By Sean Hartnett
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Back in the summer of 2013, the Rangers were physically battered and mentally drained after enduring four-plus seasons of punishing, defense-first hockey under exiting head coach John Tortorella.
The hiring of Tortorella’s replacement was a call that the Rangers absolutely had to get right. Appointing the wrong coach could have sunk the Blueshirts into mediocrity, given how quickly franchises rise and fall in the modern NHL.
Hiring Alain Vigneault was one of the best decisions made by Glen Sather during his 15-year run as Rangers general manager.
On June 21, 2013, the soft-spoken Quebec native and 35th head coach in franchise history was introduced. Immediately, it was Vigneault’s job to pick up the pieces and reprogram a team that had become accustomed to playing black-and-blue hockey.
“We needed a change in style,” Sather said at Vigneault’s introductory press conference. “If you look at the injuries, a number of guys were getting the crap kicked out of them because we constantly had to defend in our own end. We needed to move the puck out quick. That style was perfect for a couple of years, but it started to wear our team out.”
Vigneault breathed new life into the Rangers. He introduced an uptempo system that got the most out of skill players. He trusted his charges to carry the puck and pick their spots to join the attack.
“I like my teams to play the right way,” Vigneault said. “If you’ve got room to make a play, make a play. If you’ve got space and time to carry the puck, carry the puck. If the other team is playing you tight, sometimes you have to make the high-percentage play and chip the puck in.
“I believe the top skill players have to be given a little more latitude. They have to be given 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.”
Under Vigneault’s watch, they became the go-go Rangers. In Vigneault’s words, franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh has “that green light all the time.”
“We’ve got good skating defensemen on this team, and you see the good teams in the league have four-man looks, guys joining, and it’s tough to sustain pressure if it’s only three forwards against five guys in the zone,” McDonagh said in February. “You need your defensemen to get involved to keep the puck in, or have a good pinch to give ourselves another good opportunity.”
That trust was extended to Kevin Klein, who similar to McDonagh under Tortorella was forced to think defense-first under Barry Trotz in Nashville. Last season, Klein recorded a career-best .40 points per game in his first full season under Vigneault.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on our team in the back end who can make plays,” Klein said in February. “A lot of our defenseman are chipping in offensively, and that’s great to see. There’s a few teams in the league that really incorporate their ‘D’ well. When you can have four or five guys that can attack, it creates a little more chaos in the offensive zone.”
Of equal importance, Vigneault ushered in a relaxed atmosphere. The Rangers are a cool bunch, their self-belief is an extension of AV’s calm and collected demeanor. All of this paid off as the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference finals in back-to-back seasons and fell just short of making a repeat trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15.
Vigneault’s approach is a night-and-day difference from Tortorella, whose uncompromising principals led to his dismissal. There was no give-back with Torts systematically or in his handling of dressing room personalities. He was a total believer in his defensively obsessed philosophies – even if it stifled offense — and he never held back his infamous brutal honesty – even if it bruised a few egos.
Marian Gaborik wasn’t allowed to be scoring winger Marian Gaborik. He had to fit the same mold as say Ruslan Fedotenko or Brandon Prust. A naturally skilled youngster in Chris Kreider was forced to fit the Tortorella prototype like a square peg into a round hole. Torts piled on all-effort winger Carl Hagelin by declaring eight times during a playoff press conference that the Swede “stinks” on the power play. Hagelin had only played a total of 13 seconds on the power play through the first eight games of the 2013 playoffs and underwent surgery on a torn shoulder labrum after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Rangers in the conference semifinals.
For two seasons, the Rangers have flourished under Vigneault’s leadership. The 54-year-old holds the second-highest regular season points percentage in franchise history at .637, only trailing Stanley Cup winner Mike Keenan’s mark of .667.
Vigneault was to speak Thursday in front of a gathering of reporters for the first time since the Rangers were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games in last season’s conference finals. When Vigneault last addressed the media, he spoke of his belief that the Rangers are very close to realizing their Stanley Cup dream.
“We’ve been knocking at the door, we’ve been getting close to the hump there and almost getting ready to get fully over,” Vigneault said on the team’s June 1 breakup day. “So, if you ask me, do I believe in this group? I would say my answer is yes.”
“A lot of those pieces are still very young and improving, so it makes it very interesting right now if you’re a Ranger fan,” he added.
Every coach has a shelf life. There will come a day when Vigneault isn’t behind the Rangers’ bench, barking out instructions that echo throughout MSG. Although the pressure to win is high, Vigneault is built to survive in the under-the-microscope atmosphere that is New York sports. His no-panic personality mirrors that of former Yankees manager Joe Torre.
Despite ending New York’s 54-year Cup drought, Keenan walked out on the Rangers after spending one season of infighting with general manager Neil Smith. Tortorella’s unwillingness to modify his unyielding persona and ceaseless grip on defensive hockey led to his downfall.
Vigneault has overseen two seasons of competitiveness and calmness. Unlike the combustible personalities of Keenan and Tortorella, Vigneault could be here for the long haul.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey