Extending Vigneault now a calculated risk

Alain Vigneault

The news came late last night. Somewhat surprisingly, the New York Rangers announced that they have extended coach Alain Vigneault through 2020. Larry Brooks broke the story in the New York Post. Vigneault originally signed a five-year, $10 million contract that would’ve expired after next season. Now, he gets a bump in salary up $2 million and won’t be a lame duck coach.

Is it a good move? I can’t say for sure. However, Vigneault has certainly done well behind the Rangers bench. His 175 wins make the Blueshirts the third winningest team since he took over for John Tortorella in ’13-14. A trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and coming within a period of making it two straight appearances are the highlights. He did a terrific job with those teams. Don’t forget they made franchise history for the first time by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Penguins in the second round. In 2015, they repeated it against the Capitals in dramatic fashion.

The 55-year old Vigneault has coached over 1,100 NHL games with three franchises. After being an assistant with Ottawa, he got his start in Montreal before going back to coach juniors in the QMJHL. After a successful year with Manitoba in the AHL, he took over the Canucks and turned them into one of the league’s best teams. In ’10-11, they won the President’s Trophy and reached the Stanley Cup Final. But weren’t able to get it done blowing 2-0 and 3-2 series leads by getting shutout by the Bruins on home ice 4-0 in Game 7. They weren’t able to repeat that success getting ousted in the first round in ’11-12 and ’12-13. A sweep at the hands of the Sharks cost him his job.

Vigneault is an offensive minded coach who emphasizes team speed and transition. The Rangers have certainly been exciting under him scoring some of the most beautiful goals. Especially this season with improved depth giving them better balance. They are second in the NHL in scoring behind the Pens averaging 3.37 goals-per-game. They currently sit fourth in the league’s strongest division with 63 points in 49 games- trailing first place Washington by nine and tonight’s opponent Tortorella’s Blue Jackets by five. The Pens are third with 65.

The Rangers are in the first wildcard seven points clear of the Jekyll & Hyde Flyers and eight ahead of the Maple Leafs. They’re in good position. They need to start winning at MSG. After getting off to a great start, they’ve really struggled losing four of their last five. Three of the losses were uncompetitive. With five of the next six at home with only a road match at Buffalo Feb. 2 in between, now is the time to straighten out.

As for my thoughts on extending Vigneault now, it reminds me of the contract extension Glen Sather gave Dan Girardi. With Girardi rumored to be on the trade market with both Anaheim and Florida interested, he chose to keep the gritty veteran defenseman overpaying. In doing so, he decided to trade captain Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis. A trade that worked with St. Louis inspiring the team in its comeback against Pittsburgh following the tragic death of his Mom France. The biggest highlight being St. Louis’ goal on Mother’s Day with MSG a madhouse. I’ll never forget it. They gave up first round picks which was too much. But a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was worth it. Unfortunately, the Lightning shut them out 2-0 in Game 7 on home ice.

For as successful as Vigneault has been, his team losing by shutout in the final two home games of the Eastern Conference Final leaves a bitter taste. How can anyone explain it? During those games, he was too hesitant to change lines and adjust strategy. Tampa stood up at the blue line and took away the Rangers’ transition. He should’ve adjusted. Of course, it was still miraculous that they made it that far with most of the defense banged up. So, you certainly give him credit along with the players who gave it everything.

Vigneault is a quality coach who deals with the media well. He is well spoken. However, at times, he won’t always give them answers on some of his moves. He made a big mistake with a clearly not 100 percent Girardi last season playing him too much. By the first round, the writing was on the wall. The Pens exposed a declining defense with both Girardi and Marc Staal not close to past form. They chased Henrik Lundqvist twice including in a lopsided fifth game to prevail easily.

When it comes to how he uses players, it leaves something to be desired. At times, you’re left scratching your head. Especially when J.T. Miller or Kevin Hayes get no power play time in random games. They’ve been terrific. Hayes remains out with an injury. Miller has bounced around and is currently on the third line playing at center. The same applies to youngster Jimmy Vesey, who is a bad fit for the fourth line. How is he supposed to get out of his funk getting so little time?

As for the blue line, it remains a big question. While workhorse Ryan McDonagh has bounced back, he has had to deal with multiple partners. None of who are top right D. Girardi sometimes is still used but is better off on a second pair or third depending on the match-up. Kevin Klein has struggled most of the year. Injuries have finally caught up. He did look a little better before the All-Star break. Thankfully, Staal returns tonight after missing nearly a month with post-concussion symptoms. However, Adam Clendening comes out. He had good chemistry with rookie Brady Skjei on the third pair. While not the best defensively, Clendening is much better skater than either Girardi or Klein and adds offense including on the power play.

You can see the dilemma. Is the coach gonna stay loyal to his vets again by overusing them? Or will he trust Clendening enough to have him fill in occasionally for Girardi or Klein when the situation is called upon. His track record says he won’t. That isn’t a strong suit. If the Rangers are to somehow make a run in the postseason, they must keep their elder statesmen fresh.

Then there’s Lundqvist, who wasn’t allowed to get into a rhythm until capable backup Antti Raanta went down. Vigneault didn’t start him at Pittsburgh following a couple of strong outings which made no sense. It was almost as if he decided he’d rather go with Raanta because he beat the Pens earlier in the season. Naturally, they got smoked. Lundqvist is a workhorse who needs consistent reps. When Raanta made four consecutive starts in December, his confidence was shaken. But he seemed to bounce back only for Vigneault to interrupt the momentum.

Lundqvist then hit a huge slump this month and didn’t get out of it until Vigneault was forced to play him daily. It’s understandable that he wants to keep the soon to be 35-year old fresh for the playoffs. The coach wants to limit Hank to 55 starts. Lundqvist has gotten into 36 games so far with career worsts in goals-against-average (2.73) and save percentage (.907). Can he continue the upswing against a tough Columbus team tonight. I won’t be around to watch it.

My biggest complaint with re-upping Vigneault now is that it comes with uncertainty. What was the big rush? Why not wait to see how this team does in the playoffs? What if they go out in the first round again? Back to back first round exits would certainly raise some eyes.

This is how the Rangers operate. They do things in odd fashion. Even if you like keeping Vigneault around, you have to admit there was no need to rush it. I have faith in GM Jeff Gorton, whose terrific off-season is why the Rangers have improved. The question is can he add the missing pieces to make this team a true contender. They are still a top right defenseman and gritty physical forward in the Antoine Roussel mold away from being legit in my opinion.

Now, we’ll just have to be patient and see how things work out. We won’t know if the extension was the right move for a while.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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