Rangers Make Mistake Extending Alain Vigneault

Contact me

Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
Contact me

The conventional wisdom around the NHL is that Alain Vigneault is a top-tier coach. Some of that sentiment is borne out in two trips to the Stanley Cup Final during his coaching tenure—once with the Vancouver Canucks in 2010/11, where they lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games, and once with his current franchise, the New York Rangers, in the 2013/14 season where they were defeated in five games at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings. He has also appeared in a Conference Final and had a handful of second-round exits. After a false start in Montreal where he was fired after four years and a 109-118-35-4 record, he’s had a very impressive regular season resume, combining for a 488-268-80 record, good for .632 points percentage.

He is a brilliant strategist, especially when he has the pieces in his lineup that can execute his highly skilled game plans. He also does a fair job of developing young talent, inserting them into his lineups and gradually allowing them to gain his trust. Like most successful NHL coaches, he trusts in his veterans more and gives them a significantly longer leash to work through any struggles they may have. So, it’s not a surprise that Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton decided to extend the contract of his successful head coach for another two seasons beyond the expiration of his existing deal which would have been up after next season. His new deal will take him through the 2019/20 season and provides him with a sizable raise over those extra two years.

Yet there is a weakness, a glaring one when you consider that he’s a coach who has been afforded the chance to work with some very high-end rosters, that makes the extension questionable at this point. He has an inability to successfully adjust tactics in-game and often makes significant errors in judgment on the fly. He’s proven unable to adjust the game plan to match his opponent. He seems to have a one-size fits all coaching philosophy. That size happens to work pretty well in many situations when he has a talented roster in front of him, specifically in the regular season where half the opposition is below average. However, when his teams face adversity he scrambles for answers that don’t often come.

One of the simplest ways opposing coaches have found to stifle Alain Vigneault’s coaching style is one Rangers’ fans are all too familiar with – pressuring in the neutral zone to set up the offense after turnovers and then collapsing down low to protect prime scoring areas in your own zone. It is a style that the Rangers had success with when current Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella was managing the Blueshirts. The premise of this two-pronged defense is to slow down speedy teams in the neutral zone and force them to either dump the puck in or carry it wide. The defending team gives the opposing team the outside and clogs the shooting lanes, neutralizing speed and skilled based attacks. The way to counter for the attacking team is to use speed and quick passing to get across the offensive blue line, then, once in the offensive zone, to shoot quickly off of changed angles, get bodies to the net, attempt shot passes wide around the screen for deflections, and to work behind the goal line to set up quick strike plays from in close. Unfortunately, while Vigneault’s teams can often get through the neutral zone with some success, they are ill coached once they do manage to gain the offensive zone.

This was demonstrated a while back when the high-flying Rangers ran into the Ottawa Senators who had played a game the night before. A normal tactic in that situation is to try to jump on the other team quickly and if that fails, to try to wear them down. A Rangers’ team that is one of the fastest in the league should have no problem executing both of those strategies, yet the Rangers found themselves scoreless, down 2-0 heading into the third period as the Senators executed a simple collapsing defense while looking for opportunities to counter-attack. Rather than using their team speed to try to turn the Ottawa defense in their own zone, the Rangers spent the first half of the game trying to execute their normal game plan of moving the puck through the neutral zone with speed either by carrying it up the ice or hitting streaking wingers with longer breakout passes. This failed, though, as Ottawa clogged up the neutral zone and their defensive blue line. Their defense never had to turn because as a team they were stepping up.

Make no mistake, the Ottawa Senators enacted a sound, albeit boring strategy. Yet when the Rangers’ team needed alternative methods of attack, especially after falling behind, there were only crickets from the Rangers bench. Those crickets were mirrored at Madison Square Garden by fans silenced by the realization that their team was likely going to be shut out. It was later echoed by the Rangers’ announce team in the Second intermission that joked that the game was being brought to you by Ambien, a popular sleeping medication.

