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Rangers demise started at the top

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NHL: New York Rangers at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when small progress was good enough.

There was a time when going from a first round exit to a second round one was considered a success. There was a time when Henrik Lundqvist wasn't getting older, when change actually happened, when the organization seemed poised for imminent greatness, and when there was anticipation for an offseason to fix what needed fixing in order to move on.

Those days are long gone.

The New York Rangers lay dead in a grave dug by their own hand. Each mistake the team made sunk the shovel into the earth. The mistakes we saw three years ago, two years ago, and this year ... all of them blend together today.

That this has become a pattern is a serious problem. Of course, it once again circles back to the coach. But before we get to him, let's get the easy stuff out of the way.

J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes combined for zero goals and six points (both had three assists). Chris Kreider had just three goals and four points. Derek Stepan was relatively invisible on the offensive side of the puck. The pillars of the Rangers offense fell silent in these playoffs, and there's no way around it.

We should be criticizing them for it.

And yet, the Rangers should have won this series anyway. Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg combined with Michael Grabner to give the Rangers the scoring depth that successful playoff teams so desperately need. Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello were monsters. Mika Zibanejad was starting to find his game. Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith were coming into their own as a promising pair. It looked like all the pieces were there to do something special despite the team’s flaws.

The stars were aligning, or at least it felt like they were after the Montreal series. There was real hope for this group.

But two blown leads late (not including the Montreal series) doomed the Rangers. Scratch that. Not learning their lessons doomed them.

There are a lot of people (mostly in the media) that refuse to toss any blame on the Blueshirts coach. More than likely, it's because they need to share a room with him and they refuse to poke and prod. Maybe they don’t want to be snapped at. Maybe they like him a lot and they don't want to be mean. These things weren’t an issue when it came to John Tortorella, but that's a different discussion.

It was Alain Vigneault who "lost" Smith and Skjei in the final five minutes on both of those two blown leads (and in the Montreal implosion). The coach who elected to remove a rookie with a sky high ceiling for Tanner Glass (who was all over the map in the postseason). The coach who benched two players in a double overtime game. Including one who scored two goals the next game when he actually, you know, played. The coach who continued to toss out big minutes to Nick Holden and Marc Staal (especially late in games) despite clear signs that the pair wasn’t up to the task.

The coach who doesn't learn lessons.

The coach who doesn't adapt.

Who has continued to lean on veterans over kids in his entire career even when it's clear it’s not working.

The coach who is doing the same things in New York that he did in Vancouver before getting canned.

A coach who has had two elite, in-their-prime goalies in Vancouver and New York. Goalies who have helped make him look far more succesful and adept than he deserves to be.

The Rangers should have never lost to Ottawa. Never. Some of their big guns were silent too, but down the stretch their coach played his best players as much as he could - while the Rangers leaned on experience, grit, and veteran know-how.

It didn’t work. And now we’re here.

The axe has to fall somewhere and for me it's target should be the coach. It would be (a little) different if the entire defense fell apart. Vigneault can be blamed for some things, but not for the tools in his toolbox. If his tools had failed him, I’d be more understanding.

But that's not what happened. Dan Girardi was solid. Skjei and Smith played like a top pair. The power play was stagnant. Guys who did really good things were seldom rewarded for it with bigger roles. He sat quality players for veterans who didn't perform.

No, I'm sorry, this one is on him. Again. These stories are becoming evergreen.

Vigneault’s extension looks worse now than it did when it happened (and it looked bad when it happened). The Rangers extended a vote of confidence to a guy who routinely turns a blind eye to convention and novel ideas in favor of his own set of rules. The media’s silence has shielded him from a lot of the criticism here, but let’s be clear: he’s the real issue.

Jeff Gorton no longer gets any free passes either. He allowed Glass back in, he allowed Smith to be used like a third pairing guy, he let Keith Yandle (who would have been an immense help) walk without talking to him after HE was used as a third pairing guy, doubled down on this defense, and he "gave input" on bad decisions that helped sink the team.

It's not Vigneault's fault the veterans underachieved, but it is his fault for how they were used. And it is his fault for not getting the most out of this group. When the Rangers are successful, Vigneault deserves praise. When they come up short like this, he deserves the blame.

Gorton's next big test begins now. To not win a Stanley Cup with Henrik Lundqvist would be an unforgettable and unforgivable debacle.

It's time to make the tough choices, and if that means removing the coach who can't make those calls then so be it. There are good options out there right now, but the clock is ticking.

The Rangers are running out of time.