Alain Vigneault had to have felt the heat. After the Rangers were embarrassed in their regular season finale in Philadelphia, Vigneault went on an alleged unsolicited post-game speech about how good of a job the coaching staff had done for the team, and how it was one of the organization’s strongest assets moving forward.
Fitting that would be the final thing he had to say to the public as the man behind the Rangers’ bench, because in the five years he spent on Broadway he never did end up finding a single thing to blame himself for.
Jeff Gorton didn’t even wait until the day was finished, handing Vigneault his walking papers around 11 p.m. Saturday night. The coach won’t be at breakup day. He won’t be involved in the process leading up to the draft. He won’t be involved with any free agency decisions. He’s gone, and he was booted out as soon as he realistically could have been.
That, to me, speaks volumes about this situation. Gorton gave Vigneault no vote of confidence as the Rangers sold off two months ago, but said the team would evaluate him at the end of the year. That evaluation lasted six hours, because in truth Gorton had already made his decision: The Rangers considered this a lost year anyway, and there was no point in bringing a new voice behind the bench when there was a chance they were going to blow it up mid-year anyway.
In other words: Welcome to Jeff Gorton’s team. Officially this time. No more fingerprints of Glen Sather, his team, his way. It’s hard to imagine Sather making a call like this, especially with Vigneault’s history.
I need to say this close to the top: Vigneault presided over two of the most exciting years of Rangers hockey since the 90’s, and for that you should be thankful. He will more than likely get hired this summer, and if he goes to the right team I guarantee you he will do well. On a team laced with veterans, with few kids trying to bud up through the topsoil, and leadership already entrenched in the locker room, Vigneault is your guy. But when the veterans start turning over, and the kids start making a case for bigger roles, or the players that he likes don’t fit his system and it needs a tweak? He becomes a disaster behind the bench. Sometimes that turnover happens in a single summer; just look at Vigneault’s body of work in 2014 and 2015, and then 2016 until last night.
Some of the bigger issues were the exact same things that got him fired in Vancouver. Look at this Vancouver Sun article from FIVE YEARS AGO. You can read through that story and see all the similarities to the Rangers you know (complacent teams, playoff failures, etc) but the below is the biggest red flag:
Inconsistent Player Development
During his time here, Vigneault displayed an inability to consistently nurture young talent. In the salary cap constrained world, getting contributions from young players with small salaries is paramount.
To his credit, Vigneault developed the likes of Ryan Kesler, Jannik Hansen and Chris Tanev. But more strikingly, players like Cody Hodgson and Zack Kassian could never find their way out of his doghouse. The rift with Hodgson, in fact, began when Coach Vigneault accused the rookie of faking what turned out to be a serious back injury.
Clearly, young players who were committed to defense first (like Tanev and Hansen) would be in the good books of Vigneault, while those with creative offensive instincts (Hodgson and Kassian) would be forever shackled. At yesterday’s press conference, Gillis acknowledged the importance of getting contributions from younger players going forward, a passive indictment of Vigneault’s record in that regard.
There are a ton of names we can go with for this point, but Pavel Buchnevich, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Anthony DeAngelo are the biggest. (You could throw Filip Chytil in here, too, I guess). Players who were offense-first, who made mistakes in the name of trying to find offense, were often found without a real role or very harsh punishments. Even Saturday, with Buchnevich sitting fourth on the team in points, he was a fourth line player, as he has been the past few weeks. Hayes scored 25 goals despite being forced to play a two-way game that he’s clearly not suited for. Miller is thriving in Tampa with elite linemates, sure, but he’s also getting a first line role night in a night out. Brady Skjei sat in critical moments for the 2017 playoffs despite being one of the team’s best playoff performers (with Brendan Smith) because he wasn’t a veteran. He played players like Tanner Glass over Buchnevich and Hayes in separate playoff years because he trusted him despite all the evidence that he wasn’t working.
And there’s the second problem: Vigneault never knew how to look at himself and realize the things he wanted to work weren’t actually working. That same year Skjei was sitting for critical moments in the playoffs the pairing of Nick Holden and Marc Staal was on the ice late for three blown playoff games with less than five minutes left. He kept putting them out there, including in overtimes and other critical moments. In said games Vigneault “lost” Skjei-Smith who were clearly his best pairing. The press never pressed why or asked what that meant.
Vigneault preferred veterans he could “trust,” even when the generally accepted advanced statistics told him otherwise. He often pointed to the team’s “sophisticated stat package” on the very rare occasion he was questioned on this crazy decisions, but no one even knew what that was or what it consisted of. Earlier this year he went on a strange rant about how some veterans have “money in the bank” that rookies and kids hadn’t earned yet, although he never gave the kids much of a chance to earn that time.
This falls into the third problem: Vigneault never knew how to adjust when things weren’t working. His system was perfect for that 2014 team, less so for the 2015 group, and from there things spiraled out of control. When the ship was sinking Vigneault went back to tried and failed methods that didn’t work a few days or weeks ago. When Vigneault did move toward logic, it often lasted until the next loss. Rules about “never change a lineup after a win” were broken for players he valued over players who were actually valuable. Players who were held accountable to benchings and scratches for turnovers and mistakes watched veterans make similar and worse mistakes without punishments. The room held no accountability for the players, and since Vigneault held himself above everyone there was no accountability at all.
That, above all, was the most frustrating. For the past two years Vigneault has had no problem throwing younger players under the bus, and even went after Henrik Lundqvist repeatedly. In the five years he spent as head coach of the Rangers, I can’t recall a single instance where he blamed himself. For anything.
The media played a role in his seemingly endless stay of execution, as well. They loved dealing with his politeness and professionalism over John Tortorella’s eye rolls and yelling at questions. The same people who tore Tortorella apart in the papers never seemed to find a reason to go after the new coach. They defended him even up to yesterday, threw softball questions, and never seemed to question the bigger issues that reared their ugly heads throughout the years. Vigneault never answered for his failures in the room, or in the papers.
Well, until Saturday.
Vigneault must have known the end was coming. The past three months have been filled with odd quotes and comments about how good of a job he was doing. Standing in front of the media after Saturday’s loss and not finding a single issue with the job he did was laughable. As the Rangers move forward with a new team, tons of kids, and even more changes, having someone behind the bench who thinks he knows better than everyone else even as the ship is sinking didn’t make sense. So they got rid of him, before he could do any more damage.
They need a new voice, and they need one that isn’t part of the old boys club the Rangers have tried for years. We’ll have a longer story on potential options moving forward, but this was the right move to make, if not a year or two too late.
Vigneault never found a single reason to blame himself.
So Jeff Gorton had to do it for him.