Just when you think he’s finally figured it out, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault does something that makes no sense at all. The prevailing thought on his successful stint here is that he’s a very good coach who’s guided the team to its only Stanley Cup trip since ’94 and within a period of consecutive appearances.
In the fourth year of an original five-year contract that pays him $2 million per season, Vigneault has done a very good job. It’s hard to argue with his success behind the Ranger bench. In four years, he’s won 192 games leading the Rangers to four straight postseasons. They’ve had a lot of success making deep runs while winning a President’s Trophy. His .628 winning percentage is almost on par with his success in Vancouver where he also reached a Stanley Cup Final.
In many ways, his time with the Rangers is mirroring what happened in Vancouver. He lasted seven years with the Canucks featuring a talented team that included Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis, Mikael Samuelsson and Roberto Luongo. After losing in a heartbreaking seven games to the Bruins on for the Cup in ‘2010-11, the Canucks won the President’s Trophy the following year only to get upset by Jonathan Quick and the Kings in five games. A year later, they were swept by San Jose leading to Vigneault’s dismissal.
When he was hired to replace John Tortorella, it was a good fit. The Rangers wanted to emphasize a more exciting offensive style which is exactly what Vigneault brought. The personnel changed. In his first year, he didn’t utilize captain Ryan Callahan right on the power play. It was painfully obvious Callahan’s straight line game wasn’t what he preferred. Vigneault wanted speed and transition. At the time, then GM Glen Sather made the tough decision to trade Callahan to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis. The first ever captain for captain deadline deal cost him two first round picks.
Even though he struggled to adjust scoring just one goal in 19 games, St. Louis became the emotional leader of the locker room following the tragic death of Mom France. After they defeated the Flyers in seven games, the Rangers learned of St. Louis’ Mom while in a 3-1 series deficit after laying two eggs at home. St. Louis called a team meeting along with veteran Brad Richards. Knowing his Mom would want him to play, he did in Game 5. A Rangers resounding victory in Pittsburgh that gave them hope. It was a emotional Mother’s Day win where St. Louis scored the first goal that you started to feel some magic. The Rangers would win the series in seven.
Buoyed by St. Louis who scored a dramatic overtime goal to beat the Canadiens in a huge Game 4, the Rangers rallied around him to make the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. Even though they fell short in a closely fought five games with all three games needing overtime, it was a great run. A winnable series versus the Kings in which they blew leads in all three road games. There was the controversial non-call on Dwight King for goalie interference. But also Vigneault opting to sit back rather than attack. Even Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t prevent the Kings’ overwhelming dominance.
The ’14-15 year was one of great promise. With Lundqvist suffering a sprained blood vessel in his neck that forced him out of action, backup Cam Talbot rallied the team to the league’s best record. Lundqvist returned to form and helped that team rally from another 3-1 series deficit in the second round in dramatic fashion against the Caps. A series they were 90 seconds away from elimination in Game 5 before Derek Stepan set up Chris Kreider’s tying goal at a rocking Garden. Eventually, Stepan dropped for Ryan McDonagh’s amazing overtime winner. They held on in Game 6 thanks to Lundqvist and needed sudden death before Stepan rebounded home a shot past Braden Holtby for the series clincher.
But in an oddly played Eastern Conference Final, they were unable to win in the final three games at MSG. In fact, the road team won five of the seven games. The Rangers were shutout in Games 5 and 7 sandwiched around a convincing blowout win in Game 6 over the Lightning featuring a hat trick from Derick Brassard and two assists. But there was no carryover. That’s the kind of series it was. Vigneault got outcoached by Jon Cooper in Game 7. He had his team stand up at the blue line and take away the stretch pass along with the Rangers’ biggest weapon. Speed. They never really threatened Ben Bishop. Alex Killorn’s tie-breaking goal in the third led to a Lightning 2-0 shutout. A gut wrenching conclusion to a series they should’ve won.
At that point, some started to question Vigneault’s lack of adjustments. A fair critique. When the Rangers moved on from reliable right defenseman Anton Stralman allowing him to walk to Tampa and help them defeat them along with ex-Rangers Boyle and Callahan, it changed things dramatically. Dan Boyle never worked out. He was so inconsistent that Sather coughed up more draft picks and Anthony Duclair to Arizona for Keith Yandle. He became a two-year rental. Even though he was very effective, Vigneault refused to take full advantage of the offensive skating D. He kept Yandle on the third pair while continuing to roll out Marc Staal and Boyle.
It made no sense. Even last year when Yandle paired well with former Blueshirt Dylan McIlrath, Vigneault went against logic. He also played a banged up Dan Girardi, who had a cracked right knee and needed time off. Not with the loyal coach who handles vets he trusts very differently. Maybe if he had taken a different approach with Girardi and Staal, they might have been fresher for last year’s short lived postseason. They got dismantled by the Pens in five. Pittsburgh was way too good for anyone rolling to the Stanley Cup. Something they could repeat this year minus Kris Letang and number one goalie Matt Murray.
