A successful NHL coach knows more than how to diagram a power play on a white board. A big part of this job – maybe the biggest – is to be a human resources manager and to find ways to get the best performance of out his people at the right times.
That’s why I hated Alain Vigneault’s decision to start Cory Schneider ahead of Roberto Luongo in Game 6 of the Vancouver-Chicago series. It showed a scary lack of big-picture vision in the wake of a problem created by the Canucks and Luongo – not one or the other – playing a couple games of horrible hockey.
Let’s look at the decision Vigneault had to make:
The Canucks had just won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team during the regular season, which translates directly into Stanley Cup hopes. Obviously, your team is good enough to make a run.
You have a goalie who makes $10 million this year, is under contract until 2022 and makes nearly $7 million annually for seven more years. To put it mildly, you placed your bet on this guy and he’s been fantastic all season, earning a nomination for the Vezina Trophy.
Your team is trying to get over a particularly big hump in the form of the Chicago Blackhawks, a Stanley Cup-winning team that’s confounded you and your goalie in the past. To break through that barrier would be huge for team morale, team confidence and team belief.
The people you need for a successful playoff run are your core guys, your horses. You know, the guys you’ve bet on.
If you can’t win with those guys, you’re not going to win at all. There aren’t any better players hiding in that dressing room who you’re not playing. Cory Schneider, while a legitimately good goalie, is Roberto Luongo’s backup for a reason. This year, NHL skaters voted Luongo as the toughest goalie to score on in the entire league.
In sum, nothing good comes from starting Schneider if you think of the possible outcomes:
Option A: Schneider wins and the team advances, but now you’ve created a goalie controversy. Who starts next series? If he gets hot and wins more games, great, but then what happens in the summer? There’s zero chance anybody is taking a guy who couldn’t keep his job in front of a rookie and has a cap hit of $5.33 million dollars for the next 10 years. After all, if he’s declining like this, who wants that burden down the road? So now you’re stuck with him after you’ve undermined him and you’re pushing towards the Stanley Cup with a lesser goalie. Not good.
Option B: Schneider loses, you’ve still created the goalie controversy and now you’re screwed in every conceivable direction. Now what happens next game?
Option C: The bizarre one that unfolded, which sucked pretty bad, too. And once again, the question: Who’s starting Game 7?
Contrary to all the “Luongo is owned by Chicago and will panic and puke and lose in the Madhouse on Madison” chatter, here’s a tweet from hockey blogger Daniel Tolensky on how Luongo’s fared in Illinois lately: “Luongo plays well in Chicago!!! Prior to last game Luongo had gone 4-1-1 with 1.32 GAA and .959 SVP in his last 6 starts @ United Center.”
So, yeah, we can throw away the theory that he can’t win in Chicago – his real meltdowns have been at home.
So had you started Luongo in Game 6 (and given him the chance to be a pro and bounce back), here’s what you were looking at:
Option A: Best-case scenario, the team wins and your goalie – a guy who just last year was the team captain – has slayed his dragon. He’s beaten the boss and moved on free and clear of the Blackhawk burden (a nice bonus over the next 10 years). You shift your focus to the Cup, having demonstrated he’s your horse by giving him his shot at redemption. You’ve said “we’re gonna have some bumps in the road, but we believe in you, ‘Bobby Lou.’ ”
Option B: Luongo loses, but you gave him that shot to bounce back for all the reasons above and provided one more piece of evidence to justify starting Schneider in Game 7 if you so desire. At that point – with three straight losses – he’d be more likely to understand. From there, you can decide if he just can’t get it done or not – if he can’t, you’re saying the 10-year bet you made on him is already a loss and you’re in for a world of hurt.
I would have loved to hear the conversation between the Canucks coaches and managers that led to their decision to leave Luongo on the bench at the start of the biggest game of their season. To then call it a “hunch” in the post-game press conference only makes it look worse, like they didn’t actually think of the repercussions of the decision.
I’m just baffled there was a decision to be made at all. This isn’t the lower leagues, of course, so a coach can’t act like managing his personalities (and their contracts) isn’t a major part of his job.
The Canucks as a whole have been bad on the ice, but two games shouldn’t have been enough to make the brass panic, let alone panic enough to show the world their fear.
My junior coach used to say “never let ’em see you sweat.” Before Game 6 in Chicago, we all saw the higher-ups in Vancouver needed a serious change of shirts.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin’s blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.