‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Regardless of whether you appreciated Tortorella’s “safe-is-death” brand of hockey, his blunt honesty or fiery motivational techniques — one thing was clear. Tortorella’s act was tough to follow, given that he was a hop and skip away from guiding the Rangers to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals.
Sather could have appeased a large segment of the fan base by naming former franchise great Mark Messier as Tortorella’s successor. Instead, he opted to hire former Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault — a decision that is paying off in spades.
It’s taken some growing pains, but the Rangers have finally figured out Vigneault’s possession-based uptempo system, which requires intensive skating, crisp, intricate passing and defensemen understanding when to join the attack.
The Rangers have won six of their past seven games and are firing on all cylinders offensively. Consecutive 4-1 victories over the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals have served as proof of the Rangers’ transformation under Vigneault. It’s night and day from Tortorella’s reign, when the Rangers would attempt to suffocate opponents and protect one-goal leads by collapsing deep in the defensive zone.
1. A.V. IS BEING REWARDED FOR GIVING KREIDER A LEGIT CHANCE
Chris Kreider has blossomed into a Calder Trophy candidate under Vigneault’s watch. A.V. is just starting to tap into Kreider’s full capabilities. As the years go on, Kreider and Vigneault will certainly benefit from each other’s presence.
Kreider was the first Rangers forward to really come to grips with Vigneault’s system. Although he started the season in the minors, he’s been a highly effective player since his October 20 call-up. More than statistics can point out, the 22-year-old has grown into an absolute force.
“Ever since he’s been back, he’s been one of our more efficient players,” Vigneault said earlier this season. “He uses his strength. He’s a good skater, he’s a strong skater, he could push the defense back and make them pay on the forecheck — and he’s real tough to handle in front of the net.”
Tortorella was accused of forcing Kreider into learning his defensive concepts first and foremost. Kreider wasn’t going to get big-time minutes under Tortorella unless he satisfied every one of Tortorella’s requirements. Tortorella’s obsession with fitting Kreider into his system appeared to stunt Kreider’s overall growth.
The difference this season is that Vigneault is maximizing Kreider’s natural gifts — instead of Torts’ failed approach of forcing a square peg into a round hole.
“Last year, he was kinda trying to reinvent himself,” teammate Brian Boyle said recently. “This year, he’s playing to his strengths. He’s always had a good understanding of the defensive zone, offensive zone and how to play. Sometimes when you’re not playing as many minutes, it can affect your confidence.”
2. VIGNEAULT TOOK THE TRAINING WHEELS OFF MCDONAGH
Under Vigneault, two-way defenseman Ryan McDonagh has been allowed the freedom to pick and choose his spots to join in the attack.
“Where he’s doing a good job in the offensive zone is reading when it’s time to come in and not come in,” Vigneault said on Thursday. “When the other team is playing it tighter, that’s when he’s beating the opposition, beating them inside when he sees that we’ve got good possession of the puck. He’s getting some great looks offensively.”
Tortorella seemed to guide McDonagh by hand too slowly. During Tortorella’s final playoff series as Rangers coach against the Bruins, he admitted that he did not utilize McDonagh enough on the power play.
“That’s on me,” Tortorella said last May. “I screwed that up not using him early enough, and I should have.”
This season, Vigneault is leaning on McDonagh to quarterback the Blueshirts’ power play and he’s handling the role with aplomb. McDonagh has recorded nine power play assists and 28 points in all situations. He’s on pace for 45 points this season, which would shatter his previous career best of 32.
3. HE CHOSE THE RIGHT MAN IN ARNEIL TO RUN THE POWER PLAY
Vigneault’s choice to delegate power play duties to assistant Scott Arneil has resulted in a remarkable transformation for a unit that slipped to some futile low points during Tortorella’s tenure in New York.
Last season, the Rangers’ inept power play was a point of frustration for players and fans. Now, it’s become a rallying point.
“The way the power play is playing right now is just lifting the whole team,” Henrik Lundqvist said after the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Caps.
The Rangers are 20.9 percent (No. 7 overall) on the power play this season. That’s quite a leap considering the Blueshirts were 15.7 percent (23rd overall) on the power play last season with former assistant Mike Sullivan handling power play duties.
Arneil has kept the same units together, rather than chopping and changing parts.
