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Canuck players praise coach Alain Vigneault for treating team equally

Last November, before Roberto Luongo took on near super-hero status, Vigneault said his goaltender needed to play better.

Last spring a run-and-gun Canucks team loaded with offensive firepower missed the NHL playoffs amid talk of friction in the dressing room. Fast forward 12 months and Vigneault has Vancouver fighting for first place in the Northwest Division after convincing the players to buy into a more defensive style.

Accountability and honesty are just two of the traits Vigneault has brought to the Canucks after replacing the fired Marc Crawford. The team's success has Vigneault being touted as a coach-of-the-year candidate.

"Nobody predicted we'd be close to winning our division," Luongo said Tuesday, prior to the Canucks playing the Los Angeles Kings. "It's amazing how he implemented a system and got everyone on the same page in the short amount of time we had."

One of the accusations made against Crawford, who now coaches the Kings, was that players were treated differently. No matter how ineffective Todd Bertuzzi or Naslund played, they remained on the top line.

Things are very different under Vigneault, 45, who was named the 16th coach in Canuck history last June following one season with the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's AHL farm team.

Naslund, who has struggled most of the season, has been moved from the first, to the third and onto the second line.

When tough guy Jeff Cowan went on a scoring streak, he was rewarded with playing on the top unit.

Centre Brendan Morrison said players notice things like that.

"The biggest thing is accountability," said Morrison. "Everyone is held to the same standards on a nightly basis.

"He hasn't waivered at all. He's gained the respect from guys on the team in that manner."

Vigneault chuckled when told his players thinks he treats everyone equally. The Quebec City native then told a little secret.

"I'm not sure that's accurate," he said. "I think everyone is treated fairly, not necessarily equally."

Truth be told, Vigneault said, he'll tolerate Daniel or Henrik Sedin turning the puck over at the opposition blue-line if they are trying to beat someone one-on-one.

"I'm giving them more leeway," Vigneault said. "Cowan, he's got to dump it in."

One thing Vigneault doesn't joke about is the work ethic he wants from the Canucks.

"We wanted to change the culture of the team and the organization," he said. "We really felt that hard work is the key to success. It was about getting these guys to compete and work hard. That for me has always been part of all the teams I've had.

"It's just a matter of giving guys direction, telling them what you expect, giving them feedback. Our guys were really looking for that direction."

There were some growing pains for the new regime. Vancouver headed into the Christmas break on a three-game losing streak and one game below .500.

Over the holidays something clicked. Since Boxing Day Vancouver had put together a 30-6-6 record heading into the game against the Kings. The club earned points in 36 of 42 games and collected 66 out of a possible 84 points.

The biggest change has been the way the Canucks play. Last year Vancouver scored 256 goals but gave up 255.

After 78 games this season, the Canucks had scored 212 goals, the least of any of the Western Conference's playoff teams, but allowed just 190. Vancouver's penalty killing is also ranked tops in the league.

There's no doubt having Luongo, a Hart and Vezina Trophy contender, has made a huge difference. But Vigneault has also changed the team's mindset.

"It's having guys buy into a system," said forward Matt Cooke. "If you have to put your body there to block a shot, guys are willing to do that.

"There's more of a focus and more detail on our special teams so that everyone is on the same page. That helps tremendously."

Vigneault smiles easily and enjoys a good laugh. He also can be brutally honest when assessing a player's performance.

Morrison shrugged when asked if it's fair for a coach to criticize players in the media.

"If it's only a select few guys he's doing it to all the time, then I think players have an issue," he said. "If it's everybody under the same umbrella, you have to respect that."

Vigneault knows an NHL coach leads a fickle life. At age 36 he was hired by the Montreal Canadiens in 1997, becoming the second-youngest head coach in the organization's history.

Vigneault guided the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference semifinal his first year and was nominated as coach of the year.

He was fired in 2000, just 20 games into the season after a 5-13-1 start.

"I learned a lot of things," Vigneault said about his Montreal experience. "It was a great place for me to become a better coach.

"I've got my second opportunity and I think I'm a better coach now than when I was there."


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