Saturday, January 15, 2011

Vigneault for Jack Adams

If you see this as a picture of Henrik Sedin, you may be qualified to vote for the NHL awards.

When Alain Vigneault took the Jack Adams trophy for the 2006-07 season, a lot of people didn't care, because their problem was, Luongo hadn't won the Vezina or the Hart. "Luongo was robbed," the general consensus seemed to be -- an ironic consensus, given the number of NHL players Luongo had robbed himself.

Still, looking back on Luongo's play and the team's performance, I think the right call was made. It's hard to deny that Luongo's numbers were heavily influenced not just by the team in front of him, but by the system. Alain Vigneault took a team that had the same major pieces as the one that had missed the playoffs the season before, and led them to a division title. Luongo was a big part of that, but so was Vigneault's giving the Sedins first line minutes, his motivation of the players that needed the right push, and, ultimately, the system he played.

Luongo is still one of the most talented goaltenders in the league, but it's long been a position of mine that his statistical decline wasn't a decline in his skill level, but a result of a much more opened system, for which he should not have been blamed. If we can take blame from him when he's performing in an open system, then it stands to reason he doesn't get all the credit when playing a defensive system. The 2006-07 Canucks were a trapping, dump-and-chase team that were, at times, painful to watch. As fans, we were willing to watch the Canucks cling to a 1-0 lead for 40 minutes because it was nice that our team was ahead, but really, it was safe, boring hockey. Luongo was the guy who could be counted on to complete the defensive system, but the newly-acquired Willie Mitchell and Vigneault's defense-first trap game had a lot to do with his Vezina-worthy season. While I'd have preferred they both were recognized, giving the award to AV, not Luongo, probably made more sense than giving the award to Luongo and not AV.

That said, Alain Vigneault hasn't let up. In 2007-08 the team wasn't any better -- in fact, they were arguably worse, as Nonis's depth acquisitions were just plain awful, and the whole defense spent most of the season injured. Even so, the team spent most of the season not just contending for a playoff spot, but contending for a division title. AV should get credit for that.

He should also get credit for last season, where the top six Canuck scorers all had career years. If a team achieves success on the back of one player, then sure, you can point to the player and say, that's why. Pretty much everyone last season was having the best season of his career, including Christian Ehrhoff, who had been acquired from another team. Alain Vigneault discovered Sedin-Sedin-Burrows. He oversaw Mason Raymond's growth in a novel way. The guy was originally making defensive mistakes that made him a liability, so AV put him on the PK. How crazy is that? But it worked. When you come down to it, if most of your team is having a career year, it means the coach is excellent at tapping potential. Still, AV wasn't even in the running for the Jack Adams award.

It seems recently, to win the Jack Adams trophy, you've got to right a sinking ship. Bruce Boudreau and Dave Tippett are excellent examples of this. They stood out because all the writers who had predicted struggles were blown away by the success of the team under its new coach. That's great, they did excellent jobs on their teams. There have been several teams where a coaching change brought success. Chicago, Colorado and Dallas are other examples. (I refuse to count the Penguins. They made the Cup Finals under Therrien.) Still, while I credit these guys for doing a great job, let's be honest here: they had nothing to lose. If you walk on to a sinking ship and save it, then you look like a hero. If you fail, then you walked onto a sinking ship and it sunk. No one blames Jack Capuano for the Islanders' losses, but when they got hot briefly (if you can call a 3-game winning streak "hot"), Capuano got all the credit. It's a pretty cushy situation to be in. If the players respond to the coaching change, the coach is instantly among the frontrunners to win the Jack Adams.

It doesn't even require that you're coaching a bad team. Recall that Boudreau stepped onto a team with Ovechkin, Semin and Green already on it. Backstrom, too, but he wasn't such a big name then. It's not like Boudreau was taking the Florida Panthers to the playoffs. The Caps have great players in a weak division. Boudreau is an awesome coach, and did a great job, but much of his success stems from having some crazy-talented guys in the lineup. He didn't take a ragtag group of nobodies and show them that if they believed in themselves, they could achieve anything. He took the handcuffs off of Alex Ovechkin and watched the magic happen.

That shouldn't be a slight against Boudreau. It's perfectly acceptable for a coach to have a good team. This is the point I wish voters for NHL awards could wrap their heads around. The Capitals are a good team, and Boudreau is a good coach. Mike Babcock, Todd McLellan, and Alain Vigneault are also good coaches. They shouldn't be ignored because the team in front of them has talent.

So let's give Alain Vigneault a thorough look for the Jack Adams this season. Sure, the team's got some crazy-good scorers, a Vezina-quality goaltender and a defensive corps deeper than the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but the team also has a great coach. Haven't the Canucks been on the best stretch in the history of the franchise? Hasn't Alain Vigneault been instrumental in the development of players like Kesler, Burrows, the Sedins, Bieksa and Edler? Shouldn't all this count for something?

The Canucks are showing resilience, consistency, and a level of compete that leaves unprepared teams agape. They wear the opposition down even in the third period of the second back-to-back game at the end of a long road trip. What right does any team have to be that good? Point to Kesler's play all you like. Point to the Sedins being all-stars and Luongo being a superstar. Point to a deep defensive corps. All that's well and good, but let's not disqualify Alain Vigneault for having too awesome a team. We've seen teams similar to this one struggle. We've seen talented teams fail. Even this season, we've seen players as good as Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk demonstrate that "on paper" isn't any kind of guarantee.

If the Devils turn their season around under Lemaire, if the Isles make the playoffs under Capuano, if the Stars continue their winning ways and finish at the top of the Pacific under Crawford, these guys will be the only ones people talk about for Jack Adams. They'll have accomplished a lot that's worthy of consideration. But leaving the likes of Alain Vigneault out of the mix because his team's just too good would be a massive oversight. Let's get the talk going right now: Alain Vigneault for Jack Adams.


