By Sean Hartnett
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Alain Vigneault has mostly tasted success since taking over behind the Rangers’ bench in the summer of 2013. The 56-year-old’s bottom-line results have largely trumped the criticisms he receives for his questionable decisions regarding his lineups and player usage.
Vigneault has guided the Blueshirts to the playoffs and beyond in each of his first four seasons at the Garden largely due to the superhuman performances of franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. In order for the Rangers to repeat the trick this season, Vigneault will have to get the tough calls correct and make the most of a roster that will be trimmed of experience as the Feb. 26 trade deadline looms closer.
It’s clear that after the trade deadline passes, he will be left with a lineup mostly comprised of inexperienced youngsters playing in front of the franchise rock that is Lundqvist. It remains to be seen how deep the roster-gutting will go for the sake of stockpiling youthful talents and accumulating draft picks.
Alternate captain Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Nick Holden and David Desharnais lead the list of over-30-year-old veterans with expiring contracts whom the Rangers could part with, as general manager Jeff Gorton prepares to hit the reset button. Strong offers for captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate captain Mats Zuccarello will be considered.
In a case of Vigneault being stripped of talent for the stretch run, it would be difficult to quantify what exactly could be defined as progress. Would qualifying for the playoffs with an undermanned roster merit keeping Vigneault at his post beyond this season?
Or would progress be measured more by Vigneault’s ability to incorporate and develop youngsters? Defensemen John Gilmour, 24, and Neal Pionk, 22, have gotten off to encouraging starts in their first two games with the big club. Gilmour has skated for 14:58 per game, while averaging 2:36 on the power play and an even one minute on the penalty kill. Pionk has skated for 16:57 per game, while averaging 3:40 in short-handed situations.
Consecutive victories over the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets have come after Gorton and team president Glen Sather met with the media last Thursday to discuss the organization’s eye toward rebuilding for the future. While the earliest returns of the youth movement may look rosy now, a roster free of Nash, Grabner and other mainstays would severely diminish the Rangers’ chances of playoff qualification.
Should the Rangers finish the season outside the playoffs, Vigneault could merely point to the lack of talent at his disposal as the reason. The Rangers exited Bell MTS Place on Sunday with an unlikely 3-1 victory over a Jets team that knows how to defend home ice. Winnipeg owns the league’s best home record at 20-5-2.
The Rangers managed little sustained offense in Sunday’s win. Large gaps left in defensive zone coverage and a lack of offensive zone time normally lead to one-sided losses. The Rangers only generated six first-period shots and four third-period shots.
Lundqvist saved the day like he has all season long. He turned aside 37 shots, as the Blueshirts were outshot 38-28. The 35-year-old netminder has excelled despite being subject to a lot of feeble defensive performances and incomplete 60-minute efforts. Whenever the Rangers’ boat is punctured and begins taking on water, Lundqvist patches up the cracks and tends to steer the ship to victory.
So it was odd when Vigneault chose to single out Lundqvist and backup Ondrej Pavelec prior to Friday’s home meeting against the Flames. Pavelec since suffered an MCL sprain and will be sidelined for two to three weeks.
“I believe that we’re a goaltender getting on a roll here to being back in the hunt and back into the playoffs,” Vigneault said. “We started our season 4-7-2, and we were a little inconsistent in the goaltending department. I felt we were playing better than our record indicated. Goaltending got better, we went on a (18-7-3) run. Came back from the bye week and since that time, we’ve been on a (3-10) run. A little inconsistent in the goaltending department. I believe that we’re playing better than our record indicates, and I really believe that Hank and Pav can get on a roll and we can get back in the hunt and we can get back in the playoffs.”
Lundqvist’s .898 save percentage in 10 October games and .897 save percentage through six February games are small blips in a season in which he’s been a .919 save percentage goalie. That’s one point below his career average on a team that’s bleeding shots against. Out of all NHL goalies, the 1,481 shots against Lundqvist has faced is second only to Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Coaches sometimes use the tactic of demanding more from a star player because they know that a driven player (an extremely driven one in Lundqvist’s case) can handle the added pressure. Vigneault has a dressing room of 23 different personalities to manage. Some players will respond well to a public challenge, while others need constant ego massaging.
But in this case, it felt very much like Vigneault was barking up the wrong tree at the wrong time. Lundqvist’s play is not a reason for the Rangers’ inconsistency. He’s the No. 1 reason why a flawed and injury-ravaged Rangers team is still in the playoff hunt. Without him, the Rangers would probably be close to the Eastern Conference cellar.
Vigneault’s mistimed comments on Lundqvist are another example of him failing to sing from the same hymn sheet as the Rangers’ fan base. The fans aren’t buying it when Vigneault labels Lundqvist as inconsistent, or says the team was “prepared to play” following a 6-1 defeat to the Boston Bruins or when he favored the struggling pair of Marc Staal and Nick Holden over Brady Skjei in late-game situations as the Rangers were ousted by the Ottawa Senators last playoffs.
Lundqvist gets unconditional love from the fans because he deserves it through his performances and unquenching desire to win for this city. If Vigneault is determined to win over the fan base, he’s going to need to start speaking their language.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey