As familiar as they might be, these crazy, unhinged lineup decisions by Alain Vigneault throughout his tenure in New York still don’t make any sense.
The latest came on Tuesday, as the newly extended Brendan Smith was scratched for a second straight game for “he can be better” reasons. Vigneault also sat Tony DeAngelo, to instead utilize a Steven Kampfer - Nick Holden third pair – a third pair that got absolutely shelled relative to a team that overall was shelled by the Canadiens during Sunday’s win. As if Sunday’s display wasn't convincing enough, they were again victims of poor turnovers and defense against St. Louis.
*blink blink* What?
The sad thing is, as confusing as this may be, it’s nothing new.
Let me take you back to the year 2015, when the Rangers dished out their top prospect at the time (Anthony Duclair), a first-round pick, and John Moore for Keith Yandle. Not only did the Rangers make a huge win-now move with assets they didn’t have to spare, they did it to fix major problems the team had in order to get to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row. Clearly that acquisition was a Glen Sather desire, though, because Vigneault played Yandle on the third pair, in a third pair role, and gave him less power play time than he’d ever seen in his career. It was further proof that the general manager and the coach weren’t on the same page.
I could go on and on with other examples of this. We saw similar situations with Emerson Etem (Jayson Megan got more PP time in his first game as a callup than Etem did combined in all his games, even though he was the only NHL asset back for Carl Hagelin), Duclair (sat for Glass), Pavel Buchnevich (ditto), Kevin Hayes (ditto again), and the list goes on and on and on. Adam Clendening and Dylan McIlrath saw the same thing, only at expense of Dan Girardi. And again, this has nothing to do with the players themselves, so much as the fact that they were clearly better options than who played and still sat.
This current situation, like the Yandle one, is far more alarming. Sitting Smith for a second straight game for the likes of Holden and Kampfer should be raising every single red flag possible. Vigneault’s cryptic “we’re trying to win games” reasoning is just as worrisome. There’s no way the head coach truly believes these moves are win now, right? There’s no way he can objectively believe sitting Smith for two straight games is the right thing to do, right? He has to realize that despite the Rangers winning the game against Montreal, the pairing he’s throwing back out there again was the worst of the bunch, right?
I have been a big fan of what Gorton has done in his time in New York. Outside of the Eric Staal trade (which I’m still not sure wasn’t pushed by Glen Sather), he’s made smart and savvy moves to help make the team better. This includes emotionally difficult, but clearly needed ones (re: The Girardi buyout). But guess what? This is his problem now too.
Gorton just watched his head coach take a prospect, who the team was incredibly high on, and give him 12 minutes through two games combined without any crunch time minutes. Spare me the “he’s clearly not ready” or “he looked bad in the five minutes he got” nonsense – that’s not the point. Of course he’s not going to look great right away. You know who looked great right away at 18? Connor McDavid. Chytil isn’t McDavid (no one is), so you deal with the lumps and you give the kid a true chance to fail. If he does fail, then he knows exactly what he needs to work on; that’s the whole point. You throw him into the fire for 9 games and if you don’t like what you see, at least he knows he isn’t good enough and why.
Right now I’m sure he just feels bad about himself. Sending him to Hartford was ultimately the right move, but it would have been better if he had gone a week from now with a few real games under his belt. Still, good for the kid for convincing Gorton that he wanted to be an NHL player this year.
Most people looked at this take (when I said similar things on social media) and laughed that it was an overreaction. In a vacuum it might be, but in the big picture this happens over and over again. Dying by a thousand paper cuts is still death. Period.
DeAngelo’s existence will push a lot of Vigneault’s hot buttons, as well. He’s weak in his own zone as things currently stand, he can be a hothead, and he’s prone to the occasional boneheaded play. He’s also ridiculously talented and could be a very special player for the Rangers if allowed to spread his wings and grow. These are often the perfect ingredients for a long-term benching for inferior players (see: Buchnevich, Pavel for the most recent example) and the player to not have a clear role. It both hurts development and confidence and makes the team worse as a whole.
You never want to make full decisions based off this, but he is the only NHL asset the Rangers got back for Derek Stepan. He’s a player that, if developed properly, has the skillset to turn into an elite puck moving defenseman in this league. He’s 21-years-old, and that’s something to make decisions based on. You need to treat his potential like a match in a windstorm. Yeah, you might have to coddle him, but the results far outweigh the risks of having him figure it out on the fly.
Yet again, here’s an example of the head coach and general manager not being on the same page. Gorton loved DeAngelo enough to ship out his number one center and his backup goalie for him, while Vigneault doesn’t think enough of him to play him in the third or fourth games of the regular season. How is that not setting off alarms within the organization?
Gorton didn’t just put the Rangers’ lineup together this summer on his own. You’d have to assume he and Vigneault sat down and had a conversation about it. They brought Smith back on a four-year deal, traded for DeAngelo, got rid of Stepan and didn’t replace him. That final part means Chytil was, at the very least, part of the late-stage plans to take over at center – plans that lasted all of one period. So why is there so much confusion here?
If Smith’s first healthy scratch was the result of Vigneault suddenly gaining awareness that veteran accountability is important, this would be different. That clearly isn’t the case, though, since if it were, Smith and DeAngelo would be back in for Kampfer and Holden the next game. And if Vigneault hasn’t changed, then why does Smith get two games worth of leash when players like Girardi and Glass got literally three years?
Favoritism. Plain and simple.
Vigneault’s trend of playing favorites cost the Rangers their second round series against the Senators last year in what was a golden road to the Stanley Cup Final. If you’re the general manager and you see your head coach slowly putting his hand on the hot burner for the fourth year in a row, shouldn’t that raise eyebrows? If we’re doing the same things today that led to the Rangers demise in the second round last year, the first round the year before that, and the Eastern Conference Final three years ago, aren’t we, you know, not adapting?
Shouldn’t that be a warning sign that it’s time to put pressure on him to change his ways or otherwise move on? You could make the argument that a coach gets a clean slate every year if you really want to, but there’s no world where that even approaches a stance of logic.
I’m not even saying Lindy Ruff (who does seem to be the easy replacement) would be a good idea. But Gorton gave Vigneault a vote of confidence last year by extending him for another two seasons, and we’ve seen nothing get better on the back end.
Simply put, the head coach’s issues are now on the general manager’s plate. Gorton gets a free pass for a lot of what’s happened the past few years, and his work to upgrade this lineup should be commended, but if those players aren’t playing he needs to step in. There’s no reason to assume the two aren’t at least in constant discussions about the team and the lineup. Gorton’s probably not forcing his way into decisions, but isn’t surprised when he sees the opening lineup either.
The time for him to step in might be now, because Vigneault’s consistent issues have become his problem too.