Normally this is a run of the mill event for most teams, but in New York it’s something more, for a few reasons.
The first is that, well, it’s the first real hockey of the year. Like, real NHL hockey. The Rangers are playing tonight! Preseason or not, it’s exciting. I slept with the window open last night and when I woke up this morning it was freezing in the room. Leaves are on the ground. It’s crisp. It’s cool. It’s hockey.
The second reason is because the Rangers have way too many players for way too few spots. Not one or two players fighting for a final spot, but six or seven players fighting for somewhere between one or five spots.
See, that’s kind of my point: With Alain Vigneault you know almost nothing.
When John Tortorella was in town the media didn’t like him all that much. He was rugged, brash, rude and sometimes a huge ass. It just was what it was. Tortorella was famous -- and still is — for shutting down press conferences quickly, telling reporters not to coach (that advice was actually sound) or even telling someone their question was stupid to their face. He exploded occasionally, yelled often and protected his players no matter what. To a fault.
Tortorella was a master manipulator when it came to the media, only he took a different approach as to how to do it. He made them mad at him to pull the focus away from his team. When the Rangers would struggle during the playoffs, it was a brilliant strategy that released the pressure in the room. National columns were penned about Tortorella’s attitude rather than the failures of the team. Even when Tortorella was fired, they never got that his brashness was part of the plan all along.
What’s funny is Vigneault is exactly the same, only he catches his flies with honey and not vinegar.
Vigneault patiently responds to almost every question asked to him. He gives long, thought out answers that fill up inches in the column but actually tell you nothing. It’s a skill so brilliant it has to be applauded. Vigneault speaks to the media for hours every single day and manages to say nothing at all.
Where Tortorella was gruff and final, Vigneault is the master manipulator. His coachspeak is unrivaled, and outside of his whole “day to day” thing when it comes to injuries, Vigneault does try to make you think he just gave a thoughtful response when in reality it was nothing.
Once you recognize the game, a new game starts: Which parts of Vigneault’s comments are true and which are decoys?
The key? Well, Vigneault doesn’t always do the things he says. Tanner Glass is a loud, obnoxious example of this. The two have a history dating back to their days in Vancouver, and while Kevin Hayes was scratched for mistakes, Glass’ routine failures were overlooked.
Just the other day Vigneault said the following about Dylan McIlrath:
AV says McIlrath has improved every year defensively, to play regularlyl needs to make real good decisions with the puck in d-zone.— Steve Zipay (@stevezipay) September 23, 2016
See, this is a perfect example of Vigneault’s coachspeak. Why is McIlrath being held to these standards when guys like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal made far more (and even more costly) mistakes game after game and got a free pass? If you’re wondering, that was the comment about McIlrath, while Girardi and Staal have “turned the page” from last year.
The real answer: No matter what Vigneault tells the media, he trusts his vets and does what he wants.
So we look to the ice for our answers. We know Vigneault trusts his veterans because he plays them in the same role constantly — even if they’re drowning right before his eyes.
This year is going to test Vigneault. Who he puts his faith in will tell us a lot about him, but also a lot about whether or not he’s capable of evolving into what he has to become in order to be a successful coach. Not just in New York but anywhere.
It’s hard to take anything from a preseason roster missing a slew of important players thanks to their world cup duties, but his first crack at a lineup was telling. Well, we think it was at least.
Glass and PTO receiver Maxim Lapierre are comfortably buried on the fourth line with Chris Brown. Ahead of them? Well, almost everyone.
With a plethora of forwards -- and most of them talented — at his disposal, Vigneault might not have a choice but to dress a competent lineup. Jimmy Vesey was probably guaranteed a spot before the year began, but his Traverse City performance all but cemented a role. Pavel Buchnevich will secure his spot on talent alone, but a KHL out clause (he gets to return to the KHL if he is sent to the AHL) protects him from early season struggles.
Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller (so long as he’s not traded), Chris Kreider, Buchnevich and Vesey make up the top-nine wings. Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes make up the top nine centers.
That leaves the fourth line up for grabs. Good news: Vigneault said he wants the fourth line to be a PK/defensive specialist unit. Bad news: This isn’t any different from how Vigneault felt last year, and he had Glass play there almost every night and tried a failed Daniel Paille experiment for good measure. The lesson: You can’t trust what you hear from Vigneault until you actually see it on the ice.
Which is a long way of saying: Seeing Glass and Lapierre on the fourth line in the first preseason game is encouraging. They’re playing behind kids who are talented but won’t make the team this year (Robin Kovacs and Malte Stromwall) and also behind guys fighting with them for that fourth line role (Josh Jooris, Brandon Pirri and Nicklas Jensen). Oh, and this talent pool is even more diluted because World Cup players were given extra days off to rest and recover.
There’s a longer story coming on Pirri and what role he can play for this team, but in my perfect lineup for the Rangers he’s the extra forward. I just can’t pass up the idea of a Jesper Fast - Oscar Lindberg - Michael Grabner fourth line. It’s almost as exciting as the idea of Kreider - Zibanejad - Buchnevich.
Maybe this is a sign of things to come: that Vigneault has learned his lesson and that he’s going to start building smarter rosters.
Or it’s the first preseason game and you know nothing, Jon Snow.
I guess we’ll see soon enough.