Heading into the season with a revamped defense corps, a new-look 4th line, and a lineup without a true #1 center in the wake of the Derek Stepan trade, Alain Vigneault had the deck stacked against him heading into the 17-18 season. Assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom was replaced with veteran NHL coach Lindy Ruff in an attempt to further improve New York’s shaky blueline group, as well as remind AV that his 2014 trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was a long time ago, and that he could be out of a job quickly if things didn’t go the way Jeff Gorton envisioned. Rumors were flying as early as Halloween that Vigneault was one loss away from landing on the unemployment line, but a comeback victory against the Vegas Golden Knights kick-started a 16-5-1 run that appeared to right the ship and secure Vigneault’s job going forward.
It’s easy to forget that the Rangers signed their former coach to a two year contract extension in January of 2017 that appeared to cement Vigneault’s future in New York. Last season’s inexcusable second round playoff exit at the hands of a bad Ottawa Senators squad likely planted the first seeds of doubt among Rangers’ management, but an uninspiring crop of available coaches likely prevented the team from moving on last May. This year’s unexpected fall out of the playoffs, as well as the crop of “good” (notice the quotation marks) candidates to replace Vigneault, likely gave New York’s decision makers the assurance they needed to move on from the four-time Jack Adams’ Award finalist.
So how much of the Rangers’ struggles throughout the season were directly a result of Alain Vigneault’s decision making? The best way to determine that is by looking at New York’s performance throughout the season, pinpointing what they struggled at that lead to their downfall, and determining whether those issues were player or coach driven.
5-on-5 Adjusted Team Statistics: 45.12 CF% (31st, 30th in CF, 31st in CA) 44.55 GF% (29th, t-23rd in GF, 29th in GA) 47.21 xGF% (24th, 8th in xGF, 31st in xGA) 76.00 K Rating (24th, 9th offensively, 30th defensively)
As we can see, the Rangers were among the dregs of the league in defensive metrics, and they weren’t all that bad offensively. However, saying the Rangers were the worst defensive team in the league doesn’t quite do them justice. Going back to the 09-10 season, which is as far back data is available for, the Blueshirts’ defensive performance is arguably the worst single season defense in league history. The Rangers posted a 55.38 Corsi Against/60 rating, trailing only the 13-14 Maple Leafs and the 14-15 Buffalo Sabres for the worst rating in a single season. As if that wasn’t enough, the team’s 2.67 Expected Goals Against edged out the 10-11 Islanders for the worst single season rating. As has been the case for the previous three seasons, timely scoring and the occasional spurt of brilliance from Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t enough to carry the team to success.
New York’s defense corps was a major question mark heading into the season, but nobody could have predicted that everything that could have gone wrong would go wrong. Offseason acquistion Kevin Shattenkirk was playing on a torn meniscus throughout the season, and was ineffective while trying to play through it for four months until opting for surgery and bringing his season to a close. The Brendan Smith contract was a mistake from the minute the ink dried, and playing him on the right side of the 2nd pair with Brady Skjei was destined to be a failed experiment.
Counting on him to be a capable 3rd pairing defender shouldn’t have been too much too ask. His on ice-results weren’t horrid, and demoting him to Hartford was a questionable-at-best decision, but the organization’s disgust with his offseason training combined with his mediocre play landed Smith in the insurance capital of the world. Regardless of whether or not Shattenkirk and Smith are first and second pairing defenseman respectively, the Rangers planned on them being exactly that. There isn’t a team in the league that could perform well with their top two defenseman on a single side underperforming to the degree that Shattenkirk and Smith did, so pinning the lost season entirely on Alain Vigneault’s shoulders is nonsensical.
While he wasn’t solely responsible for the Rangers’ poor play, Vigneault didn’t exactly help turn it around either. His line combinations throughout the year were curious, and aside from the extended use of the Chis Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Pavel Buchnevich line, (when the three were all healthy, which wasn’t much) the forward lines were generally a mess. Buchnevich was inarguably one of the team’s best forwards this past season, and yet he trailed all of New York’s regular forwards in even strength ice time sans David Desharnais.
Jesper Fast played more at 5 on 5 than Rick Nash, Kreider, and Michael Grabner just to name a few players. Jimmy Vesey averaged less than a single even strength shift per game than Kreider and Nash, and played more than Grabner and Buchnevich. The cavalcade of AHL-caliber skaters featuring Paul Carey, Peter Holland, and Vinni Lettieri (who’s probably deserving of a story at some point, but yeah, he was firmly in the McLeod/Carey/Cracknell tier of garbage) skating in place of Cristoval Nieves was another issue, but its impact pales in comparison to that of the top nine deployment.
On the bright side, Vigneault’s defensive deployment was better than in years past. Marc Staal was sixth among defenseman in even strength time on ice prior to the trade deadline, and late season additions from Hartford further cemented Staal’s spot on the third pair of New York’s depth chart. Ryan McDonagh led the team in ES TOI prior to his exit, followed by Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nick Holden before a sharp drop off between Holden and Brendan Smith.
Without accounting for handedness (which is difficult to do considering Shattenkirk’s injury), the team’s four best defenseman represented the top four in ice time, something the Rangers haven’t had since at least the days of Tom Renny. Seeing McDonagh and Shattenkirk paired together for an extended period would have been preferable, but given New York’s dearth of quality options on the right side, there’s an argument to be made that splitting the duo in the lineup was for the best.
The Pavel Buchnevich saga is most heinous indictment against Alain Vigneault this past season, but he didn’t do anything that a majority of NHL coaches wouldn’t have also done. In spite of being the 2nd and 4th highest paid defenseman, He minimized the ice time of Staal and Smith, which is something we hadn’t seen in years past. None of the decisions Vigneault made were outlandish by NHL coaching standards, so penalizing him for doing things that whoever replaces him will eventually do is nonsensical.
Final Grade: C-
If there was ever a sensible time to fire Alain Vigneault, it was after last spring’s embarrassing playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators. The 16-17 Rangers essentially had a bye into the Conference Finals, and two blown third period leads ended their season early. This year, the Rangers were doomed to fail through minimal fault of Vigneault. He didn’t trade away his top line center, and he didn’t assemble a defense corps that was one injury away from the worst in the league. He loses points for his group being among the all-time worst post-lockout squads, but there was only so much he could do. His firing will usher in a new era of Rangers’ hockey, but how much better or worse that era will turn out to be is up in the air.
2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal / Mats Zuccarello / Ryan Spooner / Rob O’Gara / Jimmy Vesey / Brendan Smith / Vladislav Namestnikov / Brady Skjei / Steven Kampfer / Jesper Fast / Alexandar Georgiev / Pavel Buchnevich/ Ondrej Pavelec / Kevin Hayes