Being Groomed for Succession

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Canucks announced a three-year contract extension for Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel. Just like Arniel’s previous contract, this one includes an out-clause that would allow him to pursue a National Hockey League coaching position should one arise. And although Mike Gillis and the new Canucks management regime continually support current Canucks bench boss Alain Vigneault, all signs point to Arniel succeeding him.

This theory, of course, is contingent on Arniel not accepting any NHL head coaching gigs that may become available to him – as the reigning American Hockey League coach of the year, they will – between now and the time that Vigneault is shown the door, whenever that may be.

This is not to suggest that Vigneault’s departure may be imminent, because it’s not. Vigneault has demonstrated that he is fully capable of coaching a relatively successful NHL team. In fact, don’t be surprised if he too receives a contract extension some time in the near future. But at 46 years old, Arniel has plenty of time ahead to pursue the right job, rather than the first one.

As General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks, one of Mike Gillis’ primary mandates has always been a more hands-on approach to prospect development. Before they have the opportunity to join the Canucks roster, Gillis wants his prospects to do things his way, the right way. This was exemplified at the recent Canucks prospects development camp, where the players spent just as much time in the classroom learning as they did on the ice and in the weight room training.

“We look at this as a means to educate them about what we’re all about and to show them the types of resources we have that we’re going to utilize to help them,” said Gillis when asked about his goal for the week-long camp. “A lot of it’s classroom time, a lot of it is teaching.”

What does this have to do with Arniel, one might wonder? Well, just as Gillis and his staff are educating the prospects before they join the Canucks, they may just be doing the same for Arniel. They’re showing Arniel the ropes before they provide him with an opportunity to move up the ranks in the organization. In other words, Arniel is being groomed to replace Vigneault.

Since taking over the reigns of the Canucks organization, Gillis has made a number of personnel changes, including the hirings of Dave Gagner as director of player development, Laurence Gilman as Vice President of Hockey Operations, and Ryan Walter as an assistant coach, in addition to the promotions of Lorne Henning and Stan Smyl, just to name a few. However, he has yet to bring in “his guy” to take over the head coaching duties.

Sure, perhaps Vigneault is “his guy,” but in that case, wouldn’t it make sense if “his guy” were in attendance at the recent Canucks prospects development camp and the State of the Franchise address? Yes, it would. And to be clear, Arniel was present at both these events, not Vigneault. If this is indeed the case, and Arniel follows in the footsteps of Vigneault, he would be a fine choice at that.

In Arniel’s three seasons behind the bench in Winnipeg, the Moose have won at least 45 games each season, while capturing two North Division regular season titles along the way. Additionally, this past season, he led the Moose to their most successful season in franchise history with 50 regular season wins, finishing atop the American Hockey League also for the first time. This success carried over into the post-season as well as the Moose earned a berth in the Calder Cup Finals, only to come up ever so short against the Hershey Bears.

Looking beyond just the stats, Arniel wreaks of professionalism, which becomes plainly evident after spending even a few minutes conversing with him or watching him at work. According to Michael Grabner, who has played under Arniel the past two seasons with the Moose, Arniel is well liked by everyone in the dressing room. He commands respect from all his players due to his straightforward approach to coaching. Grabner says Arniel will let you know when you’re playing well, but will do the same if you need to step it up, however not in a way that has a negative effect on your confidence. The Canucks first-rounder can speak from experience.

“For sure the last two seasons I have learned a lot about what it takes to be a pro. [Arniel] helped me on and off the ice and always lets me know how I am doing and what I have to work on to improve,” said Grabner, the Canucks first-round draft pick in 2006.

Just like Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, who guided the Pens to a Stanley Cup championship this past season after starting the year in the AHL, one of Arniel’s strongest traits is his ability to stay composed in pressure situations.

“Usually he is pretty calm if we lose and we played well,” said Grabner. “But if we lose and aren’t playing good he can get intense. I think that’s just like any other coach though. But it takes a lot to get him rattled; he usually handles stuff in a calm way.”

As it turns out, Arniel’s coaching style is also interchangeable with that of Bylsma.

“He tries to play a solid defensive system, to retrieve the puck as soon as possible and go on the offensive. He wants to spend as little time as possible in the defensive zone. I think it works out well as it has shown the past two years with the team’s success,” added Grabner, who has certainly made several positive strides under Arniel’s guidance.

Experience is one area Arniel may have a leg up on the Penguins bench boss, as the Kingston, Ont. native spent six seasons as an assistant coach to Lindy Ruff with the Buffalo Sabres before taking over the head coaching duties with the Moose. Incidentally, Buffalo’s two most successful seasons in the past decade, aside form the infamous Brett Hull skate-in-crease playoff run, came with Arniel in the organization. As he has proven with the Moose, Arniel knows how to deal with the youngsters, and after spending six seasons with the Sabres, he certainly knows a thing or two about coaching older players as well.

As Bylsma can most recently attest, when given an opportunity, success coaching in the AHL can indeed translate to the next level. When (and it is a matter of when, rather than if) and where Arniel gets that opportunity remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure, Arniel – whether he knows it or not – is being groomed to become the next head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

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