More importantly, his 1-3-1 power play structure demands constant movement and allows dragging opposition defensemen away from shooting lanes. When worked effectively, this allows the Rangers to outnumber opponents around the net.
4. ZUCCA-HELLO! THE HOBBIT HAS MADE GOOD AFTER RECEIVING AN INCREASED ROLE UNDER A.V.
It seemed that under Tortorella, Mats Zuccarello was destined to remain a fringe player for the Rangers. Tortorella appeared to appreciate the grinding aspects of the Norweigan’s game, though he might have not fully understood the entire package of attributes that Zuccarello brought to the table.
Vigneault is harnessing Zuccarello’s incredible vision and playmaking abilities. He has given Zuccarello an increased role and his time on ice per game is actually a second higher than superstar Rick Nash. Zuccarello is averaging 17:17 TOI in 2013-14 and is seeing greater minutes on the power play.
No one saw this surge of production coming from Zuccarello. Through 50 games, Zuccarello has scored 13 goals and 22 assists. He’s currently on pace to record 21 goals, 36 assists and 57 points.
5. TALBOT’S EMERGENCE MIGHT HAVE NEVER HAPPENED HAD TORTS REMAINED IN NEW YORK
Sensational backup goalie Cam Talbot may have never gotten his chance to shine had Torts remained head coach of the Rangers. Had Tortorella been in a situation where Martin Biron struggled mightily, he may have opted to give Biron a longer leash. Biron proved to be a steady backup for Torts for three seasons, though Vigneault had seen enough after just two games.
Biron went 0-1-0 with a 7.65 goals-against average.
Vigneault was not married to Biron and constantly sought the advice of goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and ventured to Hartford to watch a number of Talbot’s games in person.
“On the goaltender position, I trust Benoit Allaire,” Vigneault said ahead of Talbot’s October 24 NHL debut. “That’s a position there where the coach and the goaltender have a real special rapport. In Cam’s case, Benoit has been saying to me for quite some time that he feels he’s ready. (Cam) said throughout training camp that he was ready to take the next step.”
Through the first 15 games of his NHL career, Talbot is 10-3-0 with a microscopic 1.63 GAA and an outstanding .940 save percentage.
6. A.V. KNOWS HOW TO MANAGE PERSONALITIES
The first time I noticed Vigneault’s positive effect on a struggling player was when Derek Dorsett had a rough start to the season. Dorsett was tending to commit costly penalties and had a reputation in Columbus for not being able to control his internal fire.
“We talked. He said he doesn’t want me to change,” Dorsett said earlier this season. “Obviously, you don’t want to get those penalties, but the same time — I’ve got to do what’s gotten me to this league and that’s playing hard and getting in on the forecheck. I just need to make sure I find that line and don’t cross it, and just keep playing my game.”
It seemed from that point forward, Dorsett modified his mentality, while still bringing fearlessness and aggression on the ice. Up until he suffered a broken fibula on January 3, Dorsett has performing a consistent and effective checking line role.
“He’s really positive,” Carcillo said about Vigneault last week.
7. RANGERS WILL BE FRESHER AS THE PLAYOFFS APPROACH
After Vigneault’s appointment at Radio City Music Hall, Glen Sather took roundtable questions from reporters.
He admitted that Tortorella’s system “kicked the crap” out of players because the Rangers spent so much time defending their own end of the ice. Sather pointed to Tortorella wearing down players and leading to injuries.
“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,” Sather said in June. “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.”
During last year’s playoffs, both Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin played through torn shoulder labrums. Tortorella’s demanding style had become unsustainable.
At a point in late October, Lundqvist was dealing with an unspecified injury, which Vigneault only described at as an “irritation.” Vigneault opted to rest Lundqvist during a heavy stretch of games. It allowed a door to open for Talbot to shine tremendously in a backup role.
On Tuesday, Vigneault confirmed that Lundqvist is dealing with an illness and Talbot will start against the Islanders on Tuesday night at MSG. Lundqvist will not serve as backup against the Isles and the Rangers are in the process of summoning a backup goalie.
Vigneault has no issue turning to Talbot when Lundqvist has suffered bumps, bruises or health issues this season. Especially in an Olympic year, Vigneault will ensure that Lundqvist has plenty of energy for when the playoffs come along. He won’t run Lundqvist or other players into the ground. That in itself is vital to how far the Rangers progress during the postseason.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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