VANCOUVER — Alain Vigneault was distributing newspapers rather than reading them Thursday. Wise decision.
In conjunction with the annual Raise-A-Reader program, the Vancouver Canucks coach stood on the corner of Granville and Georgia and spent the majority of his two-hour commitment posing for pictures and signing autographs. It kept the bench boss from flipping pages and being reminded of the frustrating NHL lockout and that main camp would have opened Friday. And all that hockey talk may have triggered the memory of when many — including this writer — wondered whether he would retain his position following a quick five-game playoff exit by the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
“I’m not a big reader, but I read what I like and I liked sports,” said Vigneault. “I read a lot of stuff like that.”
If he read all the analysis, projections and suggestions from four months ago of what the Canucks could or should do with their front-office staff, he probably doubled over in laughter at his offseason home in Gatineau, Que. After all, even before Vigneault received a two-year contract extension on May 23 — 16 days after general manager Mike Gillis was awarded an extension — he expected to return. He reasoned that once everybody caught their breath and rationally assessed the season, nobody would have to fall on a sword. The Canucks’ version of March Madness, in which the club failed to create a sense of urgency with a high playoff seed secured, was considered a mulligan. If it wasn’t, the entire coaching staff wouldn’t have remained intact.
“The day when Mike met the media, he told me I was his guy and he wanted me back,” recalled Vigneault. “From that standpoint, I was very confident that I was coming back, but he didn’t know about his situation. Until it got resolved, then mine was up in the air. It took longer than expected to get his stuff done, but when it was done it was just a matter of sorting out a few little things.
“He said: ‘If I’m back, you’re back.’ It was clear cut.”
What isn’t clear is where the Canucks go from here. While they await a new collective bargaining agreement, Vigneault was reminded that during the last NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, he was at the coaching crossroads. At the helm of the P.E.I. Rocket in the QMJHL after being interviewed but losing out to Randy Carlyle for the Manitoba Moose head-coaching position, Vigneault’s junior team failed to make the playoffs. But he got the Moose job the following season. Fast forward and Vigneault believes the bad taste of an early exit last April can be replaced by a much longer playoff run in his seventh season behind the Canucks bench. It was a common theme in exit meetings.
“We talked about the season and the disappointment of losing and using that throughout the summer to make sure we’re prepared,” he stressed. “Everybody I’ve talked to is in a great frame of mind and is highly motivated. We all want to prove that we’re winners and that we can win and that’s what we’re going to set out to do.
“Our preparation has to bring us at the right time to be in the right frame of mind and have the right execution. The last three years, we’ve been eliminated by the team that won the Cup. We’ve got some real good ideas of what it’s going to take and it’s just a matter of putting it together at the right time. We have same expectations as the fans and we take a lot of pride in the good team that we have. We’re ready for the challenge.”
But how good is this team?
Icing the league’s fourth-ranked power play and defence, fifth-rated offence and sixth-ranked penalty kill last season was impressive, but carried little weight in the postseason with a concussed Daniel Sedin unable to start the opening-round series with the Los Angeles Kings. And the road to a fifth-straight Northwest Division title will be bumpy because Minnesota and Edmonton will be better. Losing out on free agents Shane Doan and Justin Schultz didn’t help and there are other holes to fill. A third-line centre to replace the departed Samme Pahlsson and second-line help until Ryan Kesler returns from offseason shoulder and wrist surgeries are obvious needs. But Vigneault is convinced that the diminutive Jordan Schroeder deserves a serious shot after a 21-goal AHL season and that Maxim Lapierre can play a more prominent role.
“I’m a big fan of Lappy and a lot of our players are, too,” said Vigneault. “He works hard and comes to play. Obviously, he needs to adjust some things in his game and I’m real confident he’ll do well. We talk about our lineup on a daily basis. Right now we feel we’ve got a good team. Let’s get through this lockout and get to camp and then we’ll figure out what we need to do.
“If we don’t start, we’ll be able to get a good handle on the Chicago [Wolves] guys and see who can help us.”
A meaningful return in an eventual Roberto Luongo trade would help. If Jason Garrison can supplant Sami Salo and give the power play another needed dimension from the back end, that would help, too.”
In the interim, Vigneault has placed his faith that the core players he so often speaks about — especially Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Manny Malhotra — will ensure their teammates retain a level of fitness and focus.
“As coaches, we got together the second week of August and planned out training camp and the season,” said Vigneault. “We’re ready. As for the players, it’s a matter of trusting them and I do trust them. Their workout regime has to be the same so when camp starts they’ll be ready to go.”
And regardless of what the schedule could look like if the lockout wipes out a portion of it and the Canucks are resigned to mere Western Conference play, Vigneault’s summation of what could await sounded all too familiar.
“Anybody that makes the playoffs in our conference can win the Cup and No. 8 won it,” he said. “It’s going to be the same, a real strong conference.”
However, the Canucks can’t afford the same end result.
Let's see of the Canucks can back up what AV is saying.
The part about AV believing that Schroeder deserves a shot and Lappy can play a bigger role was interesting.