Vigneault, Weise thriving in new locations

Alain Vigneault has guided the New York Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final in his first season as head coach with the club (Jonathan Hayward/CP).
May 18, 2014, 11:43 AM

When the puck dropped Saturday for the start of the Eastern Conference final, Vancouver Canucks fans were playing the role of the scorned lover as they observed from a distance some familiar faces play for a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.

No offense to Raphael Diaz and his six-game cup of coffee with the team, but I’m not referring to him here. Instead, of course, it’s Alain Vigneault and Dale Weise, who were both jettisoned from the team for a multitude of different reasons, that have seemingly thrived in their new digs.

NERDY EYE

By Dimitri Filipovic

Weise unquestionably played a useful role for a Montreal Canadiens squad that did Yeoman’s Work by not eliminating the hated Boston Bruins for this year’s playoffs, but also providing some semblance of retribution and vindication for all of the lazy media-driven narratives stemming from the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. While his journey makes for a fine little story, I don’t necessarily think that it’s just cause for feeling like he’s “the one that got away” here.

Unlike his ability to rile up the opposition as he did with Milan Lucic (which is totally legit and sustainable, because he really can prove to be an agitating player) most of his other tangible on-ice production is being propped up by favourable percentages more than anything else.

Despite the Canadiens controlling only 42.3 percent of all shot attempts at five-against-five with Weise out on the ice, they’ve accounted for 71.4 percent of the goals scored. Most of that, though, has to do with Carey Price’s obscene .955 save percentage in those situations, resulting in that 107.4 PDO which Weise is reaping the rewards of at the moment. When that, to go along with his ballooned 11.90 on-ice shooting percentage (and 21.4 percent personal mark) dip, I imagine his efforts will be looked upon differently.

None of which is intended to minimize his contributions because everything he has done for the Habs has been gravy from their point of view, but is moreso meant to caution Canucks fans from allowing themselves to be tricked into thinking that their former GM gave away some sort of gem for nothing. If we liked the trade at the time (which most people did if I’m remembering correctly) then a random little sample size such as this one shouldn’t necessarily prompt us to do a full 180 from that initial opinion.

The much more vital “what if?” game should be played with the guy running things behind the New York Rangers bench, as far as I’m concerned. I wrote the following about the former Canucks coach when he returned to the city where he enjoyed seven largely successful seasons back for a regular season meeting back in April:

“I was a fan of Alain Vigneault during his time as the team’s bench boss, often finding myself defending him and the job he was doing. With that being said, I found myself in a somewhat weird position at the conclusion last season: I thought he had to go, despite knowing full well that he was hardly the problem. I hold no grudges with the team for that decision, even in hindsight, knowing what we know now. Professional sports tend to be cyclical, and aside from the rare exceptions (like a Gregg Popovich in basketball for example) there’s only so long that the players and fans of a team can hear the same message in the same voice before things go sour. For some guys, like Marc Crawford, that process is expedited.

“Vigneault was able to last seven wildly successful years here because he’s a good coach. He most certainly had his flaws, and he was definitely blessed with some fantastic chess pieces, but to his credit he did a fine job of making the right moves and utilizing them correctly. You don’t win as many games as he did without that being the case.”

Unsurprisingly to those willing to evaluate his abilities as a bench boss without blindly blaming him for the inevitable and unavoidable decline with the Canucks, he’s done a fine job in his first season in New York. After starting the year with nine games on the road — which they lost six of, being outscored by a whopping 33-15 margin — the same people that were all-too-happy to see the door hit him on his way out of Vancouver were gleefully crowing about all of his supposed deficiencies.

Less than seven months later, he’s now three wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final while his former team sits without a coach, general manager, or any real idea of what on earth has befallen them. A lot of that has to do with Vigneault and the job he has done in optimizing the assets he has been given to work with, much like he did with the Canucks. He has made an art of deploying his forwards to an absolute tee, starting someone like Brian Boyle in the offensive zone only 23.4 percent of the time (much like he did with Manny Malhotra and Max Lapierre back in the day) while feeding his more offensively-inclined and apt players such as Brad Richards, Derick Brassard, and Carl Hagelin a heavy dose of OZ-shifts (ala the Sedins).

