Vancouver Canucks: The Three Best and Three Worst Coaches in Franchise History
The coach of any professional sports team is at times the most overrated position. Coaches are often labelled as geniuses when the team wins, while they take all the blame after a loss.
People often forget that the players are the ones who decide the majority of games. But sometimes, the coach can provide the missing link that a team needs to be successful. Whether it’s a change in formation or a different way of motivating the team, a change in coaches can sometimes make a huge difference.
In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, 18 coaching changes have been made in their 40 years as an NHL franchise. In total, there have been 16 different head coaches. Some stuck around for seven years and over 500 games, while others didn’t even last a full season with the team. Then there are the coaches who have left and returned on multiple occasions.
Like most professional sports franchises, the Canucks have gone through their highs and lows over the years. This means that the head coaches of the team have ranged from very successful to extreme failures and everything in between.
It’s time to review the three best and three worst head coaches in Vancouver Canucks' history. To analyze and decide who the best and worst coaches in Canucks history are, win/loss records obviously came into play, but they weren’t the only factor.
The talent of the roster in which the coach had to work with is also important, as well as how the team performed before a certain coach took over and after he left.
Let’s begin with the three worst coaches in Canucks' history:
Worst Coaches: 3. Bill McCreary Sr. (1973-1974)
No, this is not the same Bill McCreary who refereed over 1,700 NHL games. But it is his uncle.
McCreary lasted only 41 games as the Canucks head coach before being fired in early 1974. His record as the teams’ bench boss was a brutal 9-25-7.
As bad as that record looks, it’s actually not the lowest winning percentage in Canucks' coaching history. That distinction belongs to Bill LaForge, who coached just 20 games in 1984 before being fired after the team started 4-14-2.
However, the reason McCreary makes this list instead of LaForge is because the Canucks clearly had a team that was ready to take the next level when he was head coach. The evidence of this came after he was let go. The Canucks finished the season with a respectable 15-18-4 record.
But the real slap in the face to McCreary was the following season when the Canucks went from a non-playoff team to a first-place team who finished six games above the .500 mark.
Clearly, the Canucks had the potential to be a good team in the mid 1970s. But Bill McCreary was definitely not the right coach for that team and failed as a result.
2. Harry Neale (1978-1982, 1984, 1984-1985)
Harry Neale took over as the Canucks head coach in 1978, and although the team made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, they were never a good team. They finished under .500 every season and were struggling again during the ’81-’82 campaign.
It was during that season that Neale got into a confrontation with fans in a game in Quebec City against the Quebec Nordiques. Neale was suspended for 10 games as a result of his unprofessionalism, but while he was gone, the team started to win.
In fact, the Canucks lost just once in those 10 games under temporary head coach Roger Neilson and Canucks' management decided to keep Neilson behind the bench for the remainder of the season. The Canucks went on to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals that season without Harry Neale as their head coach.
If that’s not proof that you’re not a good coach, I’m not sure what is. A team that is losing while you’re there and magically starts to win as soon as you leave.
Neale only returned as head coach of the Canucks again because he was named general manager after the ’81-’82 season and subsequently decided to fire Roger Neilson in January of 1984. Neale’s second stint as head coach didn’t go much better and neither did his third go at it after he fired Bill LaForge in November of 1984.
Neale left the Canucks in 1985 to coach the Detroit Red Wings, only to be fired after just 35 games due to the teams’ poor performance. Overall, he was just not a very good coach.
1. Mike Keenan (1997-1999)
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The often brash and loud-mouthed Mike Keenan came to Vancouver with a high profile and a reputation of being able to deal with big-name players. Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to that reputation with the Canucks and failed miserably as their head coach.
Keenan couldn’t unite a team with star players like Mark Messier, Alex Mogilny, Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden. In fact, Keenan’s inability to get along with Linden, the most beloved player in Canucks' history, is one of the biggest reasons why the Canucks failed under his guidance.
It’s also the main reason why Keenan and Mark Messier are despised by many diehard Canucks fans to this day, as they both divided the Canucks locker room and forced Linden out of town.
Mike Keenan ended up with a woeful 36-54-18 as head coach of the Canucks record before being fired in 1999. This despite having a roster filled with elite players and a team that was just two seasons removed from a second-round playoff appearance.