When it comes to deployment, it’s not one of Vigneault’s strong suits. In the first round after blowing Game 2, he was clearly overplaying Staal and fragile partner Nick Holden too much. Kevin Klein subbed for him but was ineffective in a flat Game 3 loss. He eventually went back to Holden with Staal but managed their minutes better while effectively utilizing cohesive third pair Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith.
Fast forward to an exasperating blown Game Two loss to the Senators falling 6-5 in double overtime on Saturday. A game which saw the Rangers blow three separate two-goal leads including up 5-3 before two goals from Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the final 3:19 forced sudden death. Somehow, Vigneault refused to give Skjei or Smith a single shift in the last five minutes. They have been steady and deserve more ice-time than they’re getting. It was inexplicable that they received 10-11 fewer shifts than an ineffective Staal and Holden with the latter’s bad pinch costing them in OT.
Neither did Vigneault refusing to give youngsters Pavel Buchnevich and Oscar Lindberg any shifts in sudden death. Somehow, he shot himself in the foot by hurting his biggest strength. The team’s depth. Instead, a stubborn Vigneault went with a 10 forward rotation which eventually taxed them. Buchnevich and Lindberg wound up each with less than six minutes played in a game that wasn’t decided until 82:54 when Pageau drove a perfect laser past Lundqvist on a odd-man rush.
It wasn’t a good game for the coach. He stuck with Staal and Holden too much. There also was an odd shift where Holden was paired with Skjei, who was beaten badly by Ottawa speed demon Mike Hoffman during a four-on-four leading to a rebound goal from Marc Methot. Methot had no problem scoring due to Holden not taking him. It wasn’t just Holden or Staal yesterday. Holden though was badly exposed with an inopportune pinch trapping teammates Stepan and Jesper Fast as Pageau went two-on-one before scoring his fourth goal in a memorable game.
Even though he had two assists and delivered 11 huge hits in over 34 minutes of work, it wasn’t McDonagh’s best game either. He got beat by Pageau twice for two redirects which rallied the Senators into extras. He delivered a big hit on Dion Phaneuf but lost inside position allowing Pageau to deflect a Zack Smith shot by Lundqvist that made it 5-4. Then McDonagh got caught napping on Pageau’s neat redirect of a Kyle Turris one-timer with 62 seconds left. Partner Girardi had his own hiccup when his bad turnover in the neutral zone turned into Pageau’s first when he beat Lundqvist short side from a bad angle.
To be honest, only Skjei and Smith were consistent yet somehow wound up with the short end of the stick. Skjei received 22:18 even after his two goals including one that reminded of former Rangers legend Brian Leetch with the poised rookie recovering to break up a three-on-one and then take a Smith pass, drag and curl before beating Craig Anderson for a 5-3 lead. Smith somehow only got 20:44 in 29 shifts while playing his usual physical style.
So, what were Vigneault’s answers to the press? Oh boy. They were about as out of touch as possible.
Okay. This I can buy. Obviously, you don’t break up McDonagh/Girardi or Skjei/Smith. But the way he under utilizes Skjei and Smith is absurd. There was also this explanation on Skjei’s usage which is just mind numbing.
So, wait. Skjei recovered from getting beat by Hoffman on Methot’s four-on-four goal by getting it back the same period. Then scored a dazzling goal after a great defensive play which again restored a two-goal lead with under 15 minutes left in regulation. So, he didn’t earn more ice-time after that? He didn’t deserve one shift in the final five when the Rangers blew it by the coach shortening up, which also shafted a good defensive player in Smith. I don’t get it. Does anyone?
I don’t get this at all. Smith is one of those blood and guts guys who gets the jersey dirty and knows how to defend. He is tough in front of the net. What in the world is the thinking? Is this on assistant Jeff Beukeboom or is it just Vigneault again being set in his old ways like he was with former assistant Ulf Samuelsson?
In limiting Buchnevich and Lindberg, Vigneault hurt his team’s chances. They could’ve still recovered and won the game. Why not give Buchnevich a shift on the power play which stunk it up in the first OT? Or stick out Lindberg, who has been more consistent than either Stepan or Kevin Hayes overall? Lindberg makes things happen. Forget the fact he only has one assist. He can win draws and is a good forechecker who isn’t afraid to take his shot while being responsible. Jimmy Vesey also got penalized unfairly hardly seeing the ice in sudden death. He was more noticeable than either Rick Nash or saint Mats Zuccarello.
The Rangers have one more day off before Game 4 on Tuesday. It’s a must win. How Vigneault handles the pressure packed situation could determine if they remain alive. He’ll need much better goaltending from Lundqvist, who admittedly wasn’t good enough in allowing six goals on 34 shots. His worst effort of this postseason. He can’t get outplayed by Anderson, who wasn’t good himself but made some big saves to give his team a chance.
When it comes down to it, Vigneault has to do a better job with the match-ups when the series shifts to MSG. He also has to manage his players better. Use all 18 skaters. Reward the ones who are going. It’s not about loyalty anymore. But about winning. There is no excuse.