Alain Vigneault coached seven seasons in Vancouver, winning six division titles and reaching one Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
The list of those who have paid the price for the major miscalculations of Vancouver Canucks upper management had another name added to it Wednesday when head coach Alain Vigneault – the winningest bench boss in franchise history with a 313-170-57 record – was fired after the team’s first round sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
That list also has star goaltender Roberto Luongo and frustrated Canucks fans on it, but doesn’t include the only name that ought to be on there: Mike Gillis, the team’s president, GM, and grimacer-in-chief, the man responsible for the aforementioned grievous errors in judgment, the one who took a transparently defensive and combative approach to announcing Vigneault’s dismissal yesterday.
It’s nothing new in the NHL world to see a GM last longer in his job than a coach, but there was something especially noxious about Gillis’ press conference tone. When he wasn’t bristling at questions and making sarcastic comments about hiring a media member as Vigneault’s replacement, the former player agent who took the Canucks’ GM job in April of 2008 was doing everything possible to warp the facts in his favor.
For instance, Gillis’ mouth, brain and vocal cords conspired to create this dubious sentence in his news conference yesterday:
“You can’t look at our goaltending over the past few seasons and look at that as a negative,” Gillis said, conveniently forgetting the completely avoidable and ongoing goalie controversy he created and forced the franchise to endure all season long.
Indeed, Gillis’ pigheaded refusal to acknowledge what 29 other GMs have come to accept – that when you’re trying to deal a player with an onerous contract, there is no way you can expect equal value for that player – set the tone for Vancouver’s disappointing season. He placed greater importance on his principles than on the effect Luongo’s presence would have on the team and it could have been much worse had the affable goalie not handled the situation with such grace and good humor.
However, by the time the trade deadline passed and the playoffs rolled around, it was clear Gillis had erred in his projection of the manner in which the team’s netminding saga would play out. Luongo publicly said his contract “sucks” – a contract Gillis drew up, by the way – but it wasn’t his fault the team offered him what it did. Most, if not all other GMs would have taken a hit, eaten some of Luongo’s salary and accepted the freed-up cap space as the chief benefit of moving the player, but not Gillis. He thought he could have his cake, eat it, and order another cake.
But that wasn’t the only serious and damaging miscalculation Gillis has made in his tenure. Forget about the bad trades (including the acquisitions of Zack Kassian, David Booth and Keith Ballard) and instead look at the type of team Gillis constructed. Yes, the Canucks were excellent regular season competitors – winning two Presidents’ Trophies and six Northwest Division titles in Vigneault’s seven years as coach – but even when they made the Stanley Cup final in 2011, Gillis’ Canucks did not look prepared or willing to play the edgy, often vicious game that the league and officials clearly were allowing to take place on the ice.
Now, I’m the first to say the NHL was wrong to permit and encourage the borderline bullying the Bruins employed to beat the Canucks and win a championship. But the fact remains that Gillis did not recognize the league’s philosophy in that regard and the franchise suffered for it.
So where are the Canucks on the first day of the post-Vigneault era? Basically, in the same place they were last summer – only this time they’re stuck with a cap ceiling that drops to $64.3 million and a payroll that is $100,000 over that upper limit with only 17 players signed for 2013-14. Gillis still has to find a taker for Luongo, but this time he’s got even less leverage than he had before. Yet somehow, Gillis wants people to buy the notion a new coach will lead to improved results. Believe that at your own peril.
It doesn’t matter who replaces Vigneault. When your team’s chief architect has a consistent record of misfiring and excuse making for errors other GMs aren’t guilty of, no second-in-command will remedy the rot at the top.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.