The story ends, ironically enough, with Alain Vigneault finally walking down a road of self reflection. The predictable part was that he wasn’t asked about it.
We won’t start there, though, because that’s how this story ends. Or maybe more appropriately, how the current story begins.
When Tom Renney was hired, he was brought in to right the ship. There were no real Stanley Cup aspirations, and the only real goal was to make the playoffs — which he did. Did he squander Petr Prucha in a way that would have made a certain unnamed future coach proud? Yep, but that’s not the point; he did the job he was hired for.
Somewhere between Jaromir Jagr injuring his shoulder before the Rangers broke their seven-year playoff drought and Chris Drury’s 7.7-second game-tying goal, Glen Sather got the itch again: the itch the spend. The itch to win. That itch wouldn’t turn into an unquenchable thirst for a few more years, but this is where it started. Sather saw a foundation to build on as I watched the Rangers lose a game they should have won in overtime because the Rangers always lose playoff games in spectacular fashion. It’s just the way the world works.
In a move that probably felt normal at the time, Renney was removed the moment Sather didn’t think he was capable of getting the job done. When John Tortorella walked through the door, with his reputation as noticeable as the diamonds of his Stanley Cup ring, there was the first true sense of “contention.” Renney was brought in to stop the bleeding, Tortorella was brought in to win.
“Torts” represented a wholesale heel turn from his predecessor. Where Renney was poised and calm, Tortorella was piss and vinegar. He would fight with beat reporters — famously insinuating Larry Brooks got “beat up at the bus stop” during one of their many verbal brawls. He would walk out of press conferences, mock questions he thought was stupid, make reporters feel dumb, and outright refuse to answer questions.
He would also do anything — literally anything — for his players.
Hilariously enough, Tortorella of all people took umbrage to the most minor of insults from his self-written code. During a rivalry game against New Jersey, Tortorella was incensed when the Devils tossed their goons out for the opening faceoff. So what did he do? He put Stu Bickel at center, and the group had a good ol’ line brawl.
He called out the Penguins for diving because, well, they dive like crazy. He taunted the NHL for their love and protection of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins themselves. He defended his own players to the death in the papers (at least at the start), threw tirades when the team lost, and was visibly pissed when he should have been. He used timeouts seconds into games to scream and yell, benched players who he thought weren’t hustling, and, in a move that probably felt normal at the time, even held veterans accountable to those standards.
I loved, and will always love, Tortorella for the same reason so many fans did and still do. He was the actual representation of what would happen if you put a fan behind the bench or behind a microphone in front of the media. When I was pissed, Tortorella was pissed. When I wanted someone to defend my team’s honor, Tortorella defended my team’s honor. It was glorious.
There were consequences for him, though — self inflicted ones. In what probably felt normal at the time, the media questioned him heavily, speculated about his intentions, and refused to let him off the hook for bad decisions daily. The media disliked that he made their job harder, and they went after him with everything they had. And to be honest, Tortorella gave them a hell of a lot of ammunition.
Behind Tortorella, the Rangers continued to spend. They brought in Marian Gaborik, Wade Redden, and Brad Richards as big-ticket signings. Ales Kotalik, Mike Rupp, Alex Frolov, and Ruslan Fedotenko represented smaller spending players.
To that point Sather’s moves in the trade market had been relatively small; normally just deadline buying moved to ramp up for the playoffs. But it changed in 2013 when a representative for the Rangers reportedly rushed to Gaborik’s apartment to make him sign off on his no-trade-clause to close a deal with Columbus that would bring in Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Derek Dorsett.
That came before, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a 2013 first round pick were sent away for Rick Nash. The “itch” to win was now a thirst only quenched by the droppings of the Stanley Cup, and Sather was about to embark down a road of spending every asset he had to get there.
With Sather spending for assets on the ice, Tortorella’s flaws started to wear down the brass.
Where Renney was thoughtful and calculated, Tortorella was shockingly obtuse to some things. Famous for his “safe is death” mantra that got his name etched on the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, Tortorella forced the Rangers to be a defensive team, and shelled late with leads which led to different levels of failure as time went on. He used Henrik Lundqvist to the tune of 72 games started one season. He ran his top guys into the ground, instead of dispersing minutes to depth players; he amazingly gave Bickel less than four minutes of ice time in a triple overtime playoff game against Washington while Ryan McDonagh played an hour that game. A damn hour! Think about the logistics of that.
