Profiles in Excellence: Alain Vigneault

Alain “A.V.” Vigneault: Rank #45 – 16 points
Coaching Experience: Montreal Canadiens, 1997-2000; Vancouver Canucks, 2006-present
Regular Season W-L-T-OL: 291-232-35-36; Playoff W-L: 21-23
Jack Adams Award: 2006-07
Northwest Division Titles: 2006-07, 2008-2010
Playoff Appearances: 1998, 2007, 2009-10

Ever since he took over as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Alain Vigneault has been a rising star in the NHL coaching ranks. Since 2006 his teams have won three divisional titles in four seasons; cracked the 100-point mark in team points three times; and set franchise records for team wins and team points during the 2006-07 season (which resulted in his receiving the Jack Adams award as NHL coach of the year).

Indeed Vigneault has led the Canucks to the best five season span in their forty year franchise history. He is the second winningest coach (behind Marc Crawford) in Canucks franchise history and if he maintains his present pace Vigneault will surpass Crawford in team wins in 2012.

How does he do it?

Although his Canucks last season finished second in the NHL in overall offense and power-play offense; and third in short-handed offense, it was the first time in Vigneault’s tenure with the Canucks that they have cracked the top-ten in these offensive categories. His real strength during his stint in Vancouver has been defense and physicality (during the past three seasons Vigneault’s Canucks have finished in the top five in team penalty minutes).

With the exception of last season, the Canucks have finished in the top ten in defense three times. Goalie Roberto Luongo has had the best seasons of his career under Vigneault and this season he continues to do yeoman work between the pipes for the Canucks.

It has taken Vigneault four seasons to build up his team’s offensive capability and last season was proof that genuine progress was made. This season has seen even greater improvement in the Canucks overall offense and power-play offense because the Canucks are in the top two in both categories. Vigneault has gotten solid offensive effort from Ryan Kesler and Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

If there was a flaw with his Canucks teams it’s been penalty-killing. With the exception of 2006-07 (where they led the NHL) their penalty-killing ability has been average at best. And this probably explains why Vigneault, in three playoff appearances with the Canucks, has never gone beyond the second round. In his defense however two of his three playoff defeats were at the hands of Stanley Cup winners Anaheim in 2007 and Chicago in 2010.

Significantly Vigneault this season has corrected the team’s deficiency in penalty-killing. The Canucks are presently second in the NHL in penalty-killing thanks to sterling defensive efforts by blue-liners Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis.

Vigneault was a defenseman who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before being drafted in the eighth round by the St. Louis Blues in 1981. Vigneault only had two brief playing stints with the Blues; spending most of his time in the minors. By 1984 his playing career was over and in 1986 he took up coaching in junior hockey. In 1992 he became an assistant coach with the expansion Ottawa Senators and remained there in that capacity for four seasons before returning to coach junior hockey once more.

His first big break came in 1997 when the Montreal Canadiens hired him to become their head coach. Vigneault spent three whole seasons and part of a fourth with the Habs. His performance there was uneven. He led the Canadiens to a playoff spot in his rookie season but failed to reach the playoffs for the remainder of his stay there. Still, Vigneault was runner-up to Joel Quenneville in the voting for the 2000 Jack Adams award. This was because he managed the Canadiens to a winning season and barely missed out on the playoffs despite coping with serious injuries to his players.

This didn’t save Vigneault. The following season he was fired after a poor twenty game start to the 2000-01 Season. Vigneault; briefly scouted for the St. Louis Blues before returning to junior and minor league coaching until he was tabbed to replace Marc Crawford as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks in 2006.

This season represents a high-water mark for Vigneault and the Canucks franchise as a whole. As of today they remain the NHL’s best team and if they maintain their present pace it will be the greatest team performance in Canucks franchise history. This is the Canucks 40th season of existence and in many ways this season is a make or break point for both Vigneault and the Canucks. The Canucks have never won the President’s trophy and they haven’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since 1994.

For Vigneault and the Canucks it’s essential that they reach the third round of the playoffs and, hopefully, beyond if both are to grow as coach and team respectively. Vigneault has never reached the conference finals as a coach let alone the Stanley Cup finals. Both are legitimate targets to aim for, and if Vigneault and the Canucks fail to reach those targets then it will be a major failure for both. But if they succeed, then it will be the culmination of years of effort for both the Canucks and Vigneault.

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