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Alain Vigneault Is Good At Creating Controversy And Bad At Controlling It

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NHL: New York Rangers at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

It’s so rare to see Henrik Lundqvist be the other man.

The New York Rangers have produced two quality goaltenders who studied under Lundqvist; one of which they shipped out to Edmonton and the other who is currently manning the pipes in New York as a backup ... sort of.

Assuming Antti Raanta starts Tuesday night against Chicago — and with the web Alain Vigneault has spun with this situation you’d think he’d have to — it’s going to be the first time Lundqvist has been healthy and not started four consecutive games since he took over the crease as a starter a decade ago.

There are plenty of people who are celebrating this as an enormous win. Raanta (with all of his 10 starts) has put up quality numbers: A 1.65 GAA and a .943 SV% and is looked at as either the hot hand or the better goalie all together. I tried to dismiss Lundqvist as being the main problem, but

The reason I mentioned his 10 starts above is because the body of work is over a very small sample size. Goaltending isn’t just about being good, it’s about being good consistently. Sample size plays a huge role here, and while Raanta’s numbers are eye popping, they’re also over a much smaller period of time. Those things matter.

Which brings us to where we are now: Vigneault “riding the hot hand” with Raanta over Lundqvist.

As I tried to articulate over Twitter (enormous mistake) I don’t have an issue with Vigneault doing this in theory, but I do have issues with both the way this is handled and what this signifies. In reality I have three major issues that I’ll vet out separately below.

Issue One: The way Vigneault is handling this.

And really, I’m talking about the comment he made before the game (which I’m placing below in the event you missed it).

“Right now, there’s no doubt that Antti’s played real well and deserves to play. I love Hank, but I love the team more. Right now, Antti is on top of his game. This is about the team.”

I’m often criticized in this space for looking too deeply into Vigneault and his comments to the media. I even tired to articulate where I was coming from when it came to deciphering Vigneault’s comments to the media.

Between then and now I’ve tried to find a middle ground on Vigneault’s comments, because while it’s easy to get mislead from his comments, more often than not you can figure out what it is he’s really saying.

The above comment, however, rubs me the wrong way — and I’m nearly positive I’m not alone here. A comment like this leaves far too much room for interpretation, even in the event it’s now how Vigneault wanted it to come off.

Saying “I love Hank, but I love the team more” insinuates Lundqvist isn’t the right choice for the Rangers; be in the short or long term. It also insinuated that Lundqvist is here simply because of his history with the team, rather than what he can bring moving forward.

Adding “this is about the team” insinuates Vigneault doesn’t trust Lundqvist to get back where he can be anytime soon. Maybe he didn’t mean it that way (and he most likely didn’t) but that’s how it comes off.

Here’s the thing: Press conferences are not tweets. Vigneault is not restricted to 140 characters when responding to questions. His response could have very easily been: “Obviously Hank is still the guy, but we’ve talked in the past about getting him a lessened workload and with Raanta playing so well it’s a chance to let him clear his head and re-focus.”

You don’t even need to add the “re-focus” part if you don’t want to, but if you want to be critical then that’s fine. I mean, Vigneault called out Lundqvist a week ago by saying the team needed “Grade-A goaltending.”

There’s simply better ways to go about this. And the controversy that’s inevitably going to rear it’s ugly head is created by comments like these, like it or not.

The media has taken a pretty hands off approach when it comes to Vigneault. To put it in perspective, Vigneault is polite with the media so he’s allowed to ride the ferris wheel while a coach like John Tortorella was ushered to the roller coaster of death by questions.

Where Tortorella was routinely questioned about (ironically) overusing Lundqvist, why he wasn’t playing Chris Kreider and about overusing his stars, Vigneault has been mostly dealt with gentler. Larry Brooks very recently questioned Vigneault about a trend of the Rangers being hemmed in their own zone and followed up on it when Vigneault tried to sidestep it, but outside of that the heat doesn’t come until the dust is settled and there’s no risk of a reporter being wrong.

The way he’s handling this also compounds with another issue I have about this ...

Issue Two: Why doesn’t this apply to everyone?

This is a long-talked about issue in this space so I don’t feel like I need to go into a ton of details.

