"That's the million dollar question" - something I'm going to say about 20 times this summer. Typically you reserve the phrase for the most important question, but this year there seem to be a lot of them.
But this might be the most important of the million dollar questions. (Perhaps a billion dollars question? I digress ...) Is Alain Vigneault the right coach to lead the Rangers out of the darkness?
If The New York Rangers are truly invested in revamping this team (and whether or not it's a full rebuild or simply a retool remains to be seen) then there needs to be a consensus at the top. And by that I mean: Either Vigneault needs to get on board with the changes or they need to find a coach who will.
Vigneault is the king of coach speak, sitting atop a throne built on "it was the right thing to do," and "he's day-to-day," or "I think he gives us a solid presence there." What I'm trying to say is dissecting his words is not nearly as easy as the days when John Tortorella told us how he felt, with a sprinkle of profanity for flavor. Vigneault's comments are more like an archaeological dig; there's bones there to be found, but you might never know what you have until the entire thing is unearthed.
That being said, these comments are the antithesis of what Vigneault's coaching ideologies seemed rooted in behind the bench.
AV: "There are definitely going to be some changes as an organization." Says every player will be re-evaluated.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) April 26, 2016
Alain Vigneault on the @NYRangers core group: "I think we're at the stage now where we need to look at some changes."— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) April 26, 2016
As much as things change, though, some stay the same:
AV on Keith Yandle - "It's definitely a tough decision moving forward."— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) April 26, 2016
Anyway, it's clear the Rangers are moving in a new direction. Whether those Vigneault comments are A) the result of hishaving been spoken to already by Jeff Gorton about changing philosophies, B) feeling his seat getting warm and doing it on his own or, C) his usual coach speak, is up for debate. There is no debate, however, that if he does stick around he is going to be the biggest force in this re-branding of the team (I'm using re-brand until we figure out how deep into this revamp pool the organization is diving into).
If Vigneault is the guy, then his system has to change at a fundamental level -- as in, moving from its structured home into a more flexible cousin. This is a really big aspect of the Rangers' collective failures the past two years: his system, ironically enough, became less and less efficient the more control Vigneault had over roster decisions. Even if you fully support Vigneault's return to the helm for his fourth year on Broadway, this aspect alone should scare the hell out of you. Especially if he's not fully invested in re-branding himself along with his team.
Because here's the honest truth: If the Rangers do all the right things to change themselves (or most of the right things), but Vigneault doesn't also subscribe, things aren't going to get much better. His system is brilliant when he has the right players, but he's also shown a shockingly poor ability to both find the right players or, worse, utilize the players he does have.
Until injuries forced his hand, Vigneault hitched his carriage to Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Tanner Glass, Ryan McDonagh as the main pillar of the power play and Jesper Fast as a top-six winger; holding Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Emerson Etem and Dylan McIlrath to higher standards and accountability. It made no sense from the outside looking in, and also made the team quite a bit worse at every turn. He never adjusted until he was forced to, and even then Vigneault got a concussed Girardi back in for the Rangers final playoff game of the year.
That Vigneault couldn't see the foundation of his system -- quick outlet passes transitioning defense to offense -- crumbling in an attempt to support Girardi and Staal is a problem. But that was only the most egregious of the offenses. A plethora of other things slipped through the cracks, too: the lack of a real fourth line, the absence of any penalty kill adjustments (outside of the Daniel Paille disaster), refusing to give other, better equipped youth opportunities in the top-six, the subjective wheel of justice, Glass taking the place of Lindberg, Emerson Etem and Hayes, McIlrath outplaying half of the defense and not getting any playing time and Keith Yandle's lack of power play AND top pairing opportunities.
Of all those mentioned above, not one was changed unless injuries forced his hand -- and any changes reverted back to the original state once injuries passed. Yandle's usage was the only one that morphed a bit on its own, but even then the adjustment came from an initial injury that forced Vigneault to actually utilize him in the first place. If THAT is the coach returning next year, do any amount of personnel changes make all that much of a difference? I think not.
Now, Gorton is a much different general manager than Glen Sather (we hope). As we've said in this space for months, Gorton gets a pass on the state of things since he didn't build this team. You can certainly take swings at him about the Eric Staal trade (which I did), but the move was at least somewhat defensible at the time.
Another question that can be asked is if Vigneault can actually change. At the time of his firing in Vancouver, a lot of the outer markets didn't understand how the Canucks could give him the boot. But watching him dissolve into what he was at the tail end of his time in Vancouver has colored in the painting a little. Vigneault's reign as a coach tends to be like a merry go round, repeating itself over and over again until he wears out his welcome.
Many of the problems that led to his firing in Vancouver followed him in New York. Here's an article from the Vancouver Sun dating back to 2013 when Vigneault was fired. Tell me the below doesn't sound familiar (bold is my emphasis).
Since the Stanley Cup loss to Boston two years ago, the number of sixty minute efforts expended by his squad could be counted on one hand. The President's Trophy and divisional titles in that span were buoyed by a weak schedule and strong goaltending. We won't go so far to say his team had tuned him out, but they had become a mostly complacent crew, fully exposed in their consecutive first round playoff exits to lower seeded opponents ...
During his time here, Vigneault displayed an inability to consistently nurture young talent. In the salary cap constrained world, getting contributions from young players with small salaries is paramount.
If all these things led to his dismissal in Vancouver, and he ended up doing the same thing in New York, can he be expected to adjust as needed?
I think it's a fair question to ask, especially since I do believe Vigneault had far more control over the roster here in New York than he did in Vancouver. And you wouldn't be wrong to infer that the more Vigneault put his hands into this lineup, the worse the team got. Results fit that hot taek.
The point is, the Rangers' evolution needs to have a 100% buy in. Not just from the players who are sticking around, but also from the coaches who are sticking around. Vigneault has shown a history of not being able to adjust.
If he's going to lead the Rangers out of the darkness, then he needs to see the light himself.