One of the chief responsibilities of the head coach of a professional sports team is to make sure his team has chemistry, and the Vancouver Canucks had zero chemistry under Mike Keenan. Because of this, Keenan was a colossal failure with the Canucks, and he goes down as the worst coach in team history.
Now onto a much more positive part of the Canucks franchise as we look at the three best coaches in team history:
Best Coaches: 3. Roger Neilson (1982-1984)
As I referenced during my assessment of Harry Neale, the Canucks' former assistant coach who took over the team after Neale’s suspension in 1982 was Roger Neilson. The rest is history.
Nine wins and just one loss later, the Canucks elected to stick with Neilson and dump Neale for the rest of the season. As bad as this made Neale look, you can’t discount the team coming together under the guidance of a Canuck icon in Neilson.
Not only did the team finish the regular season strong in 1982, but they also won three rounds of playoff hockey and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in team history. Considering the talent on the ice for the Canucks wasn’t what a Stanley Cup finalist would normally look like, much of the credit for their success has to go to Roger Neilson.
Canuck fans will always remember the night that Neilson held the towel on top of a stick in protest of poor officiating in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals that year. This sparked the Canucks fans to wave white towels in the air at their next home game, which has now become a tradition at sports venues everywhere.
If nothing else, Neilson should be labelled as one of the best coaches in Canucks' history for starting that tradition alone. But of course, he was a great coach as well that seemed to get the most out of his team.
After the Canucks' surprising Stanley Cup appearance in 1982, Neilson would remain as head coach for two more seasons, and the Canucks would make the playoffs in each of those seasons, only to lose in the first round both years.
Nevertheless, Neilson guided the Canucks to two good seasons and one great season before he was fired by Harry Neale. That doesn’t seem right, does it? One of the best Canucks coaches being fired by one of the worst?
Maybe that’s why the Canucks were one of the worst teams in the NHL for the next four years and were largely considered a joke to play against by other teams around the league.
2. Pat Quinn (1991-1994, 1996)
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Simply put, Pat Quinn was a winner.
When he took over as head coach of the Canucks in 1991, the team was consistently finishing near the bottom of their division. However, Quinn immediately took a bottom-feeding team and turned them into division champs in his first full season at the helm.
The Canucks ended up losing in the second round of the playoffs that year, but it was still a successful turn-around season for the franchise. Quinn won the Jack Adams award for best coach in 1992 as a result.
Quinn led the Canucks to a repeat performance in the ’92-’93 season, winning the division title before losing in the second round. Then in 1994, the Canucks made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, narrowly losing to the New York Rangers in seven games.
Unfortunately, Quinn voluntarily stepped down after the epic 1994 playoff run in order to focus on his duties as general manager. The Canucks of the 1990s were never the same after that, which once again proved how great Pat Quinn was as the teams’ head coach.
Quinn had one final brief stint as Canucks' head coach after that. He fired the man who initially preceded him, Rick Ley, in March of 1996 and coached team down the stretch that year. This marked the final time the Canucks would make the playoffs in the 1990s, and it came with Pat Quinn as their head coach.
1. Alain Vigneault (2006-present)
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Alain Vigneault began his coaching career with the Vancouver Canucks much like Pat Quinn did.
In 2006, he took over a team that had struggled the previous season. They had just missed the playoffs and the roster had been blown up because of it.
As a result, the Canucks were thin of scoring talent in ’06-’07, but that didn’t matter to Vigneault. He played with the hand he was dealt and adopted a defensive-minded system that helped the Canucks win a surprising division title and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Vigneault won the Jack Adams award for best coach in 2007, just like Pat Quinn did after his first season as Head Coach.
Since then, the Canucks have had three more extremely successful seasons under Vigneault, including this year when they won the President’s Trophy for being the best team in the regular season and made it back to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Vigneault has taken the Canucks from a non-playoff team to a Stanley Cup favourite in just five seasons as head coach. Because of this, he deserves the distinction as the best head coach in the history of the Vancouver Canucks.
Thanks for reading. You can feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments section below. You can also find me on Twitter @adam_graham (http://twitter.com/#!/adam_graham)