Rangers Changes Must Start Behind the Bench

The New York Rangers have the potential to take strides forward this season, after some much-needed offseason retooling by general manager Jeff Gorton in their rebuild on the fly. Most of their potential, however, is contingent on one key element: the coaching.

Coaching can be crucial to any team’s success, as evidenced by the Rangers 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff run, when a handful of questionable decisions derailed their postseason hopes. This season, the coaching will be even more pivotal, especially considering how much this team transformed this offseason to keep them in Stanley Cup contention in front of Henrik Lundqvist. The coaching staff cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that have plagued them in the past.

A major flaw in head coach Alain Vigneault’s coaching style has been his development of young players. In fact, this key issue was addressed when he was fired by the Vancouver Canucks. Forwards who were “committed to defense first” in Vancouver had more freedom, while those with “creative offensive instincts would be forever shackled.” This trend has only continued with the Rangers, as seen in Vigneault’s handling of Pavel Buchnevich last season.

Buchnevich ultimately only played 41 regular season games with the Rangers, although his play merited an expanded role. Unfortunately, it was players like Tanner Glass who Vigneault felt more comfortable with in the lineup late in the regular season and postseason, to the Rangers detriment – and potentially to the detriment of Buchnevich’s development. This year, Buchnevich should be able to earn a stable place in the lineup and demonstrate just how dynamic he can be.

Vigneault’s development tactics may become even more critical this year if Lias Andersson plays at the NHL-level with the Rangers. Far too much was invested in acquiring Andersson to risk his growth and potential. Also, keeping him in the NHL means he needs a steady place in the lineup to make burning the first year of his contract worthwhile.

Vigneault has also been criticized for the way he holds his young players accountable. Hayes and Miller were disciplined when their creativity led to mistakes. Instead of working with them to show how to better handle a particular situation, Vigneault decreased their ice time when they faltered, a discouraging approach that made both players more hesitant on the ice.

Speaking of Miller, Vigneault noted that he’ll begin the season at center. With Mika Zibanejad and Hayes competing for the role of first-line center, it looks like Miller will center the third line. Having a skilled winger may ease Miller’s transition back to center, however it is Gorton’s responsibility to acquire one. What is Vigneault’s responsibility, is his usage and deployment of Miller.

Transitioning Miller to center is a risk, especially after he’s grown into a key player on the wing. If the intention is to bury him with defensive zone stars, like Hayes was as the team’s third-line center last season, it seems like Miller’s talent is being wasted since he’s emerged as one of the team’s top scorers.

Last season was a weird one for Hayes and Miller as they were questionably tasked with a defensive role, and the tactics they were instructed to employ definitely didn’t help their two-way game. Both have so much offensive upside that they should be in a role that allows that to shine. Vigneault shouldn’t repeat last year in challenging Miller with those defensive responsibilities, and the fourth line should instead be assigned them.

What contributed most to the Rangers’ demise last season was their defense. As much as some players have to be held accountable for their detrimental play, the coaching decisions were inexplicable.

Dan Girardi was a top-pairing defensemen – even though he wasn’t even supposed to partake in back to back games during the regular season (which clearly didn’t hold up). His play called for a demotion, yet he was consistently deployed on the first-pair, and dragged down his partner Ryan McDonagh. The pair of Holden and Staal were disastrous, yet they maintained their status as the second-pair and were utilized at some of the most pivotal points of the season, which was particularly consequential in the postseason.

Brady Skjei, one of the strongest defenders behind McDonagh, was left on the third-pair when he earned an expanded role. Moving into the playoffs, Skjei and deadline acquisition Brendan Smith were arguably the strongest pair, but they  were relegated to the third and sat some shifts in the most crucial moments of close games in favor of the first two pairs.

The deployment of the defensemen was so costly that it directly contributed to numerous losses throughout the regular season and postseason, and it has to change this year. The changes started behind the bench as assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom was replaced by Lindy Ruff – however, it felt as if Beukeboom was the scapegoat for the Rangers’ defensive shortcomings, rather than holding Vigneault accountable as he was ultimately responsible.

Between Ruff and Vigneault, the coaching of the defense must improve this year, even more so after what was invested in their blue line; Kevin Shattenkirk was signed to a four year, $26.6 million contract, Smith was re-signed for four years, $17.4 million, Girardi was bought out of the remainder of his contract, and Anthony DeAngelo was acquired as part of the Stepan and Raanta trade.

Skjei is expected to play a top-four role, and as much as Vigneault acknowledges this, he actually has to follow through with it and help him adjust to this challenge. DeAngelo could also struggle in New York, and he may require guidance to stabilize his play, as opposed to being benched for every mistake. And players like Holden and Staal, who have the edge in only one area on these young defenders – experience – need to be used in a more sheltered role with far less ice time.

Vigneault’s comments about Staal to open training camp were encouraging, since he seems to finally acknowledge the defenseman’s declining play, but they still have to be taken with a grain of salt. Similar sentiments were made about decreasing Girardi’s role last season, but the coaches didn’t follow through with that plan even though his play was clearly damaging to the team.

After how much Gorton renovated this team and revamped this core, it’s even more imperative that the coaching adjusts accordingly to help lead the Rangers to success. Vigneault must adjust his coaching strategies – something he’s struggled with throughout his career – otherwise, Gorton’s offseason efforts could be wasted.

This year, if the coaches don’t make changes to match what management’s done to keep themselves in the race for the Stanley Cup, they may not get another chance to do so in New York.