Media

Do The Evolution: Vigneault Fired

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.

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* The Colorado Avalanche won five division titles – plus a Stanley Cup – to the Canucks’ seven, but they did it under three different head coaches.

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History

Train in Vain: The Herb Pinder Story

PACIFIC COLISEUM. October, 1969. The opening night of the WHL season. Herb Pinder is excited, naturally. He has been training for this game; he has come to know his new team, the Vancouver Canucks. He likes the goalie, Bud Gardner. Bud has been in and out of the big leagues – he played for Detroit – and is a funny guy. He tells stories about being chauffeured in a limousine to CPHL games in Memphis, and confesses in the dressing room that he’d usually wear glasses, if not for the fear of getting dropped. He has the eye exam memorized, he says to Herb.

“E, F P, T O Z… L P E D,” Bud carries on.

It’s the sort of stoicism Herb likes in a goalkeeper; it’s one of the reasons he signs the contract so readily.

There are provisions in the document that Herb expects. $750, a bonus for winning the WHL’s Lester Patrick Cup. $500 for topping the league in the season standings. A salary of $6,500. It’s a figure that smarts a little. Herb has already declined a $5,000 scholarship, offered to all members of the Olympic team. He knows he should be in Winnipeg, preparing to study. But Herb Pinder lives for ice hockey, and when he meets with his new coach and manager, Joe Crozier, he doesn’t bring up their agreements about his education just yet. He doesn’t want anything to distract from the start of the season, and Joe’s stubbornness can be hard to deal with. Besides, the adrenaline is starting to flow; fans are already streaming to their seats. His jersey – home blue, with white and red stripes – hangs in the dressing room. He’ll sport number 15.

The Canucks lose to the visitors, the Seattle Totems, that night. The team travels through Washington and Oregon over the next week, winning against Portland’s squad and exacting revenge on the Totems in their own building. Goalie Bud shuts them out. As a low-minutes forward Herb is just happy to be utilized, but trouble with his ankle – he fractured it in France after winning the bronze medal, on a skiiing jaunt – is flaring up again, and he doesn’t have the supernatural stoicism of a goalkeeeper to hide his pain. Coach Joe notices, and for the next three games Herb watches his team struggle on the ice from the Coliseum’s stands. The thought that he may have played his first and last games as a Vancouver Canuck worries him far more than the throbbing pain in his ankle.

In November, Herb sits on the edge of his bed with his suitcase packed, and makes a call to San Diego. Hockey has abandoned him, it crossed the southern border on a silvery coach, and with each lonely night he understands a little more that he must return to Winnipeg. He wants to remind Coach Joe of the conversation the two had when they first spoke, and their agreement: to pay out the contract if his position in the squad wasn’t solidified by Christmas.

“Listen, Sonny Jimbo.” The line crackles. “You made your mind up when you signed the contract. You said you want your money.”

Herb doesn’t have an easy response. He senses a change in temper, somehow, in the silence.

“So I’m going to keep you in Vancouver. All year. And you’re not going to play, but you’re going to be practicing from eight in the morning till six at night. I’ll see you when I get back. You’re going to hang around, and I’ll see you then.”

Later, sitting in the passenger cab of a trans-national train as it trundles slowly through chiseled banks of snow, Herb Pinder carefully pens his parting words to the organization. He wants to clear the air; set down in writing that he has not abandoned his contract, but will not waste his time in Vancouver on the whims of an unreasonable coach. There is no response, and certainly no cheque signed and dispatched to him over that long Christmas.

It is not until a hot August day in Calgary that Herb meets with the team again. The representative is Bud Poile. Poile is the Canucks’ new general manager, tasked with Vancouver’s incorporation into an expanded NHL. There is no immediate financial recourse for Herb; that battle will continue for years. But Poile is reasonable, a wise, savvy hockey manager, worked up in the familiar excitement of a new season. He will put a settlement offer forward to the ownership group. He explains that Joe Crozier is gone, set to coach in the AHL now, replaced by Hal Laycoe. And – to Herb’s further delight – Poile expects to retain George “Bud” Gardner, who will be the Vancouver Canucks’ first starting goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.

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Player Profile

A Stone in the Sand: Dan Hamhuis

Jason Garrison played in all but one game of the shortened 2013 regular season. During this time he found a niche on the second powerplay unit – with three goals and three assists from his spot at the blueline – and positioned himself as a future defensive stalwart, ending with a plus-minus of 18, double that of the next best defenceman. That it was his first year in the Canucks’ squad makes this all the more impressive. While Kevin Bieksa has earned a sort of begrudging worship for his clockwork late-game heroics and the uncanny correlation of his time injured with otherwise inexplicable losses, it’s Garrison who has come out as the sensible choice for defensive hero.

