Another Award for Alain?

Jonathan Willis
April 05 2011 05:00PM

As another NHL regular season draws to a close, the NHL awards discussion has picked up steam, and there are a few Canucks garnering some attention. Daniel Sedin leads the league in scoring and is almost certainly the favourite for the Hart Trophy. Ryan Kesler is a legitimate Selke candidate. Roberto Luongo is always in the picture when it comes time to look at the Vezina.

And Alain Vigneault has to be considered for the Jack Adams.

Vigneault has won the award before, in 2007. He was also a finalist in 2000, when he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens. Arguably what he has done in Vancouver this year is even more impressive, guiding the team to the Presidents’ Trophy despite watching his top defensemen fall to injury one by one.

Certainly the Canucks’ record this season is an exceptional one, if only because they’ve been virtually flawless in the regular season. They’re an offensive powerhouse averaging 3.16 goals per game – second in the league, behind only Detroit. No team has done a better job preventing goals either; the Canucks are first in the league with a 2.23 goals against per game.

At five-on-five, the Canucks have the second best ratio of goals for to goals against in the entire league (behind only Boston). They boast the best power play in hockey and the second best penalty-kill, in no small part due to coaching. I don’t think there’s a team in the league that executes set plays in any game situation with the efficiency of the Vancouver Canucks.

There’s another interesting item that often goes unnoticed, however: Vigneault is fanatical not just about line matching (he has plenty of company there) but also about ensuring certain players play certain roles.

Yesterday, I questioned Daniel Sedin’s Hart credentials because of the way Alain Vigneault has used his line: no trio in the league has been used in the offensive zone as often as Sedin, Sedin and Burrows. For that matter, no other NHL player has been blessed with a better starting ratio than any of those three. Blessed with a bevy of competent two-way players, Vigneault has used the Sedins’ as offensive specialists, not only spiking their point totals but also allowing the team to ensure their best scorers are given the best scoring minutes.

Yet, Vigneault has also done the opposite with players like Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, and Jannik Hansen. Although each of those players has some offensive upside, they can’t compete with other options at Vigneault’s disposal, and he hasn’t made them: they’ve been used almost exclusively in their own end. Manny Malhotra’s 25.0% offensive zone start rate is the ugliest number in the game. Raffi Torres ranks third, with a 29.4% starting rate, while Jannik Hansen rounds out the trio with the ninth-worst zone start rate (33.7%).

Injuries on the blue line have kept Vigneault from being quite as committed with his defensemen, yet even with a staggering number of injuries he has remained true to parts of his game plan, as offensive options Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler are among the defensive league leaders in offensive zone starts.

No coach in the game has been as diligent in turning specific lines into zone specialists, and I can’t help but think that this innovation has contributed to the Canucks’ success this season.

Unfortunately for Vigneault, he faces some very stiff competition. Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh is difficult to ignore: not only are the Penguins competitive, but they’re competitive despite the loss of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for long stretches (and it’s worth noting that these are far from being the only injuries Pittsburgh has dealt with). In Detroit, Mike Babcock has also kept his team highly competitive despite the loss of high-calibre players.

Bylsma and Babcock aren’t the only candidates. Elsewhere in the West, Dave Tippett continues to earn praise for his work with the Coyotes, and that was enough to win him the Jack Adams last season. In the East, rookie head coach Guy Boucher has done strong work with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Devils’ rebound after the hiring of Jacques Lemaire will be difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, the Sporting News managed to run an article titled “Rangers' John Tortorella leading race for Jack Adams Award,” so there’s that too.

It’s a tough field. If I were voting, I’d probably rank Vigneault just in front of Bylsma, with that tandem well ahead of the pack, but I suspect that doesn’t reflect the consensus feeling; I expect Bylsma to win. Even if Vigneault doesn’t go home with the Adams, he has done a masterful job behind the Vancouver bench this season.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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