Vigneault’s Plan B wasn’t much better. Unable to navigate the quagmire the Senators created in the neutral zone and at their defensive blue line, the Rangers then tried to dump the puck in more frequently which was a tactic they should have began using out of the gate. Apparently, no one informed them, however, that Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson was adept at handling the puck and moving it to his defense at will. Their early attempts to dump in were quickly thwarted. A prepared team should have known this. They should have been well schooled in the opposing goalie’s tendencies and had a plan for how to dump in the puck in ways that Anderson would have more difficulty countering. Cross corner and high, hard dump ins are both tried and true examples of dump in methods which cut down on the effectiveness of a strong puck handling goalie, for example. The Rangers announce crew mentioned this as well after watching the Rangers fail repeatedly to properly execute the simplest of puck recovery plays.

Poorly adapting to a defensive strategy in a late November regular season game isn’t a big deal. However, the style they faced against Ottawa was reminiscent of two years ago in the Conference Final of the 2014/15 season where Tampa Bay enacted a similar defense at a much higher level and with a much more dangerous counter-attack. In that series, the Rangers found themselves up against a team that was stifling to their dynamic offensive attack. Like the game against Ottawa, the center of the ice was taken away with a five in the frame mentality, constant pressure in the neutral and defensive zones leading to turnovers, and they faced a goaltender in Ben Bishop who was very strong at handling the puck. Most importantly, the same Rangers’ head coach was unable to solve the puzzle, even given repeated opportunities. Late in games against Tampa, like that November game against Ottawa, where the opposition began to tire and fall back to the point of long, sustained zone time for the attacking Rangers’ lines, the team defense would collapse as a group of five in the most dangerous areas of the ice and force attacking forwards to maintain control on the outside. The Rangers would pass the puck around the perimeter looking for a shooting lane, but by the time they looked up to see if they had a clear path to the net, the lane would close.

Adjustments to this strategy never came. Their coach never told them to just get as many one-time shots off as they could so that the opposing defense didn’t have time to get set. They were never instructed to play that numbers game. While many shots would still be blocked, the ones that got through would come through a moving screen trying to get into shot blocking position or potentially be deflected making it more difficult for the opposing goalie to be set and see the shot. What is clear is that the strategy they employed was not working. The Rangers found themselves shut out in consecutive home games during that series, getting blanked in games five and then seven to end the series. In those two games, the recurring theme was the Rangers dominating possession at times in the offensive zone, yet failing to get shots off as they couldn’t seem to find the openings they were looking for.

The statistics from the Ottawa game bear this out again. While on its face, the Rangers outshot the Senators 33-20, it’s easy to mistake that as the Rangers dominating play. However, when you dig a little deeper, you find that they only attempted 49 shots total at 5-on-5, of which, 26 were on goal. They only had 23 attempts blocked or go wide in addition to their 26 that were on net and stopped by Anderson in that situation. Given that they trailed most of the game and also that they controlled possession for large portions of it, you’d expect those totals to be significantly higher. Through the first two periods, the Rangers only had 14 shots for and 12 more shots attempted at 5-on-5. They almost doubled those totals in the third as they got more desperate. Late in the game, with Ottawa likely getting more tired, they did manage to put up some quality scoring chances. What’s unfortunate is that they squandered the first 50 minutes of the game utilizing tactics that were unlikely to be successful. That night, it only cost them a regular season game. Two years ago against Tampa, it cost them a playoff series and another chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Another frustrating area for Vigneault is in his line combination decisions. He often breaks up highly successful lines after single bad outings. Through training camp, the preseason, and the start of the regular season, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich just fit together. It was instant chemistry and it was obvious to see. Then injuries forced first Kreider and then Buchnevich out of the lineup. When the three were all healthy again, though, Vigneault decided that he would force Mats Zuccarello onto Zibanejad’s wing in place of Buchnevich. To be fair to Vigneault, he faced a difficult decision. He had two other combinations that were scoring at a blistering pace in J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner on one line and Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Jimmy Vesey on the other. That meant that either he had to leave Zuccarello with Kreider and Zibanejad, or move him down to the team’s fourth line. He ultimately opted to push Buchnevich down to the fourth line and not reunite a line that looked like it was a keeper. Then Zibanejad and Buchnevich were both injured and he had to scramble to keep the team afloat. He did manage that, although the Rangers have never regained the momentum they started the season with.