Ultimately it boils down to everything being fair. Last year (almost a year ago exactly) I called out Vigneault’s decision making as breeding an environment where accountability was nonexistent. This current situation is doing the same thing.

I don’t have an issue with Vingeault riding Raanta. I do have an issue with how he’s handling it as a coach, and an even bigger issue with why this doesn’t impact everyone. Dan Girardi has struggled for two and a half years while Kevin Klein has struggled this year. For Girardi there was plenty of talent that sat and didn’t get a shot while he struggled and even played injured. This year Adam Clendening and his team-leading possession metrics rot in the press box almost every night.

If Vigneault is riding the hot hand with Lundqvist why isn’t he doing it with everyone else? The answer? Because he doesn’t want to. For whatever reason Vigneault has totally turned a blind eye to the defense. When he discusses the team’s struggles he talks about the goaltending or uses vague terms. He has yet to call out a defenseman for his struggles, and worse, yet to actually implement any on-ice consequences.

But this is the status quo for Vigneault, in all honestly. There are some players who are above the rules.

Issue Three (and this is the big one): Lundqvist needs to be able to work through his struggles

Lundqvist has handled this situation like a true professional -- not that anyone would expect otherwise. Sean Hartnett wrote up a story highlighting this very fact, and it’s from his story I pulled Lundqvist’s reaction to the current situation before the Rangers beat the Devils:

“You don’t want to over analyze things when you sit out,” Lundqvist said. “There’s a few things, yeah, I need to be a little bit better. My game’s been pretty good for a lot of games as well. I think it’s time to just work hard. I said that after last game and nothing changes. I’ve always had opportunities in the past to play ups and downs — I just play and get in a nice flow. It’s a little different now. You play a couple, you [sit] out. Obviously, it’s a different approach. There’s no excuses. You need to be on top of it and earn your minutes.”

The bold is my emphasis.

Early-season struggles for Lundqvist aren’t anything new. In fact, in January of last year Vigneault was making comments about how Lundqvist had to “re-become” himself and how the rest would sort things out from there. We all know how the whole “expect Lundqvist to do everything” stuff worked from last year. Although, maybe certain people actually don’t, since some circles are still blaming Hank for last year’s collapse.

To this point: Unless Raanta is the guy moving forward, Lundqvist needs to be given an opportunity to work through his struggles. Unlike most goalies, Lundqvist needs a massive workload to keep himself in form, and he’s always been against the ideology of resting to be fresh for the playoffs. Hank focuses on an almost Buddha-like level, and has utilized the work to maintain his level of play when he’s struggling. Just look at his quote above, he wants to work through it like he always has.

Playing “the hot hand” doesn’t work when Lundqvist isn’t the hot hand and still the guy. In the event Raanta isn’t going to be the backup anymore this is a different story, but I doubt we’re going there. The importance of getting Lundqvist to where the team needs him is more important what whatever message Vigneault thinks he’s sending — since he contradicts himself by not doing it with other veterans on the team.

What’s more, the team plays differently in front of Raanta than Hank. For the people crying for Raants because “Hank is washed up” let me show you a few things:

The Rangers do adjust their defensive formations in front of Raanta rather than Lundqvist. Dave goes into some more detail here to help explain things. On top of that, I do think there’s a mentality difference between the two goalies. Lundqvist has been left holding the mop when this team spills their milk for a decade, so players subconsciously might not care about taking the extra risk when assuming he’s got their back. With Raanta the Rangers do look tighter, and the above is proof that the two goalies are seeing vastly different attacks from their opponents.

As I’ve said on Twitter, it’s Vigneault’s job to figure out A) why this is the case, and B) how he can get the team to tighten up around Hank.

And while we’ve admitted Hank has not been his all-world self, people who are blaming the entire situation on him are missing the point. They’re also ignoring the bigger problems on this team and actually believe that Lundqvist is the only or biggest problem.

Then again, it’s Vigneault that’s creating this mess in the first place.

Wouldn’t be the first time he’s done that. But then again, it also wouldn’t be the first time some of the things he did in Vancouver that got him fired returned here on Broadway.