While it most certainly helps that he was blessed with one of the deepest depth charts in the entire league, it should be noted that he did well to avoid burning anyone out over the course of the 82-game marathon (other than Ryan McDonagh, potentially, even though he was under 25 minutes/game, which isn’t all that unreasonable for a young No. 1 defenceman) with not a single forward averaging over 18:41 of ice-time a night. You’d figure that would come in handy at this point, considering how much hockey has been played by all of the teams left standing.

Vigneault’s time in Vancouver was unfortunately up, but it’s not the least bit surprising that he has managed to make all of the right moves in his next stop. Regardless of how this upcoming series plays out, it appears that he was one of the most valuable acquisitions any team made in the summer of 2013.

NAKED EYE

By Dan Murphy

It’s amazing the amount of Weise fans there are in Vancouver these days. It certainly seems like there are more than when he actually played for the Canucks. People saying that they knew he was a valuable bottom-six guy and he is just another case of the Canucks mismanaging a player. Now, this may in fact be true — but — I do recall most thinking at the time of the trade that the deal for Diaz was a good one for Vancouver. The naked eye (and any eye for that matter) knows this not to be the case. Especially because Diaz is no longer with the team after being shipped out for a pick at the deadline.

Weise has turned out to be a very nice pickup for the Habs. Who would have thought a relatively minor deal by Marc Bergevin would pay major dividends? But it has. Weise getting under Lucic’s skin — poking the bear so to speak — was alone enough to endear him to Habs’s fans forever. Yet he’s done much more than that. Two of his three goals are game winners and the other was the all-important first goal in Game 7 in Boston. I don’t care about PDO and shooting percentage and sample size in this case. Weise has already done his job and then some in these playoffs. Of course he can’t sustain what he’s doing. But it doesn’t matter because Weise is already well into gravy territory.

Did the Canucks miss the boat on Weise? It’s tough to say. We know he can skate very well and get in on the forecheck. We know he can play a physical brand of hockey and it’s clear (not just because of his Dutch League numbers!) that he can finish once in a while too.

The problem is (or I guess was) that Weise was never going to get a chance to do those things under coach John Tortorella. Torts always loved to say, “I don’t determine a player’s ice time. They do”. Which we all know is phoney baloney, especially in Weise’s case. Torts determined that Weise was going to play about three minutes a night if he was going to play at all. It’s clear the coach didn’t like the player and wasn’t going to give the player much of a chance to climb the depth chart.

If there was ever a chance for Weise to crack the top nine in Vancouver it was this season. How many games did the Canucks dress defencemen up front? How many Comets played on the third line ahead of Weise? If I recall correctly, Weise got a five-game look on the third line at one point this season. In those five games he put up five points and was promptly relegated back to the fourth line. That doesn’t really sound like a player determining his ice time to me. I also believe that Weise was the only Canucks “regular” that didn’t get one shift on the power play this season.

Now don’t go thinking that I’m saying Weise should be running the point with the man advantage, but the fact that he was the only guy to not get one look perhaps speaks to bias the coach had against him. I think we can all agree that Weise is best suited to be on the fourth line of an NHL team.

The fact that he didn’t get the chance to play a bigger role with the Canucks when they more resembled an AHL club is a bit of a joke. Torts didn’t like him and wasn’t going to use him so Mike Gillis shipped him out.

Now as for Vigneault, I must disclose (once again) that I was a huge supporter of AV in Vancouver. I think he is the best coach the Canucks have ever had so forgive me if my bias shines through. But there will be no revisionist history here.

At the end of last season when the decision was made to fire Vigneault I thought it was the right call. If Gillis wasn’t going to shake up the core then the core needed a new voice. After another quick first round exit it was clear the group was stale and Vigneault paid the price for it. He had seven years with the Canucks and fell just short of winning the Stanley Cup. It was a very good run and I believe most agreed that his time was up in Vancouver.

Well, it would be totally unfair to compare this season to last but I think it’s safe to say that a new voice did nothing to really shake things up and perhaps some new players to go with the old voice may have been a better call. Maybe betting new listeners should have been the plan. Hindsight 20/20 and all.

The fact remains Vigneault was and still is a very good coach. As my friend Dimitri so aptly laid out above, AV has a plan for how he wants to deploy his players. He tries to play to their strengths and doesn’t run his guys into the ground. Clearly it’s working in New York.

The funny thing (or not so funny if you’re a Canucks fan) is that Trevor Linden and who ever the GM is going to be will be looking to hire a coach with many of the same attributes as Vigneault.

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