Many other combinations have come together that have proven to be better than the sum of their parts. Yet when the team struggles, and recently they have found themselves struggling quite a bit, their coach hasn’t seen fit to reunite once dominate lines. There was a time this season where the aforementioned forward combination of Miller, Hayes and Grabner looked like one of the best lines in the NHL. Announcers, hockey pundits, and fans were raving about the unit. Their combined point totals were constantly updated for each Rangers’ broadcast. Then, in a game against Vancouver on November 8th, the Rangers struggled. This was the third game in four nights for the Blueshirts and eighth game in 13 days (a game every 1.6 days). They looked tired and were beaten soundly. To end that game, understandably, Vigneault had made line changes. In the next game, rather than going back to the line combinations that had helped the Rangers to lead the NHL in goal scoring and goal differential, he kept on tinkering. While the team has scored plenty of goals in the games since that point, they’ve rarely shown the dominating play they exhibited early in the season. At times he has reunited the trio, but never for any extended period of time. They simply should never have been broken up for any stretch to begin with.

Recently, a line combination of a now healthy Zibanejad and Buchnevich have been teamed up with Rick Nash and have found success. So too has a line of Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider. When the team isn’t clicking and changes need to be made, though, Vigneault has yet to go back to the Zibanejad, Buchnevich and Kreider line that dominated pre-season and the early regular season. Instead, he consistently comes up with lines that appear more like they were pulled from a hat in between periods.

Yet another head scratcher is in how he handles the end of games where the Rangers’ trail. In the team’s last game against the Columbus Blue Jackets where the Rangers found themselves down 6-0 in the final period, the Rangers managed to rally back to a 6-3 margin. With 3:06 remaining in the game, Vigneault rightly pulled Antti Raanta for an extra attacker and the team managed to draw to within two goals before falling short of the comeback. That was the correct decision. Even as a long shot, it was worth trying. There was literally nothing to lose. In the previous game against Philadelphia, the Rangers found themselves down two late in the game and again, the coach pulled the goalie with 2:09 remaining in the game. While they didn’t score, at least we know that Vigneault seems aware of the one minute per goal down strategy for pulling your goaltender. Except he applies it inconsistently. In a similar game to the Columbus match, the Rangers trailed Toronto by three goals in the third period. With almost a minute and a half left in that game, the Rangers still hadn’t pulled their goalie. Then the Rangers scored to cut the deficit to two goals. Yet Vigneault never pulled his goalie for the extra attacker when they were within two goals thanks to the late tally. He just let the clock run out on the game.

Alain Vigneault is a very good NHL head coach. His skill set is one that will help a good team win a lot of regular season games. Yet the flaws in his game are of the variety that stalls out playoff runs, rather than push a team further. The inability to adapt the game plan for an opponent means that his team’s path to a Cup must face only opposition where plan A is good enough. Where sticking to the system is always the right strategy. There is no room for any bumps in the road. Decisions in the regular season that result in a head-scratching loss become the reason for the season ending short of the ultimate goal. When you add on questionable personnel decisions that have been discussed to death here and elsewhere (hi Dan Girardi and Tanner Glass, among others) Vigneault should be at his last opportunity to show that he can grow from his mistakes. His regular season performance through more than the first half of the 2016/17 season has shown that he hasn’t. The inability to adjust is the same. The questionable usage is the same. The mistakes are the same. The results are too. That’s why extending him at this point when it could have just as easily waited until the off-season if it was still warranted, is simply the wrong decision. A great regular season coach just isn’t good enough. Not if winning the Stanley Cup is going to be your goal each season. If the Rangers end up deciding to let Vigneault go before the extension even kicks in, this decision will rightfully be laughed at. It was simply an unnecessary management decision at this point of his tenure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *