Now Comes David Quinn’s Real Test As an NHL Coach

Much of Quinn’s tenure as Rangers’ head coach has been centered around player development and culture building. Now, focus begins to shifts towards tactics and game management.

When the Rangers hired Head Coach David Quinn in 2018, management’s listed goals for at least the early part of his tenure were fairly abstract, namely that wins and losses were not going to be a notable part of evaluating the job he was doing.

Quinn’s job was to build a culture for a team that was building from relative scratch. Quinn’s expertise, as shown at Boston University, was in being a personable coach who could relate to talented players and strike the right balance between pushing players while maintaining strong relationships. More nuanced, he was tasked with changing the way the Rangers played and getting players integrated into the new systems and weeding out those who couldn’t fit his vision. That the Rangers missed the playoffs in Quinn’s first two seasons behind the bench was likely of no importance to General Manager Jeff Gorton, as Quinn’s job was to build team cohesiveness and develop players on an individual level.

Has Quinn succeeded in that ambition? Some of the younger players have turned into everything anyone could have hoped. Others have struggled mightily, while a few are still in-between. How much credit does Quinn get for the successes and how much blame for the failures? Even with the knowledge of day-to-day happenings during those two seasons, it would be difficult to know. Psychologists are quick to note that, with the relative limits on objective analysis in their field, their professions are as much an art as a science.

In the most general terms, I think most would agree the Rangers are well positioned compared to where they were when Quinn’s tenure began.

The Ragners are far from a finished product. This is still a flawed roster with young players who need to go through “the process.” But the Rangers are no longer the untalented group who were strangers to Quinn and his system. He has three incredibly gifted scoring lines, and defense, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox have borderline all-star talent at worst while Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller at least have the skillsets to be quality NHL defensemen. The team’s backup goaltender is better than some teams’ starters.

He’s had two seasons to establish order, to adapt the team to the style and tactics he wishes to play and to instill a leadership group he believes in. To give management his take on who should stay, who should go, and what the team need and to learn whatever he hoped to from former assistant Lindy Ruff about coaching in the NHL.

Now, the criteria for evaluating Quinn’s job performance begins to shift priorities towards the more tangible, immediate aspects of coaching a hockey team: Does he have what it takes to lead the players he’s tried to develop and team culture he’s attempted to build and apply it towards winning hockey games?

Does he have the tactical acumen to make the most of this roster and play a modern game? Can he play to the team’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses? Can he successfully identify which players are deserving of more or less ice time? Can he game plan for specific opponents? Can he learn from a previous game and make the right adjustments for the next one? Can he out-think the other team’s head coach, countering their moves with superior ones, matching the right lines, and getting his players out at the optimal moments?

To Quinn’s credit, the team played some of its best hockey in the last couple months of the 2019-20 season before the reality check that was the play-in series against Carolina. It’s not that Carolina beat the Rangers, as was expected, but how Rod Brind’Amour’s team had so methodically dismantled a Rangers team that looked unprepared for the moment. The Rangers’ problem was not a lack of desire or alertness; it was about the Hurricanes having an intricate game plan and executing it perfectly.

There were some instances of poor game management in Tuesday’s loss to the Devils, but let’s be fair by first pointing out that the Rangers were the better team. Sometimes a goalie gets hot and there’s nothing Quinn or any coach could have done about that.

Still, his job is to optimize the team’s chances of winning, and it’s hard to argue he did so with his usage of personnel. Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko were outright dominant in this game, and through two periods the Rangers out-attempted the Devils 17-to-3 with the duo on the ice.

Yet they barely saw the ice, with only Julien Gauthier receiving less ice time than those two, and while Quinn did somewhat acknowledge their play by giving them more ice time in the third, it was too little too late at that moment.

Three games into the season, the Rangers have been the better team twice. The series loss to Carolina was eye-opening but Quinn deserves time to figure it out. This is not a call for Quinn to be on the hot seat. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that this season calls for evaluating Quinn under the lens of tactician and game manager.

The wins and losses don’t mean too much this season, as the circumstances are unique and the Rangers aren’t quite there yet as an organization. Very soon, though, they will be. As a young roster with potential, it has to eventually turn into an actual product where results mater. At that point, success will not be evaluated by the abstract, but whether Quinn can put the team in positions to win over 60 minutes of hockey.

Culture building and player development are very important, but at some point a coach needs to show an ability to come up with a strategy to get past the opposition’s forecheck in a best-of-seven playoff series. Having had three offseasons and two regular seasons to build and develop the team’s style as he wishes, it’s time to see how well Quinn can concoct and execute a hockey game plan.