  1. Great post. I'd also look at Vigneault as a coach who learns and adapts. He's changed his system a little bit each year, learning from the season before. All too many coaches are content to just play the same type of game year to year, but not Vigneault.

    Personal pet peeve: compete is not a noun, it is a verb. I know it's being used by some people in hockey circles, but I'm really hoping it doesn't catch on.

  2. Well, now I'm torn. My own language-related pet peeves make me insane. I'd hate to inflict that upon others.

    Still, if I remove it, I'd be pandering to the comments section. I won't do that. Maybe I'll just quietly stop using the word, for your peace of mind. Then, if you see the words "level of competition" in my posts thus far, you'll know that you made a difference, and a blow was struck for excellence in English.

  3. Speaking of excellence in English, awesome TS Eliot reference.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Alain Vigneault


    I love this post. Alain Vigneault has been an incredible success as coach and he rarely gets credit. If he gets praise, it's for his ability to "change his coaching style" which, in my opinion, is just the media patting themselves on the back for believing their criticism inspired this.

    The Jack Adams is a funny award. In my mind, no First-year coach should win it. It should be like the Selke, which is a reputation award given to a player who puts himself on the radar for it and then has a season better than the season in which he first garnered Selke interest.

    Frankly, it's a travesty that Mike Babcock should have won this award three or four times by now. The Red Wings are such a result of their system it's silly he doesn't win it as often as Lidstrom wins the Norris.

    So yes, coaches do get punished for having good teams. You are quite correct.

  4. Babcock definitely deserves it. Lots of folks were pointing to the Red Wings connection when Yzerman picked him to coach the Olympic team, but the man is, by far, one of the best coaches in the league. Sure, he's got a cushy job. Who wouldn't want to be coach of a team whose GM will commit to locking up stars long term, and is willing to spend whatever it takes to remain a contender, and whose players are all great at what they do? Who wouldn't want to coach a team with so much prestige that great players will take discounts and accept diminished roles just to be a part of it?

    Because Babcock has such a cushy job, he's motivated to be the best, because other coaches would gladly drop everything to take his spot behind the Red Wings' bench. Babcock's earned his spot every year with great coaching.

  5. There are lots of teams that try to emulate the Red Wings and their management system, but I think maybe perhaps the Canucks are the only team to have truly cracked that enigma. It's still far too early to tell whether or not they have indeed, but some of the signs are there: They're getting stars to resign for less than market value, they're getting big fish FAs to sign for less that market value. They've created an atmosphere where nothing less than the best is accepted, yet it's a family atmosphere where everyone pulls together. It's the kind of system that really is the mark of an elite hockey team.

  6. "a defensive corps deeper than the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

    I can not believe I'm reading this. Amazing. I love this post.

    /English nerd

    Coaches definitely get punished for having good teams, and while a bit of it is deserved, how do you determine how much is?

  7. I'd say none of it is, Anonymous. The metric for a good coach should be whether members of the team are performing at their potential (or above their expected potential), in the resilience and competitiveness of a team -- how often does the team give up on the ice? -- and in the general stat categories. Goal differential needs to be a big one. Also, obviously, goals for and against. Win percentage when leading or trailing after 1 or 2 periods. That kind of thing. Special teams are more the entirety of the coaching staff than the head coach, so I don't know how to feel about those, but there are myriad stats available to evaluate a coach. It's a shame the NHLBA just tends to go with the team that exceeded expectations the most -- it precludes a team with high expectations winning the trophy.

  8. If a coach is good, and his team is good, where does the good coach start and the good team end?

    Who knows what sort of potential AV has eked out from his players that would have otherwise been buried...

  9. Even though there are plenty of individual areas where I disagree with El Viño, I am a strong supporter of his basically because you can't argue with what he's done with the team. Being called up from the AHL affiliate and having success eight different ways, ultimately establishing yourself as easily the most successful Canuck coach in team history -- entirely in the cap era where parity reigns* is definitely an accomplishment.

    *Offset, granted, by the fact that 3-point games also inflate the standings, but I think people have been able to take that into consideration.

    But no, he'll get little consideration for the award (unless the Canucks win the Presidents' Trophy -- if they finish back of it by even one point, he'll get very few votes in another display of great sportswriter genius) for the reasons mentioned. It's difficult to divvy up awards in a consensus fashion in a 30-team league, in all fairness to the voters, but I think we all know that the awards basically come down to this:

    Hart - The year's biggest newsmaker (Henrik was something of a subversion last year which was why we were all so surprised).

    Calder - The Rookie of the Year as decided no later than the All-Star Break. In all sports, this seems to be a momentum-based award stemming from the early success of rookies, even though it does end up right a lot of the time.

    Vézina - This is probably the closest to a WYSIWYG award, but there is a ridiculous bias in favor of shutouts, one of hockey's least meaningful statistics.

    Adams - The coach of the league's most improved team.

    Norris - The year's top offensive defenseman. (Became less obvious at the height of the Dead Puck Era).

    Selke - The best offensive season from a player with a somewhat arbitrary defensive reputation. Personified in the 1993 selection of Doug Gilmour.

    Lady Byng - A good forward who didn't win other awards and has not been suspended this season.

  10. True except Mike Green didn't win the Norris. With Lidstrom no longer winning it every single season, voters haven't really known what to seize on.

    Also, Selke's been a bit more complicated in the past. They consider takeaways and such. Still, when Sammy Pahlsson lost out to Rod Brind'amour in 06-07 it became clear that to be the best "defensive" forward you need to score a lot.


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