2014 Stanley Cup playoffs: Now begins the true test for Alain Vigneault
Alain Vigneault was brought in to lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1994. That mission officially begins on Thursday.
No one can say the Rangers haven't been a perennial playoff team: that's just a matter of semantics. Making trips to the postseason eight out of the last nine years, the team's trouble hasn't been cracking the conference's top eight, but delivering on the pressure of a franchise playing in New York: bringing home a championship.
When he was brought on this past offseason as the Rangers new head coach, Alain Vigneault had one main objective: reenergize an anemic offense that proved to be the team's kryptonite in it's last few not-so-quite Cup runs.
The Rangers are back in the postseason (again) so now is the time Vigneault's effectiveness will truly be measured.
Let's first get one thing out of the way: Statistically, the Rangers are no better off a goal-scoring team currently than they were under John Tortorella. The team's 2.61 goals per game this season was its lowest output since 2008-2009, the year Tortorella took over the Rangers midseason. Still, something feels different about this Rangers team.
More on Alain Vigneault's first year
More on Alain Vigneault's first year
Maybe it's the system Vigneault has installed, geared more toward puck possession, movement, and fluidity in transition. The Rangers are still one of the strongest teams in the league from the blue line down, but there's a different feel to the offense this year. A team 5v5 shooting percentage of 6.7 ranks them 28th in the league. Some of that is a lack of finishing ability, but some of that is also a lack of luck. While it's not quantifiable to cry "puck luck," if that number regresses in the playoffs, while the team keeps imploring Vignealt's system, results will come.
It also could be that the "depth starved team" that sacrificed its core for Rick Nash has suddenly re-found depth. Losing Chris Kreider can't be downplayed, but neither can putting Nash on a line with Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis. The second line may be an area of concern sans Kreider, but the Rangers bottom six is as good as its been in recent memories, which bodes well for any deep postseason run.
Everything Vigneault has done up to this point hasn't been meaningless, but now is when everything is truly magnified. If the Rangers fizzle out again and fail to find the back of the net consistently again—similar to postseason's past—it will be an audit of his system, and its efficiency.
All season, it's seemed as if Vigneault has pushed the right buttons. He's helped develop Ryan McDonagh's game to improve it offensively. He grouped the trio of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot, one of the biggest reasons the team is in the position it is. And he used the perfect amount of Cam Talbot to light a fire under Henrik Lundqvist, and, more importantly, give him some much needed rest in an Olympics year. But none of that will matter if the Rangers falter in the first round against the Flyers. No one will laud him for navigating the team through early regular season adversity, and staying the course despite every signpost not to.
In New York, success is measured by Stanley Cups, and by that count, the Rangers have been unsuccessful since 1994. It's worth referencing the St. Louis trade here, which has a conditional second draft pick that becomes a first if the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Finals. That is the expectation, and that will require getting through the Rangers biggest rival in Philadelphia, and then either the Penguins or the Blue Jackets. If the Rangers reach hockey's final four, they'll likely be greeted by the Bruins, a team Vigneault is familiar with, and a potential matchup he'd like nothing more than to exact revenge in.
The Rangers are doing other things under Vigneault that would encourage hope in the form of deeper playoff run. They're a strong 5v5 possession team, and a team that's still getting strong goaltending. The power play is improved (while it's regressed over the past two months or so), and the penalty kill is still a stalwart. It's also a team that has found a formula to winning on the road, a necessary piece past the first round in a championship equation.
Too much blame will be placed on Vingeault if the Rangers do not hoist hockey's grandest prize, and too much praise will be applied to him if they do. But either way, there will be a verdict for the first-year head coach in the coming weeks or months, and in New York, the slant will be loud and clear.