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Jeff Gorton Is Leaving Vigneault (And The Rangers) In No Man’s Land

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Rangers - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Even the MSG producers were getting in on the action.

As the New York Rangers rode the roller coaster that was their up-and-down win against the Las Vegas Golden nights — less than 48 hours after rumors surfaced that if the Rangers lost the coach would be handed his pink slip -- MSG cameras panned to Alain Vigneault after every memorable moment.

When Vegas went up 4-2 they showed him looking at the ground and rubbing his nose. Between the second and third period when the Rangers looked dead in the water, they showed him making a sad march to the locker room. We all saw the photos and knew what the deal was: Dead man walking.

This started with Larry Brooks — where almost all Rangers news breaks outside of the organization these days — thanks to this column on Vigneault potentially having one more game behind the bench:

There is considerable chatter circulating within the industry that Tuesday night’s match at the Garden against Vegas could determine the fate of coach Alain Vigneault, whose Rangers slipped to 3-7-2 with Saturday night’s 5-4 defeat in Montreal that featured another distressing, no-show first period.

So as the Rangers skated out onto Garden ice to start the third Rangerstown was wondering if these were Vigneault’s final 20 minutes behind the bench. They kept wondering until the Rangers -- somewhat predictably — stormed back in the third period to win the game.

The result put the team in a strange situation. Yes, the win was vital for keeping the Rangers’ playoff hopes above water according to Elliotte Friedman’s tested and proved 3-point line by the end of October, but it also leaves Jeff Gorton, Vigneault, and really everyone in a strange and confusing place. If Vigneault was actually going to be fired if the team lost to the Golden Knights, that performance — despite the win — can’t have done much to save him, could it have? The Rangers did all the things that’s gotten them in trouble to this point, and somehow managed to win the game. Did playing against a literal fourth-string goalie help? Of course it did.

Here’s the real issue, though: If Gorton was willing and able to fire Vigneault if that third period doesn’t happen, then that means they must have gone pretty far down this road already in preparation. It would be unthinkable for them not to have.

Which means that Gorton either has an internal replacement in mind (Scott Arniel is the associate coach, but Lindy Ruff has a significant amount of head coaching experience) or he’s got one outside the organization (which would be the right move). If the latter is the case, then it’s safe to assume Gorton has gone as far as having a handshake agreement in place to make the transition as smooth as possible.

That makes this situation very awkward. Vigneault has to feel the heat at this point; it would be impossible not to. Everyone in the organization, from the players on up, are probably looking at him like a man walking toward his own execution. It’s an almost impossible way to coach; with Vigneault trying to do his job while worrying in the back of his head that his next mistake could cost him his job. It’s ironically exactly what the young kids on the team who have been victims of his poor usage and accountability issues have had to deal with.

As fitting as that might be, it’s no way to coach. It’s also no way to run a team if you’re the general manager. This year can quite simply be turned into a “let’s see how they do, but we’re going to try and reload” by passing off a few valuable assets and preparing for the future. If sold that way, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Guys like Michael Grabner, Nick Holden, and David Desharnais could be valuable trade deadline moves. Someone like Rick Nash could be a very valuable asset to unload. I’d love to have Nash back at a cheaper contract, but if the team is reloading then worry about that over the summer. Moving those four guys should bring back valuable picks and prospects without threatening the foundation of the team. Plus, the Rangers have some decisions to make in terms of upcoming contracts, and it will help give them a better view of what they’re working with. Elliotte Friedman talked about this in his 30 Thoughts column:

The message was clear. The Rangers are ready to re-stock. Now comes the next question: How far will they go? My sense is they are honest about who they are. They’re not interested in the “dreaded middle.” In addition to Andersson and Chytil, they are excited about Russian goalie Igor Shesterkin, just named to that country’s Karjala Cup team. They want more. Picks and prospects, keep them coming.

As much as you think that’s a future conversation, with the state of the Rangers it’s really not. Until we know what this team is trying to be, we’re not sure the direction they’re going to go in. And until we know what’s going on with the coach, we don’t know what they’re trying to be.

If Vigneault is hanging by a thread, then the Rangers need to end this relationship. It’s not fair to Vigneault, and it hurts the team overall. It’s clear the Rangers are looking at potential trades to shake things up, but if you were so sure of firing a coach 24 hours ago, why give him control of yet another roster turnover? Firing Vigneault won’t fix all of the Rangers’ problems, but it will change the dynamic of the room, allow players to be creative, and give young kinds a refreshing freedom to make mistakes and not get punished.

Right now? No one knows what the Rangers are. And Vigneault doesn’t know where he stands, either. That’s no way to expect the team to be successful.

The Rangers are already between worlds in terms of being contenders or reloading. They can’t be between worlds when it comes to their staff.

In my humble opinion, starting over is the best way to go about this. Gorton will have a chance to bring in a coach who aligns more to his values and ideologies, the Rangers can still try to make the playoffs, and they can build toward the future. This year isn’t the worst in the world to throwaway if it gets that far, but sitting outside two restaurants only means you’ll never eat.

Gorton needs to fix this. And to do that he needs to let Vigneault go, for everyone’s sake.