‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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On Thursday night, Alain Vigneault returns to Rogers Arena for the first time since being relieved of his duties by the Vancouver Canucks on May 22.
When the newest head coach of the Rangers takes his position on the away bench, he’ll glance across the ice and notice former Blueshirts head coach John Tortorella screaming at his former players.
So begins hockey’s version of “Trading Places.” Much like the 1983 John Landis film starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, two very opposite personalities in Vigneault and Tortorella have been thrown directly into each other’s former worlds.
It is the great experiment that has the hockey world abuzz. Two contrasting personalities that favor entirely different coaching philosophies are charged with task of winning over their new locker rooms.
Vigneault’s approach has already scored big points with a Rangers group that became jaded through playing Tortorella’s grinding system night after night, and having to endure his pointed criticisms at every wrong turn.
A.V. USHERS IN FRESH, OPTIMISTIC ATMOSPHERE
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan spoke of the changed atmosphere inside the locker room during training camp.
“You can tell in the room, it’s a different feeling this year and we’re excited,” Callahan said.
Vigneault has ushered in fresh optimism that had been sapped from the room during Tortorella’s final year in New York. He handed out t-shirts to his players when camp began bearing the motto: “Clean Slate — Grab It!”
That’s exactly what Vigneault is about. He didn’t come into camp with any preconceived notions about the Rangers as Callahan explained:
“He’s not coming in with any thoughts, or any baggage with any of the guys,” Callahan said. “You make your own impression, you build your own path — it’s a good thing. A lot guys in here are excited about that, myself included. It’s a fresh start, it’s a clean slate like it says on the shirt.”
Young players who struggled under Tortorella like Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller have been given a second life after being bounced back and forth like a yo-yo between New York and AHL Hartford.
Whereas Tortorella tried to force Kreider into his system like a square peg into a round hole, Vigneault is attempting to maximize Kreider’s obvious potential.
“There’s a lot of positive about this young man,” Vigneault said during training camp. “Everybody feels that he has a lot of talent and a lot of potential. It’s up to us to work together to get it out of him.”
Both Kreider and Miller have survived each round of Rangers cuts throughout the preseason. Vigneault has a track record of getting the most out of his players by incorporating them into an uptempo system that favors offensively expressive players.
His patient methods allowed the Sedin twins to reach new heights and develop into 100-point players. Ryan Kesler underwent a metamorphosis from a penalty kill specialist and shutdown forward into dominant two-way center under Vigneault’s watch.
The big question is whether Vigneault can revitalize 33-year-old center Brad Richards, who survived fears of a compliance buyout to remain with the Rangers for the 2013-14 season.
For now, Richards is auditioning for his Rangers’ future as the team has the option to use their final compliance buyout on him next summer. Richards struggled mightily throughout the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. He wasn’t in condition when the NHL returned in January and appeared out of step as the season wore on.
That combined with Tortorella constantly piling pressure on Richards served as a recipe for disaster that led to Richards sitting in the press box during the final games of the Rangers’ meek playoff exit to the Boston Bruins.
TORTORELLA ‘FREIGHT TRAIN’ COMES CHARGING INTO VANCOUVER
In Vancouver, Vigneault was viewed in some corners of the media as having too much of a “soft touch” with his players. A faction of Canucks fans and a number of Vancouver columnists were calling for someone with more of an edge to be handed the keys to command the bench.
Charging in like a freight train came John Tortorella. In equal measures, he is an inspirational and polarizing figure.
Tortorella’s straightforward brand of hockey will appeal to some players and rub others the wrong way. He’ll demand his star players buy into his team-first ethics, and force them into doing the grunt work required of an unheralded fourth-liner.
Marian Gaborik refused to bend his game to the degree that Torts desired — and saw himself shipped to Columbus.
Tortorella’s contentious relationship with the media is just as interesting. He did not hold back the foul language in New York, engaging in numerous memorable expletive-filled press conferences that led to some outstanding headlines.
You get the feeling that Tortorella will either develop into a cult-hero in Vancouver, or detonate quickly and wear out his welcome in a blaze of controversy.
Undoubtedly, Tortorella is a very savvy figure behind the bench. His coaching acumen trumps many rival coaches around the league. He will have to adapt in Vancouver, hold his tongue and avoid tripping over the same obstacles that led to his demise in New York.
To add to the intrigue of this “Trading Places” experiment, both coaches have been given five-year contracts with their new clubs.
Who will survive longer in their new environment? The smart money is on Vigneault.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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