Sadly the prominent story is not one of heroism, but of erosion. While the current roster’s depth pieces undoubtedly failed, it’s Alexander Edler’s shaky performance that has exposed a defensive core more paltry than anybody expected. Edler presents a complicated question whose solution will have to wait for another day and another set of thoughts: that said, he will be lucky to come out of management’s ‘reset’ with his high-minutes, high-responsibility role intact. No doubt, there are pylons that remain standing in the sandy wasteland of overpayed drop-outs, struggling rookies and AHL call-ups. Edler may not be one of them.

Dan Hamhuis is. It’s Hamhuis who trailed Garrison’s goal differential, ending the regular season at plus-nine and remaining even throughout four huge-minute playoff games. And, surprisingly, it’s Hamhuis who led all defenders in points, with four goals and 20 assists across 47 games. His goals come from his superb ability to pick moments to support the forwards as they attack the net. They don’t arrive as Salo-style canons from the edge of the zone; they’re precisely timed attacks, using his underappreciated speed and surprisingly soft hands. It’s a reliable weapon, and one that we’re beginning to see more of; he matched his 2011-2012 goal total this year in a drastically reduced season.

You’ll remember Alex Edler scoring on a logic-defying end-to-end rush during a Canucks’ powerplay against Columbus. It was around this time that Edler’s confidence was coming into question: ultimately, that goal only exaggerated the confusion about what Edler was supposed to be doing, and how well he was doing it. We saw him used in the shoot-out: was this a new purpose for the highly-touted, big-bodied Swede? If so, it could hardly be considered a purpose with any real meaning. That was over a year ago, and Edler’s particular skillset remains nebulous. Troublingly, it appears intricately tied to the powerplay. Meanwhile, Hamhuis is steadfastly working with a particular kind of offensive game that he knows he can execute, in all circumstances, without compromsing his primary responsibility. In a story of erosion, such stony confidence is an important quality to have.

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Player Profile

Hunger Games: David Booth

In a blowout win against Nashville on March 15th, David Booth scored his only goal of the 2012-2013 season. Late in the game, after turning the puck over inside the Predator’s half, Booth skipped his shot towards a vacant net… and rung it off the post harmlessly. Perhaps it’s only for that inglorious clang that Maxim Lapierre ultimately took pity and chose Booth over both himself and Dale Weise – all three charging into the zone once again – to hammer in the game’s final nail. Booth was happy with the goal and embraced the overzealous celebration from his buddies on the ice. If he understood then what it meant in the grand scheme of his season, his reaction might have been different. That goal was not the ‘slump-buster’ it should have been. His season ended with a brutal ankle injury two nights later.

Booth was healthy for a total of twelve games this season, and frustratingly unlucky in his production during that span. With that empty netter, his shooting percentage grew to an unbearably low four percent – not just too low to be sustainable over a season any longer, but substantially lower than his eleven percent conversion rate of the prior year. This misfortune can’t be allowed to mask how well he played: Corsi ratings have him below only the Sedin twins for driving offensive production. That’s not a trick of the shrunken sample size. Last year, too, he created the best differential of shots-directed-at-net of all players not on the top line. He also did it without the advantage of so much deployment in the attacking zone.

The starting gun for talk about a contract buyout was fired at the trade deadline. How could we all be so lucky to receive Derek Roy, the piece of the puzzle that would solve scoring and centre-depth in one small, speedy bundle? And more importantly, how could this six-million-dollar-man ever be retained? Eyes darted quickly to Keith Ballard and Booth, both of whom had struggled to find a consistent role in the squad, and both of whom present substantial drains on the salary cap. While Roy’s performance failed to justify his retention, a budget that’s nevertheless still shrinking has meant discussion of a Booth buyout lingers.

It’s possible that the Canucks’ community will never accept David Booth. His proto-American combination of machismo and Christianity has led to a standoffish relationship with a peculiarly Canadian fanbase, who are uneasy when faced by a value system that allows bears to be hunted by bow. Why couldn’t he be a Hindu, or something, and vegetarian? Or at least softly spoken, secular and innocently playful, like that other Michigander? These philosophical incompatibilities will need to be set aside, for now. Booth will be hungry to see a new slump-buster pay dividends next season. And the Canucks organization itself is not in such a position of great tactical advantage that they can afford to snap one of the only arrows remaining in their quiver.

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Player Profile

Bertuzzi and the Beast: Zack Kassian

Sitting on the Canucks’ bench during a short break in play on April 5th, Zack Kassian – like many of the other players, chatting and drawing breath – had his eyes on the jumbotron, and a montage of Pavel Bure’s most dazzling moments in a Vancouver jersey. The ‘Russian Rocket’ was being honoured in-arena, and a standing ovation from the crowd acknowledged that it was a rare kind of hockey that – realistically – may never be seen on ice again. Kassian disagreed. Finding himself attacking the crease a short moment later, he channelled Pavel and tried a clever stick-to-skate deke he’d just seen on tape. “For some reason as I was skating to the net, I just decided to try it. I had never ever tried that move before and it didn’t work out too well for me. My skate didn’t even hit the ice and the puck went right underneath it.”

