The New York Rangers offseason has included a number of drastic changes – including the trade of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes, having two draft picks in the first round (their first top-round pick since 2012), extending Brendan Smith and Jesper Fast and signing highly sought after free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. In the midst of that, it was announced that Jeff Beukeboom would not be returning as an assistant coach and it was reported that Lindy Ruff would be replacing him on the bench. Monday, the Rangers made it official:
Before considering who Beukeboom’s replacement is, it is more important to look at the handling of the defense and the perception surrounding how it was deployed.
While Beukeboom may not have strengthened the Rangers’ blue line as it was hoped, it is certainly a stretch to place the blame solely on him after only one season behind the bench. It is certainly possible that Beukeboom didn’t meet the expectations of management after being promoted from the Hartford Wolf Pack. However, even if that is the case, the deployment of the defense would only be partially his fault.
Ultimately the blame should be primarily on head coach Alain Vigneault because he is the one who has the final say and decides who does and doesn’t jump over the boards. Even further, if Beukeboom was deploying the defense in a counterproductive fashion, it is Vigneault’s job to step in and course correct. The Rangers’ issues on defense have been noticeable for the past two seasons, so it was not a case where it became a problem under his watch – that gives more credence to the belief that Vigneault is more culpable than Beukeboom.
After Ulf Samuelsson left the Rangers to take over as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate the Charlotte Checkers, Beukeboom was promoted from the Hartford Wolf Pack where he was influential in the development of Brady Skjei and Dylan Mcllrath. Although he was promoted to take Samuelsson’s job it was unclear how much influence he had on Vigneault’s decisions and how his tactics differed from Samuelsson.
Despite the coaching change, the defense still struggled and much of that was because of Vigneault’s decisions. By singling out Beukeboom this offseason on the coaching staff – when the blame could easily be shifted elsewhere on the coaches bench to Vigneault, or even to Scott Arniel who has been ineffective with the power play throughout his time in New York – the impression is that the Rangers felt Beukeboom contributed to these issues enough to merit a change. The fact of the matter is that the Rangers did not have the strongest personnel on their blue line and both Beukeboom and Vigneault contributed to the defensive woes.
Moving forward, Lindy Ruff will be behind the bench in New York. Ruff has a plethora of coaching experience, as he’s served as an NHL coach for the last 19 years (Buffalo Sabres 1997-98 to 2012-13; Dallas Stars 2013-14 to 2016-17).
General manager Jim Nill decided to part ways with Ruff after four seasons when his contract in Dallas expired. While Ruff had some highlights there, including a first place finish in the Western Conference in 2015-16, last season was extremely disappointing for the Stars.
Ruff was not entirely to blame for the Stars’ disappointing season, as he lost two key defensemen (Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers), he had an unfavorable goaltending tandem (Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen), and a roster that was devastated by injury. Despite this, he was responsible for a number of his decisions that proved costly –including his expanded usage of Esa Lindell and Cody Eakin in crucial roles, a dreadful penalty kill and overall strategy of prioritizing defense. Even with all of the injuries, the Stars dealt with last season in mind, to hire a coach to direct the defense and penalty kill in New York, after having such dismal results in Dallas last year is risky.
Far too often a coach’s experience and reputation outweigh their results. As for Ruff, while he may be a dependable coach in the minds of hockey minds who know the game, his latest track record is concerning. Plus, he is another traditional mind that likely supports some of the same strategies that were detrimental last season, including their insistence on over-using their “traditional” defensemen.
One aspect of Ruff’s coaching that may make this hire worthwhile for the Rangers is his willingness to utilize young players. Brady Skjei already has proven how talented he is, but his development will be crucial for the Rangers’ future. Twenty-one-year-old Anthony DeAngelo requires development to refine his talents as well. Plus, there are young defensemen in the system (Alexei Bereglazov, Sean Day, Neal Pionk, and Ryan Graves) that may push to make the team.
Those young players may have previously struggled to crack the lineup under Vigneault, but with Ruff they may have more of an opportunity to prove themselves.
The hiring Ruff, the buyout of Girardi, Smith’s extension, and Shattenkirk’s signing are concrete examples of Gorton acknowledging the team’s flaws and actively looking to remedy them – even if Ruff was not the best option to fill this role. And, despite him stressing that Ruff was not hired to be Vigneault’s replacement, no coach is safe in the ever-changing NHL, especially when a potential replacement that was originally considered for the job is on the bench; potentially putting pressure on Vigneault to expand his thinking and coaching tactics.
As much as hiring a new defensive coach signifies a change, the ultimate decision still belongs to Vigneault, so the philosophy may not particularly change – which is why it is unclear how much weight should be put into this hiring. Regardless, the defense improving seems inevitable due to Gorton’s offseason transactions.