By Sean Hartnett
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The dark days have arrived at Madison Square Garden. Having lost seven out of their last eight games, the injured-ravaged and confidence-drained Rangers are limping toward the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
In a nationally televised game Wednesday night, the Boston Bruins rolled into Manhattan and laid a 6-1 beatdown on the Blueshirts. Following the one-sided defeat, coach Alain Vigneault’s summarizing of the Rangers’ performance probably will be met with eye rolls and headshakes of disbelief from a fan base that has seen few answers and little progress in a downward-spiraling season.
“We started off the game well,” Vigneault said. “We had good energy. We were following the game plan. We were doing our jobs on the ice. Cody (McLeod) went out and showed some aggressiveness. I thought we deserved better than being down by a goal, but there’s no doubt that in the second period, that after that third and fourth goal, we fell hard after that. We stopped doing our jobs on the ice.
“I think tonight there’s no doubt that our guys were prepared to play, and we knew what we had to do,” he continued. “We came out, and we were doing it. That third and fourth line, I believe, should be able to respond after that, but we didn’t respond. We stopped doing our jobs on the ice, and there’s no doubt that they made us look very bad tonight.”
What is clear is that the Rangers can no longer be built on the shaky foundations that have persisted under Vigneault’s leadership. It’s the head coach that has more to prove than anyone else in the Rangers’ dressing room. Can he reinvent himself and break from his well-worn philosophies? Can he inspire an aura of confidence within his team and within a fan base that largely disapproves of his methods?
Even before the injury toll hit this club like a hurricane, Vigneault’s suboptimal usage and questionable lineup decisions factored into the Rangers’ downfall. Nick Holden has consistently received the minutes of a top-pairing defenseman. While Holden frequently gets overmatched against top opposition, he’s steady enough when used in a less-demanding role. After the dust settles following the trade deadline, Holden could very well be proving his worth in a less intensive role for a different organization.
For a good chunk of the season, Vigneault relegated one of his most productive offensive weapons in Pavel Buchnevich to fourth-line duty. A 29-year-old borderline NHL talent in Steven Kampfer has been preferred over the promise of youthful defensemen, including Neal Pionk, Ryan Graves and John Gilmour. Pionk was called up by the Rangers on Thursday morning to take the spot of Brendan Smith, who was put on waivers.
Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil and Boo Nieves are being groomed at minor-league Hartford. If they are handed a legitimate shot in the NHL, they would offer more value than a pair forwards pulled from the scrap heap in Peter Holland and McLeod.
The NHL has always been a results-oriented business. Every coach across the league must continually prove his worth to stave off a trip to the unemployment line. Former Rangers general manager and current team president Glen Sather explained that every coach has an expiration date when he fired Vigneault’s predecessor, John Tortorella, in 2013.
“Every coach has a shelf life,” Sather said at the time. “I’ve told every guy that I’ve hired that, at some point in time, this is going to change.”
As the Rangers’ season veers closer toward a playoff-less spring, Vigneault will need to offer reminders of his long-term worth to save his skin. The decision of whether to persist with Vigneault behind the bench is in the hands of current GM Jeff Gorton. Gorton has made big calls both as Boston’s interim GM in 2006 and since he replaced Sather in his current role in 2015. Either sticking with or cutting ties with Vigneault is going to be the most defining decision of Gorton’s tenure to date.
If Vigneault is looking for inspiration on how to adapt, he can look to the turnaround Tortorella has engineered in Columbus. Tortorella earned the Jack Adams Award last season after summoning a revival in Columbus due largely to him tossing aside his defense-first principles to suit the Blue Jackets’ speed, skill and youth.
Tortorella clinged too tightly to stifling, gritty ethics and an endless parade of shot blocking – and that was his downfall in New York and in Vancouver. Vigneault’s immediate success as Tortorella’s replacement was based on incorporating up-tempo hockey and lightning-quick puck movement. He also gave the locker room the leeway to sort out issues internally. His brand of appealing to players wasn’t through the fire and brimstone speeches that wore out their welcome in Tortorella’s final year at the Garden.
Vigneault must now carefully determine the measures needed to infuse life back into the Rangers to keep his job. When times of trouble emerge, good coaches have the answers. We’ll soon know whether AV has a trick or two up his sleeve or if his time in New York nearing its end.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey