teams looked intimidated and largely out-motivated in their last four playoff series losses to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Jose, and Vigneault will go down as the symbol of this Era in Canucks Hockey.
Gillis is the architect, but Vigneault was the general.
And, if you’re any kind of practical sports fan, you’ve no doubt wondered what a coach really does, anyway. Is it simply to motivate? Is it just to be an evangelist, or a bench boss for those critical moments? Is it to stand up in front of a crowd and boast or be loud? Is it to defend your players, or is it to demand more of them?
Maybe the fact we’re not sure which of those characters Vigneault was is the reason he’s no longer responsible to us. At times, he was funny. Others, a little cold. He was as candid and light as he was a secretive manager who refused to elaborate in any detail the severity of the injuries to his top – or even marginal – players. He seemed like a player’s coach and a hard ass, and he seemed to switch whenever he pleased.
This may have been how he decided to do things – and, if the team had ever won the Stanley Cup that Zdeno Chara lifted over his head two years ago, then it may have been different – but it didn’t make him essential. It didn’t make him special or outstanding. It didn’t make him a Stanley Cup champion, and that really is all that matters.
Say what you want about Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville, or Darryl Sutter. Say whatever you want and they won’t hear you or care because – to quote the greatest goaltender of all time – they have Stanley Cup rings plugging their ears.
Next season, the Vancouver Canucks will learn very quickly just how valuable Alain Vigneault was.
He’ll either be the ex at their wedding or he’ll be the scapegoat we wish we’d appreciated.
The only truth is this: the Vancouver Canucks have no more excuses, and they don’t have a coach, either.