Tortorella wasn’t great at the whole kids thing, either. Instead of Petr Prucha, though, it was Chris Kreider and, to a lesser extent, J.T. Miller. Kreider used to get less than five minutes a game, and would sadly skate laps on the ice during TV timeouts to keep his legs loose enough so that when and if he got playing opportunities, he wouldn’t pull every muscle God gave him. Tortorella didn’t care that Kreider was the single most hyped — and more importantly, talented — prospect to come through the team’s system in forever. It didn’t matter that he made the team better when he was on the ice. It did matter that Tortorella didn’t want to spend the time to develop him. The Rangers’ brass didn’t seem to care because Kreider, Miller, and Michael Del Zotto didn’t represent instant fixes but rather future potential. They didn’t want the future wins, they wanted them now.
When Kreider scored the overtime game-winning goal (off an insane feed from Rick Nash) to avoid being swept out of the second round against Boston, Tortorella told the media they had been “killing him” about not playing him. That felt normal for the time, too. It, of course, wouldn’t last.
Tortorella had done the thing he always seems to do: he wore out his welcome. Sure he brought the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final the year before, but Sather couldn’t help himself when he saw Alain Vigneault probably on the horizon. He wanted the Vancouver bench boss. And sadly, in the end at least, he got him.
Where Tortorella was hopeful to take the Rangers to the next level, Vigneault was thought to be “the guy.” Days before Vigneault was hired, Mark Messier was informed was not the right man for the job. That was the right decision, but any time you turn away a living legend you better get it right.
Vigneault was the right choice at the time. No I’m not kidding.
There were warning signs, yes, but Vigneault was easily the most experienced, decorated, and ready coach on the market. There was no questioning that. What changed with Vigneault, though, was the front office’s stance on how they spent for the Cup. They stopped just spending in free agency, and started writing checks out of their own bank account.
Vingeault’s success in his first year can be attributed to two things: 1) the generational goalie he would soon enough be using as a human shield for all his problems, and 2) the fact that he had no control over personnel decisions. We don’t need to go into more detail on this, we’ve done it enough.
There’s blood on his hands, though, for some of the moves the Rangers made over the years. Shared blood, but blood nonetheless.
Vigneault didn’t want Anton Stralman back (despite him being one of, if not the, Rangers’ best defensemen), or Dorsett, or Brian Boyle. He did want Dan Boyle and Tanner Glass.
Vigneault saw no need for Anthony Duclair, so the Rangers thought they were “selling high” on him when they moved him for Keith Yandle, with yet another first round pick, and more assets. Vigneault used Yandle — who was billed as the “missing piece” when he was brought in — like a pen with that was low on ink: sparingly. But he did want Dan Girardi as a top-pairing defenseman.
He squandered the only NHL return the Rangers got for Carl Hagelin, wanted nothing to do with Dylan McIlrath, used Eric Staal as a third-line center, and refused to give Pavel Buchnevich the time of day. He “lost” Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei, “found” Glass at critical moments, and basically did whatever he wanted without a peep from the media.
Or the brass.
Sather (and then Jeff Gorton) didn’t seem to be bothered that Vigneault refused to play with the toys they got him. The Rangers’ farm system was one of the worst in the league, and players like Sean Day made the top five of Adam’s prospect rankings. All with nothing to show for it. The Rangers got progressively worse under Vigneault, and for years the brass did nothing.
The Rangers finally made a move to re-stock the bank last year, trading off significant assets to bring back prospects and picks. The Rangers picked three times in the first round, and swung hard on talent.
Before that, they finally cut ties with Vigneault.
There have been arguments over why Vigneault was fired. Some in the media maintain that it was not because of developmental issues. Many, many different things dispute this, specifically comments from team owner James Dolan and the fact that they eventually hired David Quinn specifically because of his ability to develop talent. When Buchnevich spoke up about how he had no confidence under Vigneault, everyone who watched games nodded. When no players spoke out about how much they’d miss him (get to the questions part of the show)? That said something, too.
Now Quinn is here, and the organization and coach seem to be moving in the same direction. Gorton stayed away from the bigger ticket items via free agency and on the trade market. Kids seem poised for a bigger role with the organization and it seems that creativity will finally be rewarded, not punished.
Outside of Artemi Panarin, the Rangers seem poised to go the long way and develop a foundation from the ground up.
It’s a long time coming.