Be Careful What You Wish For...
Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t?
After another early season defeat to drop the Rangers’ record to 1-4-0, the calls for Alain Vigneault to be handed a pink slip have been growing. Vigneault’s recent lineup decisions, featuring Nick Holden on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk becoming Keith Yandle 2.0, and David Desharnais as the third line center, are among the number of highly questionable decisions he’s made at the helm of New York’s bench.
The prevailing opinion of Vigneault has changed as time has gone along. From optimism at the onset of his tenure, to a desire to have faith in his decision making, the early portions of the Quebec City native’s time on Broadway were times of hope and trust. After the the Game 7 debacle against Tampa Bay in 2015, the following season brought questions of Vigneault’s ability to adjust, and intense questioning of his lineup choices, and those have persisted.
More recently, the narrative has completely turned against him, and everything wrong with the franchise seems to fall on his shoulders. Even other outlets reporting on the Rangers have begun to publicly remark on Vigneault’s rocky tenure, which is something that we haven’t seen in awhile:
Suffice to say, most people aren’t happy with the job Vigneault has done, so the calls for his job seem valid. However, the other factors surrounding the team require need to be analyzed before not only firing Vigneault, but making sure his replacement is an upgrade on what New York currently has. That’s where the calls for Vigneault’s head start to appear more like reactionary, knee jerk cries rather than rationally thought out ideas.
The first question that needs to be asked is why should the coach be fired. Depending on who you ask, the reasons to fire Vigneault include consistently bad lineup decisions, an inability to make adjustments in a given playoff series, and the possibility that that he has lost the locker room and his message has grown stale among his players.
I could write a novel breaking down his lineup poor player evaluations and lineup decisions over the last four plus seasons, so there’s no need to dive into each and every one of those. The problem with firing a given coach for sub-optimal player usage is that you’d be hard pressed to find a replacement coach who makes correct decisions more often than not.
Even some of the league’s most highly regarded coaches make questionable lineup decisions on a nightly basis. Mike Babcock has had his share of blunders over the years. During his time in Detroit, Babcock regularly deployed ineffective grinders like Dan Cleary and Luke Glendening, while NHL ready prospects like Anthony Mantha and Martin Frk, and were buried in Grand Rapids. The same situation is occurring in Toronto. Eric Fehr and Matt Martin currently make up 67% of the Maple Leafs fourth line, while young players like Kasperi Kapanen and Josh Leivo are unable to break into the lineup.
Babcock isn’t the only offender of blatantly bad lineup choices. Mike Sullivan, (Ryan Reaves/Tom Sestito over anybody, Greg McKegg as 3C) Joel Quenneville, (Top pairing Brent Seabrook, Brandon Mashinter over anybody in years past) and Peter Laviolette (Top Pairing Alexei Emelin, P-A Parenteau in the press box last spring, Pekka Rinne as starter) are just three of the league’s better coaches that regularly fail to dress and utilize their best group of players. There’s a solution to possibly avoid this, but that’ll be addressed later.
Another point to consider is the players the coach has to work with. Vigneault’s most recent defense pairings are indefensible, but the forward lines aren’t as outlandish as they appear on the surface level. David Desharnais and Jimmy Vesey in the team’s top nine is a disgrace, as is Paul Carey as a lineup regular.
However, take a step back and pick apart the Rangers’ roster. Desharnais is the 3rd best center on the roster, Jimmy Vesey arguably is one of the six best wingers on the roster, and Carey is one of the 12 best forwards on the roster. There really isn’t much Vigneault, or any coach, could do with this particular group of skaters.
Alain Vigneault isn’t alone in constructing New York’s roster. In fact, he’s not even the primary contributor to the team’s assembly. That would be Jeff Gorton, the man who ultimately decides who plays on Broadway and who rides buses in the minor leagues. No matter how badly Vigneault may want somebody on the roster, Gorton holds the final say.
If Gorton didn’t want Steven Kampfer on the roster, Kampfer would be in Hartford. If he didn’t want David Desharnais in the team’s top nine, Gorton could have gone out and acquired a center, kept Filip Chytil in New York, or better yet, not traded Derek Stepan. If he thought Nick Holden didn’t have value to the team, than Holden wouldn’t be on the roster. Vigneault deserves blame for playing bad players, but Gorton isn’t blameless in keeping those players on the roster.
Lastly, and most importantly, you can’t fire a coach without hiring somebody to replace him. Names like Sheldon Keefe and Dallas Eakins always top fan’s lists of candidates, but the odds of the Rangers hiring a young, up and coming coach to take over are slim to none. If Vigneault finds himself on the unemployment line, then the most likely successor would be the team’s current assistant coach Lindy Ruff.
That would be the same Lindy Ruff who was solely responsible for running Valeri Nichushkin, a then-21 year old former 1st Round Pick, out of Dallas and back to his native Russia.
The same Lindy Ruff that was satisfied with and went to bat for the league’s worst goaltending tandem going out for two seasons in a row and tanking Dallas’ chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
The same Lindy Ruff who is currently charged with running New York’s defense, and in all likelihood has heavy influence on the monstrosities that masquerade as the team’s current defensive pairings.
None of this is to say Vigneault should or shouldn’t be relieved of his duties. There’s logical arguments to be made in favor of firing him, as well as keeping him at the helm of the Blueshirts’ bench. Whichever side you fall on, just keep in mind the consequences of what you want. If Vigneault is fired, Ruff is the overwhelming favorite to become the next head coach, and he has his issues. If not, then the madness stemming from Vigneault’s decisions will continue to plague New York in their quest to bring home a Stanley Cup.