This offseason, there have been a number of changes behind the New York Rangers bench. Head coach Alain Vigneault was relieved of his duties after a disappointing 2017-18 season, as was associate coach Scott Arniel. The future isn’t clear for assistant coach Lindy Ruff, who wasn’t fired after this past season; he’s in consideration to assist on David Quinn’s staff this season. Benoit Allaire, the Rangers’ goaltending coach, is the only assistant with a definite future in New York.
Behind the bench, Arniel was a mainstay of the Rangers’ coaching staff throughout Vigneault’s tenure. He was responsible for leading the team’s forwards and power play.
Line combinations were a point of contention throughout this season. Frequent shuffling, as well as questionable usage and deployment were problematic throughout the season. Bottom-six players were played higher in the lineup, while some more skilled options were buried in the lineup, and weren’t put in the position to thrive.
The Rangers’ defense was clearly their biggest flaw this season, but how they generated offense shouldn’t be overlooked. At 5-on-5, they took a league-low 45.9 percent of the shot share; their defensive play is reflective in that, but so is their play on the other side of the ice. The Rangers generated offense at the fourth-lowest rate in the league, of 53.09 shot attempts per 60. Based on the quality of the chances the Rangers created though, they were expected to score 2.5 goals per 60, which ranked eighth in the league.
As much as they generated chances, it wasn’t sustained offense which became a problem as the season progressed. The system that was an issue in itself was Vigneault’s, Arniel was just tasked with assisting in it’s execution and helping devise the line combinations.
Arniel also coached the power play, which has not an area of strength for the Rangers in recent seasons. Last year, it operated at 20.2 percent efficiency, which was a step forward from the 18.6 percent in 2015-16 and 16.8 percent in 2014-15. This year, it again increased slightly to 21.2 percent, which ranked 14th in the league. Their underlying numbers weren’t far off from that ranking either; their shot generation was 13th and expected goals for was 15th.
The personnel, particularly of the first unit, may have elevated that. The problem though, was that even when the Rangers had power play success early in the season, changes were made that lessened its efficiency – from changing player positions on each unit (like Mika Zibanejad after having success early on up to the goal line, which was shifted back soon after), to making personnel changes between the units that rendered both less effective, and overall personnel choices of who played on the man advantage (such as giving David Desharnais power play time over Kevin Hayes through much of the season).
Under Vigneault, three assistants were tasked with managing the defense and penalty kill. The latest, was Ruff who joined last offseason when Jeff Beukeboom was re-assigned elsewhere in the organization.
Defense has been a weakness for the Rangers in recent seasons, and much of that was due to Vigneault’s system. However, this year’s collapse was far worse than seasons past. The Rangers conceded a league-high 62.58 shot attempts against per 60 at 5-on-5, and the most quality chances that subsequently meant they were expected to be scored on the most (2.8 expected goals against per 60).
At first, there wasn’t much consistency in the defensive pairings, so the the Rangers defensemen failed to develop chemistry. Soon after, the issue was that pairs became too stagnant and changes weren’t made. Problems with the personnel included Kevin Shattenkirk’s usage and his brief opportunity on the first pair with Ryan McDonagh, Nick Holden’s place on the first pair in the toughest minutes, McDonagh’s workload, Brendan Smith’s overall disappointing season, Brady Skjei’s regression, and more.
The defense was an outright failure in almost every way, from how they were used and deployed, to the systems, and most notably this season, the execution. And unfortunately for the Rangers, Ruff didn’t have the answers.
It wasn’t Ruff’s system though, it was Vigneault’s, and two assistant coaches before him couldn’t make it work either. Ruff did employ a similar system in Dallas though, so he was more than familiar with it and should have found ways to improve it. But despite his familiarity with the system, the Rangers completely failed to execute it – and much of that onus falls on the veteran assistant coach because he didn’t make adjustments to remedy that, so they continued to struggle and fall down the standings.
As for the penalty kill, it technically improved under Ruff from the 19th ranked 79.8 percent efficiency it was operating at last season. This season, it operated at 81.4 percent, which ranked ninth in the league. In terms of shot attempts against, the rate of 97.04 per 60 they allowed against ranked eighth in the league. However, 7.85 goals per 60 were expected to be scored against New York (20th in league) because of the quality chances allowed; goals were actually scored at a rate of 6.6 per 60 against — showing how influential goaltending was to that success.
Allaire, the Rangers’ goaltending coach, has been with the organization since 2005. He’s credited with helping Henrik Lundqvist reach and maintain his greatness throughout his career, and in recent seasons, helping transform the play of backups Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta to help them develop into starting goaltenders.
This season, he had a few different challenges with the Rangers’ organization. Allaire continued his work with Lundqvist in the starting role to help him bounce back from last season and adjust his game to deal with the team’s defensive shortcomings. Plus, adjustments are always necessary as a goaltender ages (Lundqvist was 35 at season’s start, 36 at the end). This past season, Lundqvist improved his statistics across the board.
Allaire also had to work with a new backup goaltender after the Rangers traded Raanta to Arizona last offseason. This season’s reclamation project was Ondrej Pavelec. Of the goaltenders Allaire has worked with in recent seasons, his game needed the most refining. After a shaky start, he elevated his play as the season progressed, and was a serviceable backup for Lundqvist.
When Pavelec was injured, Allaire worked with rookie netminder Alexandar Georgiev. Georgiev had no prior NHL experience prior to being recalled and like Pavelec, didn’t get off to the best start to the season. In his 10 games with the Rangers though, he impressed enough to potentially earn the backup position next season.
*Data via Corsica.hockey
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 / Mika Zibanejad / Alain Vigneault / John Gilmour / Ryan McDonagh / Neal Pionk / Ryan Sproul / Kevin Shattenkirk / Chris Kreider / Jeff Gorton I / Jeff Gorton II / Tony DeAngelo / David Desharnais