At some point you have to reasonably ask the question.
I’m not talking about the “has he lost the room” nonsense that follows all coaches, of every major sport, around when teams struggle. I’m talking about an honest, logical variation of that question.
Has Alain Vigneault’s message gone stale?
When the New York Rangers parted ways with John Tortorella the writing on the wall had been visible for months. The players were doing the same thing they had been doing the year before, and year before that. Tortorella forced his players play a slow, grinding game that relied on blocked shots and a defense-before-anything system that suffocated offensive output. He ran his top players into the ground game after game — famously playing Stu Bickel for less than four minutes in a triple overtime win against Washington in the playoffs -- and kept Henrik Lundqvist’s games played total in the 70+ range. He threw guys under the bus to the media. He played favorites. He nearly ran top prospects out of town for no good reason — Chris Kreider used to skate during commercial breaks in games because he played so little in the games he didn’t want to be stiff and hurt himself. He did some really good things for the team, but eventually wore out his welcome. Just like he did in Tampa Bay.
At the time of his firing, Glen Sather (and ultimately James Dolan) followed a traditional rule when it comes to coaching changes: Pull a 180. Was the previous coach a player’s guy who let the guys take control of the room? Then bring in a fire-breathing taskmaster who would kick the doors in and burn the place to the ground. Oh, the fire-breathing taskmaster went too far and alienated his locker room? Bring in a player friendly guy who can connect to them in a different way and do things differently. The strategies may change, but the basics are there.
Vigneault — especially at the time of his hiring — was an enormous breath of fresh air in comparison. He was a player’s coach, who put “fresh slate” on the pre-camp shirts; all the while preaching that players were put on an equal footing once again. Without any control of the personnel put in front of him, his first year was everything anyone could have dreamed of. The Rangers made a surprise run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, and were quite unlucky to not have thrown a parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
That success helped mitigate a lot of Vigneault’s following failures, and also provided the foundation of the shield that currently protects him from the abnormally rabid media in New York. The 2015 Eastern Conference Final loss was the beginning of the end, really. It was the start of him getting away with crucial errors in terms of decision marking that was largely ignored by the media. It got worse as time went on. Dan Girardi as a top defenseman. Tanner Glass as a shutdown forward. Major assets received in trades being underused and lost for nothing. Younger players being forced into roles not meant for them, then losing playing time because of it. Playing favorites. Calling specific players out to the media but not others. It felt so ... so ... John Tortorella, didn’t it? Well, doesn’t it?
This start to the year has been a surprise to everyone. There were real expectations the Rangers would be a different team this year. No Girardi. No Glass. Young kids who seemed poised to make the lineup. No more toys to play with while better options sat on the bench or in the press box and rotted away. Or so we thought. Vigneault, as we have learned, always finds a way.
The 1-5-1 start feels like a kick to the teeth in many ways. Vigneault is back to his old tricks. Don’t believe me? Look no further than him sitting Brendan Smith and Tony DeAngelo for Steven Kampfer and Nick Holden (TWICE). How about him playing Pavel Buchnevich on the fourth line with less than 5 minutes of even strength ice time a night? What about this whole 11 forwards seven defenseman stuff? Did we talk about him frantically adjusting lines to the point where there’s no chemistry yet? Or Filip Chytil getting two games and just 12 minutes combined to prove himself before being thrown back to the minors. Kevin Shattenkirk getting the fifth lowest 5v5 ice time among defenseman in a loss. Any of this sound familiar?
It should. You’ve seen this movie before. The Rangers beats, with the exception of Larry Brooks, continue to spin the same stories. Most defend Vigneault openly against any criticism. Others ask questions about J.T. Miller’s faceoff percentage rather than asking where Buchnevich’s ice time was. Rinse lather repeat.
What’s not familiar is the national media taking notice. The below is from the always fantastic Elliotte Friedman in his 30 Thoughts column.
Watching the Rangers’ last two games, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alain Vigneault look so stressed. Until their young prospects — Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil — are ready, they’ll be thin at centre. And in the Metropolitan division, it’s very hard to win like that as Pittsburgh proved on Tuesday night.
For Vigneault to be feeling the pressure says a lot. On the podcast last night (which you should be listening to weekly!) Mike mentioned that every time he sees Vigneault when the TV cameras cut to him he’s never ... well ... coaching. He’s not speaking. He may as well be a statue behind the bench — gum chewing aside. Lindy Ruff? Yapping. Tapping shoulders. Talking. Scott Arniel? Same thing. Vigneault? Nothing.
Does that mean much? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t ever really remember Vigneault being all that active behind the bench. But it’s pretty clear the past two years have begun wearing down his cool, calm exterior. He’s gotten petty with players in the media. This year, Friedman (who isn’t even a Rangers reporter) notes that he’s never seen him so stressed. He vomited (or maybe had a coughing attack, you be the judge) behind the bench during the Rangers’ loss to Pittsburgh.
Things aren’t normal right now on Broadway. The Rangers are struggling to the point of potentially falling out of a playoff spot for real. (Sidenote: Friedman did the math. Teams who are more than three points out of a spot by the end of October historically don’t make the playoffs thanks to the plethora of loser points making it harder to make up ground.) Vigneault continues to do the same thing.
Does this team look all that different from the team that got blown out in Pittsburgh two years ago? In terms of the players it’s a resounding yes. But the struggles? The personnel decisions? That’s all the same.
That leaves a common denominator. And it’s Vigneault. Like it or not, this team looks awfully similar to what we’ve seen in the past.
Maybe his message has gone stale. And if it has, it’s Jeff Gorton’s job to freshen things up before it’s too late.