The temptation has got to be there for the Montreal Canadiens, maybe even executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton. With Alain Vigneault having just gotten fired by the Philadelphia Flyers and the Canadiens reshuffling their front office, it doesn’t take a mathematician to put two and two together.
Furthermore, Gorton spent a lot of time with Vigneault when the latter was head coach of the New York Rangers from 2013-2018. Gorton was of course the general manager there from 2015-21. So, it’s safe to say the two know each other well. Of course, upon quick inspection of those dates, it’s even safer to assume Gorton wasn’t all that happy with Vigneault’s performance by the tail end, having fired him and all.
Still, it’s a different market and all and the Canadiens, having to hire a French-speaking head coach, tend to work off a different set of rules and level of common sense relative to the rest of league at times. So, even though the Canadiens and Vigneault literally parted ways a few decades ago, what’s old tends to be new again for the franchise that recycles head coaches like they were soda bottles.
Canadiens Still Have Ducharme
To be fair, the Habs must have switched to a SodaStream or something, considering they visited another well last time. Since Vigneault was last Habs coach in 2000, they’ve hired and fired Michel Therrien and Claude Julien twice, so the criticism is certainly justified. However, in fairness, the last time, after having fired Julien, they promoted now-rookie head coach Dominique Ducharme from within.
After Ducharme helped lead the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993, they naturally lifted the “interim” from his title, re-signing him to a three-year contract in time for the 2021-22 season. It all arguably renders this discussion moot… were it not for the chorus of calls for Ducharme to have been fired with Bergevin following a now-horrendous 6-18-3 start to the campaign.
Gorton has gone on record saying Ducharme will stay the rest of the season (at least), and it’s the right call. While there are obvious red flags regarding Ducharme’s performance, on the whole it makes sense for the Canadiens to wait until they’ve hired a GM before so much as considering a coaching change. If it comes to that, and there’s every reason to believe it might as GMs typically want to bring in their own guy, there are of course plenty of options to consider, as this list from when Julien was fired early on in 2020-21 reveals.
For the record, Vigneault appears near the bottom as he had still been with the Flyers at the time. This time around, as unlikely as it will be the case, he shouldn’t even be on the short list altogether. Obviously, Vigneault has his accomplishments having reached the Final himself, twice in fact. He’s obviously more of a seasoned head coach since he last called the shots with the Habs, but for an organization that is clearly taking steps forward, hiring an Anglophone executive vice president of hockey operations for example, going back to Vigneault just wouldn’t make sense.
Vigneault a Less-than-Ideal Candidate
To illustrate the sentiment, Therrien is available again too, as he had been Vigneault’s assistant when the Flyers cleaned house. Does anyone believe Therrien is realistically in the running as well? Probably not, nor should anyone really want him to be, all due respect to the former head coach. That’s because the problems with Therrien are probably still fresh in many people’s minds.
Just because Vigneault is further removed from his last stint with the Canadiens, it doesn’t mean he’s a better choice, though. That’s like drunk dialing an ex (when you’re still seeing someone in Ducharme, to be clear) and asking if you can work it out, even though the last time you dated they coached you to a league-worst 5-13-2 record. What pleasant memories to fall back on were there, exactly?
Remember, Vigneault was just fired (for good reason). So, he’s already far from a perfect candidate, with the Flyers really underwhelming ever since they ironically beat the Canadiens in Round 1 a few seasons ago. Add in reported dissatisfaction on the part of the Flyers players, and it’s clear the Canadiens can afford to properly assess their options.
Considering how, during his time with Gorton’s Rangers, he made similarly curious deployment decisions like Ducharme (arguably mishandling young players), the Habs may want to go another direction altogether. While they do need to hire a French-speaking coach, they don’t need to hire the first one to come along. They certainly don’t need to so much as look at anyone else for the time being, truth be told. They’ve still got Ducharme.
Head coaches are admittedly hired only to eventually be fired, so it’s not as simple as just making it work with Ducharme. It inevitably won’t altogether, come a certain time. However, the two sides have got the rest of the season to make the most of it and then assess where to go from there. If Vigneault’s still available by then, revisit him as a possibility if necessary, but it shouldn’t be. He’s grown as a coach in some ways the last two decades, but so has the team as a whole, especially the last little while, first with Ducharme, then the Stanley Cup Final appearance and now Gorton. The Canadiens, in spite of their record, simply have higher standards for themselves, as they should.
Vigneault’s not a bad coach, just not the right one for this youth-laden team, potentially headed for a full-on rebuild. Granted, much has yet to be decided on that front, but this is one decision that should be easy. For a team headed in a new direction, it’s as simple as looking at coaching in much that same way.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.