By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is the man with the Midas touch. The Rangers have taken tremendous leaps forward in each of Vigneault’s first two seasons behind the bench. Nearly everything Vigneault touches turns to gold. The ultimate prize, Lord Stanley’s Cup, comes in silver. Vigneault is giving the Blueshirts every chance to lift the 34.5-pound silver chalice in June.
Last season, Vigneault proved to be an exceptional hire by gaining the immediate trust of the Rangers’ dressing room and freeing the Blueshirts from John Tortorella’s defensively obsessive, backbreaking culture. Even though adapting to Vigneault’s uptempo system required a significant learning curve, the Rangers were able to finish second in the Metropolitan Division and rode a wave of confidence to last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
In his first season, Vigneault’s biggest challenge was reprogramming a Rangers team that had been stripped of its natural creativity by Tortorella. While Tortorella was undoubtedly successful, his methods were beating up the Rangers physically because of his unflinching belief in black-and-blue hockey.
General manager Glen Sather discussed Tortorella’s system wearing down the Rangers in a roundtable meeting with reporters following Vigneault’s introductory press conference on June 21, 2013.
“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. “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.”
Vigneault re-introduced intricate, crisp passing. He allowed defensemen to pick their spots to join the rush. The Rangers now play a speed game and are one of the fastest-skating teams in the league.
Prior to suffering a broken left arm on Mar. 11, defenseman Kevin Klein detailed the effectiveness of Vigneault’s system.
“We love to play defense; our guys play defense hard but our transition game is really good,” Klein said. “We have some top-end speed up front, which helps create those odd-man rushes. I wouldn’t say AV is an offensively minded coach. He coaches both ends of the ice very well. We’re trying to incorporate defensemen as much as possible. They (the coaching staff) want us to jump up.
“A lot of our defensemen are chipping in offensively, it’s great to see. We have a lot of defensemen that really get up ice a lot. When you can have four or five guys that can attack, it definitely creates more chaos for the opposition when we’re in the offensive zone.”
Klein is expected to return to the Rangers’ lineup in time for the start of the playoffs.
The calm, even-keeled Vigneault has ushered in a night and day difference in comparison to his fiery predecessor. Vigneault isn’t running his skaters into the ground. His desire is to roll four lines and he spreads out minutes more evenly. Tortorella had a tendency to shorten the bench, offering sparse minutes to fourth liners and placing a heavy burden on his top two defensive pairs. Under Vigneault, no player is overloaded and the Rangers are fresher come playoff time.
Ahead of Vigneault’s second season in New York, some experts thought the Rangers would take a step back after the franchise lost Anton Stralman, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot in the offseason. That hasn’t been the case.
Vigneault trusts young players to fill roles. Last season, Chris Kreider flourished because of Vigneault’s belief in him. Previously, Kreider was yo-yoed between AHL Hartford and New York because Tortorella was so narrow-minded that he would not accept players that couldn’t immediately fit into his defense-first prototype. Kreider is continuing to gain a greater understanding of how to make best use of his rare combination of blazing speed and hulking strength.
Young players succeed under Vigneault’s watch because he offers them latitude and trust. He lets them figure it out. Fresh out of Boston College, rookie center Kevin Hayes has demonstrated star potential with his silky hands, ability to protect the puck and poise. Jesper Fast, 23, has grown into a dependable two-way winger with a very smart defensive conscience.
After failing to gain Vigneault’s trust last season, J.T. Miller has smoothed out much of the defensive issues that previously plagued his chances of becoming a mainstay in the NHL. During Martin St. Louis’ eight-game absence, Miller stepped up his game by recording seven points (three goals, four assists). When St. Louis returned to the lineup on Thursday night in Minnesota, Miller remained in a top-six role while St. Louis skated on the third line with Hayes and left wing Carl Hagelin.
In Vigneault’s first two seasons in New York, the results speak for themselves. At .632, Vigneault has the highest point percentage of any coach in franchise history who has served 100 games. In his first season with the Rangers, Vigneault tied the franchise record for road victories. He has set a new franchise record with 26 road victories in his second season behind the Rangers’ bench. Having defeated the Minnesota Wild 3-2 on Thursday night, the Rangers clinched the Metropolitan Division.
It’s not just in New York that Vigneault has enjoyed tremendous success. Vigneault has maintained a remarkable track record since his days in Vancouver. His teams have won a division title in six of the last seven seasons, and in seven of the last nine seasons. He leads all NHL head coaches with 407 victories since the start of the 2006-07 season.
By firing Vigneault and hiring Torts, the Canucks took a damaging step back last season. Current head coach Willie Desjardins has done a fine repair job in his rookie season as Canucks head coach. But boy, do the folks in Vancouver wish they never parted ways with the wonderful AV.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.