The Vancouver Canucks are still a Stanley Cup contender in the eyes of many, but if they want to get to the promised land this season, they might have to jettison head coach Alain Vigneault along the way.
Vigneault, who is the Canucks' franchise leader in wins by a coach with 299 and counting, has had a number of rocky moments throughout his tenure as bench boss in Vancouver, but the calls for his head seem particular loud, now with his club in the midst of a lengthy slump.
Since bursting out of the gate with an 8-2-2 start, the Canucks have stumbled in a major way winning just four of their last 13 outings (4-5-4) and have not only surrendered their once firm grasp on the Northwest Division title but look like they may be in danger of slipping out of the playoff picture entirely with half a season still to go.
Vigneault certainly does not deserve to shoulder all the blame for Vancouver's struggles this season. In fact, you could point to a number of reasons why the Canucks have suddenly hit the wall, including injuries to key contributors such as top defenseman Kevin Bieksa and former Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler, as well as the reinforcements expected from the highly-anticipated Roberto Luongo trade still yet to arrive.
But all that being said, you have wonder if this situation is simply a case where the coach is starting to become drowned out by a group that has heard the same message too many times.
Vigneault is currently in his seventh season behind the Canucks' bench and has lasted longer than many would have expected. One of the few holdovers from the Dave Nonis regime, Vigneault was given a vote of confidence from incoming GM Mike Gillis after Nonis' dismissal at the end of the 2007-08 season as he had his contract extended despite the team missing the playoffs that campaign. Vigneault has rewarded Gillis for his confidence since then. The Canucks have captured four consecutive divisional championships, have won back-to-back Presidents' Trophies and came within a win of capturing the franchise's first- ever Stanley Cup in 2011.
But Vigneault's tenure hasn't been without its share of problems.
He was out-coached by his Blackhawks' counterpart, Joel Quenneville, in consecutive playoff series losses in 2009 and 2010 and very nearly for a third straight time in 2011 as he watched his team squander a 3-0 lead in their quarterfinal series that year before managing to win the decisive seventh game in overtime that ultimately propelled them all the way to the Cup Final.
He has had some very public clashes with a number of his players over the years, including the likes of former Canucks Willie Mitchell and Cody Hodgson, as well as current Canucks Ryan Kesler, which have led to perceived strained relationships between coach and player. His handling of the team's young prospects has also been questioned.
There is certainly precedent for teams changing coaches in mid-season and finding success. The Kings are the prime example as they won a Cup with Darryl Sutter after dumping Terry Murray following a 13-12-4 start last season. The Penguins, similarly, won the Cup in 2009 with Dan Bylsma after letting Michel Therrien go despite the latter guiding them to them to the Cup Final the spring prior.
The Ducks made a similar move last season as well firing Cup-winning coach Randy Carlyle and replacing him with Bruce Boudreau - a decision that seems to be paying major dividends this season with Anaheim sitting near the top of the league standings and looking very much like a Cup contender after missing the post-season last year.
There is no shortage of coaches that might pique the Canucks interest should they choose to go in that same direction. Former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff tops the list of available coaches and comes with an impressive resume, as does ex- Habs coach Jacques Martin. Other intriguing names include; ex-Oilers coach and current Red Wings assistant Tom Renney, former Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, and former Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel, who is currently the head coach of the Canucks' AHL affiliate in Chicago.
If the Canucks were to walk away from Vigneault, it would be prudent for them to act sooner rather than later in order to give the team plenty of time to adjust to the incoming coach.
Still, it seems unlikely Vancouver would go down that path considering the confidence that Gillis has shown Vigneault time and time again over the years, including this past May when Vigneault was given yet another extension despite the team's disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
But given the results they've compiled over the past couple of weeks, it seems like the Canucks are in need of some kind of shake up, unless they want to see another year where their high expectations fall by the wayside. Vigneault might have to be the one to bite the bullet.