During his tenure as the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Alain Vigneault missed a playoff berth just once – his second year at the helm, in ’07-’08. Relatively new owner Francesco Aquilini, at that time, saw it best to make the changes at a higher level; he retained the coach, who had won a Jack Adams award in his pilot year, while firing the General Manager, Dave Nonis. It was assumed that the regime change would filter through to the coaching staff, anyway. “Does Nonis’s firing put coach Alain Vigneault’s job in jeopardy? Of course it does,” wrote the Montreal Gazette.
That change never happened. Over the next five seasons, Vigneault didn’t give management a chance to make it: he never dropped a division title again, and eventually lifted his team up to an immortal – if devestating – run through to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. With the division to be retired for good alongside sweeping conference re-alignment in the ’13-’14 season, Alain Vigneault will be remembered as the dominant force in the Northwest.*
So how did he do it? Most recently, he employed the cutting-edge strategy of extreme zone deployment, using his offensive magicians overwhelmingly in the offensive zone while utilizing defence-zone specialists in much the same way at the other end of the rink. This was uncannily effective in the ’10-’11 and ’11-’12 seasons, during which period Vigneault had the services of Manny Malhotra to win key faceoffs. It’s this clever tactic that drove the Canucks to their two President’s Trophies, and no doubt it represents a small evolution in the way that NHL hockey is contested. Sadly – more than anything through of the loss of Malhotra to injury – it was proven to be an unsustainable technique for the club.
It is not easy to evolve the game of hockey; it’s about as easy as winning the Stanley Cup. Followers of the Canucks have been lucky enough over the past three or four seasons to see a little part of its evolution, thanks to Alain Vigneault. Mike Gillis knows he has to do it again. “You have to keep evolving and keep moving, because it’s a very fluid business that requires evolution all the time,” he spoke today. He was flustered when asked exactly what style of coach might bring that evolution. It’s becoming apparent to everyone how difficult it’s going to be to find.
* The Colorado Avalanche won five division titles – plus a Stanley Cup – to the Canucks’ seven, but they did it under three different head coaches.