On May 29th, 2013 the New York Rangers fired John Tortorella after he had served as the Rangers head coach for five years. It was the right move at the time as it was clear that Torts' shot block-a-palooza on ice style and his...abrasive attitude had run it's course in New York. The Rangers were adding more skill and speed to the roster that didn't fit into Torts' style and the game was getting faster and faster, a change needed to be made.
Alain Vigneault was fired by the Vancouver Canucks after winning two President's trophies and a Jack Adams with the Western Canadian team but just could not get past the Chicago Blackhawks and win the Stanley Cup, coming the closest in 2011 when the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. Vancouver famously, or infamously, went into a weird identity crisis after that Stanley Cup Final that eventually ended with Alain Vigneault being the sacrificial lamb.
So, in the 2013 offseason the Rangers were without a head coach and one of the best head coaches in hockey had suddenly become available and in June of 2013 the Rangers bypassed Mark Messier and named Vigneault the team's 40th head coach in team history. This was the first step into a completely new era for the Rangers, they had the makings of a young, fast roster helmed by a coach that espoused modern ideas, understood the importance of zone starts, and seemingly understood where the flow of hockey was heading.
The 2013-14 Rangers season was almost a revelation of sorts, young players like Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan were given prominent top six roles and thrived there, the third line of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarello were a possession freight train, and the shutdown duo of Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore helped create the best 4th line in hockey (with cameo roles from Derek Dorsett and Dan Carcillo). On the blue line the Rangers leaned on the breakout year of Ryan McDonagh and the criminally underrated Anton Stralman to hide the beginning of the declines of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Anchored by the greatest goaltender in franchise history in Henrik Lundqvist, the Vigneault led Rangers were a team built on fast breakouts, stretch passes, and incredible speed.
Running through the regular season, the Rangers had some struggles at first getting used to Vigneault's system but once they got adjusted the Rangers showed that they were putting together a foundation for a perennially great team. With the trade deadline acquisition of Martin St. Louis, the Rangers made their first real "win now" move by shipping the captain of the team Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay for the Hall of Fame winger.
We all know the rest of the story, the emotional playoff run that led to the Rangers first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in twenty years only to bow out to a much better Kings team in five games. That's ok, a young team that had established itself as a very good but not quite great team ran into the best team in the league and played as well as they could but couldn't get past the Los Angeles behemoth. The Rangers were set up to put their skate to the neck of the Eastern Conference for years to come, the question was how do the Rangers move forward?
Well, now the question is how the hell did it all fall apart?
Something broke in AV and the front office, something fundamentally broke inside Vigneault after that Stanley Cup Final loss and the Rangers haven't been the same since. The 2013-14 Rangers finished the season as the 8th best possession team (52.4% at even strength) but they had the 28th best sh% (6.7% only better than, ironically the Kings, and the Buffalo Sabres). They finished the 2014-15 season 20th in possession (49.5% at evens) and 4th in sh% (8.8%), and the Rangers utterly cratered this year finishing 25th in possession (a paltry 47.2% at even strength) and they had the highest sh% in the league at 9%.
It began with giving long term deals to Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, two defensemen that were already in a decline but protected a bit by two outstanding defensemen in Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman, while allowing the aforementioned Stralman to walk away without even making an offer for the Swedish defenseman and replaced him with the aging Dan Boyle. It continued with letting the defensively great Brian Boyle follow Stralman to Tampa Bay while replacing him with one of the worst players in the NHL in Tanner Glass. The Rangers, also added Lee Stempniak that offseason which should have been a great value signing.
While these moves were infuriating from the front office, there was still hope that Vigneault would pick up where he left off in 2013-14. Young prospect Anthony Duclair made the opening night roster along with big college UFA Kevin Hayes, two young, exciting players that the coaching staff could nurture and develop in sheltered ice time. Except that didn't happen. Girardi and Staal's declines were exposed but kept getting more and more ice time, Tanner Glass, Chris Mueller, and Ryan Malone played over Kevin Hayes and Anthony Duclair until Hayes finally secured that 3rd line center spot and Anthony Duclair was sent back to junior after the World Junior Championships. Systemically, the Rangers appeared to be slower, the breakouts not as crisp and the stretch passes kept hitting opposing sticks as carry ins became rarer and rarer. Vigneault had begun to pull on the reigns, preferring a safer style of play to limit mistakes instead of using the speed and creativity of his forward corps to create offense by taking risks.
The 2014-15 regular season ended with a President's Trophy as the team that picked up the most points. The postseason saw similar success, this time though the Rangers ended the second season on home ice with a 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final. While the Rangers faltered in their plan to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, there was still a feeling of hope that young forwards J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes would get even more elevated roles, Tanner Glass would be relegated to the press box, and new comer Keith Yandle would get a featured role on the blue line both at even strength and on the power play.
We are fools to hope. Keith Yandle barely gets top 4 ice time and barely sees the power play, Kevin Hayes is bafflingly thrown under the bus by the coaching staff and media while Tanner Glass is untouchable and the Wonder Twins cement themselves as two of the worst defensemen in hockey. All of the hope built up by that 2013-14 season is gone, there are no illusions about Alain Vigneault, he's lost the plot and the offense along with a front office that is almost stubborn in its refusal to adapt to the times and embrace the use of statistical analysis in it's decision making process.
A future and present that was once so bright and full of hope now feels like a far distant memory as the Rangers stare into the abyss of a salary cap hell of their own making and no indication that they've learned any lessons from the last three seasons.
Where do the Rangers go from here?
I really wish I knew, because it certainly appears that the Rangers themselves do not know.