‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The New York Rangers introduced new head coach Alain Vigneault on Friday in front of a large media gathering at the unfamiliar venue of Radio City Music Hall.
A change of venue, away from the usual setting of Madison Square Garden, was fitting as Vigneault is ready to breathe fresh life into the Rangers. It’s going to be a new era of exciting, offensively-expressive hockey now that Vigneault is replacing former head coach John Tortorella behind the Blueshirts’ bench.
Vigneault has a clear idea on how he expects the Rangers to perform under his watch. His plan is going to excite a fan base that’s been starving for a taste of the Stanley Cup Finals. There’s never any guarantee that a change in coaching will deliver instant success, though Vigneault’s plan certainly raises the level of anticipation ahead of the 2013-14 season.
“I believe that your top skill players have to be given a little bit more latitude,” Vigneault explained during his introductory press conference. “They have to understand the game. “They also have to be given the latitude to make something out of nothing. That’s why those guys have the high-end skill. You’ve got to give them that leeway.”
That should be refreshing news to Rick Nash whose game thrives on expression and unpredictability. Once the press conference broke into group media sessions, I asked Vigneault about his experiences coaching against Nash in the Western Conference. Now in New York, Vigneault is excited to finally have Nash on his side — a player who in his opinion is undoubtedly an elite player.
“He’s an elite player,” Vigneault said of Nash. “When you come as a player from where the attention to hockey is not as high as when you come to a market like New York, Vancouver or another Original Six, it can be challenging a little bit for players. There’s a little adaptation. Some players do it a little bit quicker, some take a little bit longer. We’ve got an elite player there, he’s been through one year here (and) he’s going to be even better next year.”
For Nash and every Ranger, it’s a fresh start under the open-minded Vigneault.
A FRESH START FOR ALL PARTIES INVOLVED
It’s a new beginning for Vigneault as well. His track record in Vancouver can be viewed as one of tremendous consistency or an opportunity missed to deliver a Stanley Cup with a talented roster led by the flying Sedin twins, outstanding netminder Cory Schneider, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and formerly elite ex-starting goalie Roberto Luongo. In the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks ultimately lost in an all-decided seventh game to the Boston Bruins.
“I’m going into this — and think they should be the same way, with an open mind,” Vigneault stated. “It’s a clean slate for everybody. Let’s decide what we want to write on this slate. I’m going in there, I’m going to get to know them on an individual basis — what makes them tick, how they respond to different things and learn how to get the best out of them. That’s my job as the coach, to get the best out of these players, and I believe I’ve done that in the past.”
Unlike Tortorella, Vigneault is constantly seeking to improve his craft, whereas Tortorella was unwavering in his belief that his system did not need to be tweaked.
“I’m confident that I’m a better coach now than I was when I started in Vancouver,” he said. “(I’m) confident that I was a better coach in Vancouver than when I started in Montreal. That experience that I’ve learned, in my opinion, should help us get real close to our goal — and our goal here is to win the Stanley Cup.”
For about 20 minutes, Vigneault patiently sat in front of a roundtable outlining his plan on how to rejuvenate the Rangers to myself and an assemblage of reporters.
LISTEN: VIGNEAULT CHATS WITH THE MEDIA ON FRIDAY
Vigneault likes what he’s seeing in the roster that Glen Sather has assembled, and he’s eager to put his offensive philosophies to work.
“Obviously, you start with the goaltending — one of the best in the world,” Vigneault said of all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “You look at our defense core, and you’ve got real good balance. You’ve got potential there to join the rush a little bit more, jump up into the attack — make a 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2 if that opportunity is there, or a 3-on-3 into a 4-on-3. I think that skill level is there.”
Vigneault continued: “Up front, I believe we have the potential to have two real, solid offensive lines. After that, in talking with Glen, he feels we’ve got a couple of good, young kids that are close.”
Under Tortorella, the Rangers were never accused of being a team that played eye-pleasing hockey. Sure, watching Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi throw their bodies around with reckless abandon and give there all for the cause was entertaining at times. But it wasn’t hockey at it’s purest — there wasn’t crisp passing or exciting rushes into the neutral zone.
“If what I think I have is right, I will use my offensive players more in the offensive zone,” Vigneault stated.
A CHANGE IN STYLE WAS REQUIRED
According to Sather, the Rangers needed a “change in style” after four-and-a-half years of grinding, defensively-oriented, all-effort hockey under Tortorella.
“I think we needed a change in style,” Sather said. “If you look at the injuries we had over the years, a number of guys really got the crap kicked out of them in our end because we constantly had to defend our own end. That style was perfect here for a couple years, but I think it started to wear our team out. With the injuries that we had this year, it started to take a toll on our hockey club.”
Sather described Tortorella as “beyond stubborn,” though he meant it in a complimentary way.
“I liked that part of Torts,” Sather stated. “I like a lot of things about him.”
Here’s Sather’s chat with the media in full:
Warning: clip contains strong language
The Rangers’ GM also indicated that Tortorella’s voice had grown tiresome in the locker room. He compared Tortorella to a father who was being tuned out by his son. While he downplayed the notion of any players sticking the knife into Tortorella’s back, he felt a toll had to be paid for playing under Torts.
“There hasn’t been a player that b—-ed, or complained to me about Torts,” Sather stated. “Let’s get that cleared up once and for all. You saw Callahan, how many times he separated his shoulder this year — the same thing with (Carl) Hagelin. Those guys played their butts off for us.”
He continued, “It wasn’t a matter of not playing hard for Torts, it was a matter of having enough left to continue to play.”
Vigneault won’t be the guy who runs his players ragged and puts them in the line of fire by blocking countless numbers of shots. That sort of hockey is unsustainable. Vigneault is very reasoned in his approach. That approach might result in the Rangers going beyond the successful era achieved under Tortorella.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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