The moment made for laughs in the dressing room and light-hearted stories in the press, but it was not an insubstantial symbol of Kassian’s development. In a later, more pressing game against the Chicago Blackhawks, in which division titles and the President’s Trophy were on the line, Kassian summoned up the spirit of another ex-Canuck: Todd Bertuzzi. At net front, he pushed himself clear of Duncan Keith and, with newfound space and an incoming puck, leaned gently back to tap in the 2-0 goal. It all looked uncannily natural.

Zack Kassian not only holds his heroes in high esteem, but understands much about the way they play and has the belief that he, too, can play like that. It’s a rare self-efficacy for a 22-year old, especially one who has been in and out of the minor league with such frequency. Though he has been labelled as inconsistent by the public, such doubt has never reached Kassian himself: over the course of a 48-game season, he raised himself up from an uncertain prospect utilized for less than five minutes per game against Los Angeles, to a capable and powerful specialist playing around thirteen. In this most recent series he looked as comfortable cycling the puck with the Sedins as he was laying hits and making bad-angle chaos with Maxim Lapierre.

It is his time spent with Daniel and Henrik that should be most exciting for followers of the Canucks. He has already shown an ability to slip into the twins’ idiomatic puck-possession game, using his great strength to effectively cycle behind the net and feed chances with quick hands that betray his lumbering, beastly size. What the Sedins can give to Kassian represents an unusual skillset for a power forward: a few intangible quirks, perhaps, of their selfless yet reliably productive play. What it represents to the Canucks’ organization is the rare chance to extend a winning formula into the new generation.

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Media

The Player and the Game: Gillis Interview

During his protracted media session on Thursday, Mike Gillis spoke frequently – albeit usually in vague terms – about the changing nature of NHL ice hockey, and particularly the way that playoff games are contested. Much of it had the air of excuse about it; the general thrust was that the ability to dump and chase, block shots, and ice a hot goaltender has become a vastly more successful strategy than finesse play. It was a strange angle considering that the competitor, San Jose – mentioned specifically perhaps once over the span of thirty-seven minutes – had jettisoned big bodies at the trade deadline to better support the speed and skill of the Sharks’ core. I’ll forgive him pre-meditation; fifteen out of sixteen general managers will be facing a similar firing squad, seven of them in the next handful of days. Passable ideas about why your team lost are useful to have on hand. These ones were just too clearly designed for a series against the St. Louis Blues.

His broader point is best supported when he brings up the Sedin twins. “When people have the privilege of watching Daniel and Henrik for example, the way they play the game, and how good it is… I don’t know why we want to see that eliminated from the game.” The point resonates because the fear that this style of play will be eliminated is becoming tangible; public response to the twins’ year has been that while it’s good, it’s not good enough, and it might be time to think about a change. Their age (thirty-two) is becoming a factor and many have declared that their window for success just slammed shut.

There can be no question that the Canucks’ top line represents a peak of offensive play. During the shortened regular season, Corsi figures put them in the league’s best three alongside Patrice Bergeron’s line in Boston and Anze Kopitar’s line in Los Angeles. Corsi essentially measures which net the shots go towards while a player is on the ice; it includes those which are blocked and those that miss entirely. Advanced analytics always has its detractors, but ultimately it’s a number simply supporting what is clear when watching Daniel and Henrik Sedin at work on another of their eerily consistent shifts: they drive offensive play with their strength on the boards, strategic vision and precision execution. Even at the great age of thirty-two.*

A more pertinent example of entertaining hockey on the edge of rejection might be Mason Raymond. He has been the first target during uncertain times for Canucks followers for many years, and the wake of this disappointing playoff run has been no different, as pressure about his specific case in the Gillis interview indicates. Raymond plays high-margin hockey and can be as frustrating as he is thrilling to watch, but during this series he showed an outstanding ability to drive the puck up-ice and feed the blueline from positions of intense pressure. His result was the best point-production-to-time-on-ice ratio amongst the whole squad. His reward may be ritual sacrifice to the God of the Grind.

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* Keep in mind that the Sedins wouldn’t have watched The Empire Strikes Back in cinemas as children; it was released before they were born. As another child of the early eighties, I find it bizarre that others are deciding what adulthood means for the Sedins’ abilities, development, and health. That’s something we’re only beginning to find out for ourselves.

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Game Review

The Slow Burn: Game Four at San Jose

It’s impossible to look at this game and not talk about the officiating, if only because of the ensuing outcry from Canucks followers: Matt Sekeres, talkback muckraker, took Kelly Sutherland to task for his iffy boarding call against Daniel Sedin in the final grim minute of overtime, and in doing so represented a lot of frustration from the team and the fanbase. There is no doubt that the series was lost long before that moment, but it was a painful symbol to conclude on, considering the lost dignity of being ostensibly swept away while the hockey itself was more often than not tightly contested.

Billy Bragg sung in warning of power without accountability*, and with that in mind Sekeres’ rant was an important one; whether he was right or wrong in his anger, referees need to be on the ice knowing they can defend their actions when the stakes are high. The speed of the game and the complexities of a thick rulebook – not to mention concussion controversy - generally give them the benefit of the doubt; but with such a consistent advantage awarded to San Jose over four safely-played games (ten penalties to twenty-four), Sutherland and his cohort will need to respond to a higher power than a co-host at Team 1040.

Equally, head coach Alain Vigneault must be accountable for the team’s second humiliating first-round exit in as many years. His problem is the opposite of Kelly Sutherland’s, for whom innocence is presumed and reprimand needs to be rallied for; the Canucks’ head coach was deemed guilty after game three and there was little chance of a response that would change that. This needs to be handled carefully. Power without accountability is dangerous both ways, and unless Vigneault is allowed a right of reply more substantial than the public lust for acontextual ‘wins, wins, wins,’ the process will reveal itself as a failed one.

In the meantime, the players are burning hot after seeing their hard work and moments of courage amount to nothing whatsoever. The burn will slow to embers over a long summer and an eighty-two game season, but playoff hockey in 2014 will be the fan that returns it to flame. The team will be hungrier than ever; the emotional core of the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa especially driven by a new purpose of retribution. The organization – including whatever head coach finds himself manning the bench - will only ever do the green-and-blue any justice by nurturing that slow burn.

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* I’m pretty sure he wasn’t singing about ice hockey.

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Game Review

The End and the Beginning: Game Three at San Jose

It may seem strange to begin writing about a sports team only as they careen toward a fiery and sudden terminus. Following a heart-rending overtime defeat to the San Jose Sharks on Friday, the Vancouver Canucks dropped another critical match tonight: a stunted and insufficient retort, marred by lashes of frustration that led to poor discipline and moments of meltdown. A one-two punch by Logan Couture, executed inside nine seconds of gameplay, signalled not only the end of Vancouver’s chances in the game, but the likely end of a season. Now the team lies crushed. Ryan Kesler, man-beast of local legend, spoke softly in his exit interview. Mumbling and avoiding eye contact, he mentioned powerplay goals briefly, but he had no real heart to defend the team’s impotence. “It’s embarrassing,” he said.

There are different ways to analyse the series against San Jose from the Canucks’ perspective. In the aftermath level heads will agree it was more closely contested than the results suggest: puck possession stats and shot totals are not cleanly in the Sharks’ favour, particularly in game two, during which the Sedin twins used their inimitable play along the boards to drive the home team’s energy. It was not enough. Somewhat aptly, it has been a sequence of games that neatly mirrors those played this time two years ago. Then, a marginally superior Canucks’ squad demolished San Jose in five games. That series was symbolized by Kevin Bieksa’s winner, a weird stray puck knuckle-balled into the back of the net while almost everyone on the ice looked about in confusion. It was the momentum hauled up out of penalty shifts and lucky bounces like that which tipped Vancouver to those victories – and ultimately to an ill-fated run against Boston in the Stanley Cup Finals.

To be sure, level heads will be few and far between. The karmic hockey gods have their faithful, but to the broader community of NHL fandom there is but one deity: his name is Lord Stanley, and it’s his chalice and his chalice alone that warrants worship. In this religion a call-back to good luck in times long past means little and an appeal to advanced statistics means even less. They want the Cup and the frank truth is the Canucks are further from it than any other team in the top sixteen – including the playoff-barren Maple Leafs, and the Minnesota Wild, a long-time divisional whipping boy. This all amounts to a scathing affront on an often long-held faith. Expect crucifixions.

But we’re not much closer to answering the original question: why begin writing about a sports team at its modern nadir? The obvious answer would be that there are games left to play - one game at least - and an immediate comeback would make for a hell of a story. I’d be a disingenuous Canucks supporter to say that wasn’t a flickering hope. The truth is, it is a hell of a story I’m looking for, but not one that plays out on a scale of weeks. I have a feeling – a gentle feeling, and one probably not shared by many in Vancouver as they wake to a hangover and a memory of their gaping deficit – a redemption is on the way. Part of telling that story will be poring over the ruins of the crash, and picking out the scraps of humanity that are worth looking at more closely. Those scraps will go into the pile, and the pile will be rebuilt into a new machine, and the machine will soon ride again… if not to a Stanley Cup, then at least toward some kind of redemption.

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