New York Rangers’ Alain Vigneault Desperately Needs Rebound Season


With 144 wins across three full seasons as the head coach of the New York Rangers, there is no question that Alain Vigneault has piloted the team skillfully and wisely during his tenure.

An average of 48 wins per season does not happen accidentally, and fans of professional sports teams understand that a talented roster does’nt necessarily guarantee wins.

Not having a Stanley Cup title to his name, despite being an unfortunate reality and regardless of common thinking, does not detract from the regular season and playoff success that Vigneault’s Rangers’ teams have achieved.

Early Successes as Head Coach

Feb 11, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella directs his team from the bench against the Philadelphia Flyers during the 3rd period at the Wells Fargo Center. The Rangers beat the Flyers, 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Szagola-USA TODAY Sports
Former Rangers head coach John Tortorella /

In an era of league-wide parity, the Rangers have sustained a meaningful presence at or near the top of the NHL standings for three years running. It cannot go unmentioned that Vigneault’s predecessor, John Tortorella, had created a winning culture from the ashes of a franchise that had gone adrift, at least prior to his ego-fueled implosion. Vigneault’s entry into the picture, however, moved the the franchise forward, if only because he allowed the roster to dictate the style as opposed to the inverse approach favored by Tortorella.

Moving a franchise forward is no small feat, especially considering that parity in the modern NHL translates into there being far less distance between elite and struggling franchises. There are franchises that have struggled for several years running and beyond, however on any given night even the best teams can be upended by the least likely foe. To be able to claim an average of 48 wins across three seasons, then, is quite an accomplishment in a league where every point counts from game one through game 82.

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It could be argued that the 2013-14 team that went to the Finals, losing to the Los Angeles Kings by a grand total of five goals over five games—two of which went to double-OT with another ending in the first OT—was an example of a squad that over-achieved by a wide margin. The group had certainly rallied around a grieving Martin St. Louis, who had lost his mother during the first round vs. Pittsburgh, but it cannot be ignored that it was Vigneault who had righted the ship after a disastrous start to the regular season, thereby providing the structural foundation for the possibility of any success at all.

The following regular season, 2014-15, was certainly as special as any in the long history of the franchise thanks to 113 total points and a President’s Trophy as the leading point earner for the league. It was also the most regular season points earned by any Rangers team, ever, and if not for significant injuries to the Big Three (at the time) d-men, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Stahl, that hobbled their collective ability to undermine the speed game of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Disappointments of 2015-16

This past regular season, when compared to the two previous seasons under Vigneault, saw a dramatic decline in terms of team performance if not in terms of bottom line results. The 2015-16 squad actually produced more wins  (46-45) and points (101-96)  than the 2013-14 group- though they were outpaced by the 2014-15 squad, of course – but with that said it would be difficult to suggest that the 2015-16 group actually outperformed the 2013-14 team during their respective regular seasons in terms of quality of play. Moreover, when compared to the 2014-15 team, this past season’s squad was not even in the conversation despite the personnel being, to a very large degree, quite similar. There were approximately 17 players on the 2015-16 roster that played critical role during the previous season as well, so turnover was not an issue.

And for all of those proponents of the

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Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin /

narrative that the loss of Carl Hagelin doomed the season, well, pipe down. Hagelin’s contributions on the PK were significant, yes, and his ability to pressure d-men on the forecheck was sorely missed. It could even be said that the Rangers never truly replaced what Hagelin brought to the table to any meaningful degree. With all of that said, it defies logic to suggest that the absence of a third line winger who averaged roughly 15:00 minutes per game during his Ranger tenure—including PK time, mind you—and never scored more than 17 goals in a season, was the deciding factor in the team’s overall play. This was not Mark Messier leaving the Oilers after the 1991-92 season. This wasn’t Pittsburgh losing Mario Lemieux to premature retirement, and this certainly wasn’t Wayne Gretzky heading to LA.

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New York Rangers right wing Kevin Hayes /

In truth, it was the decline in effort and output from too many of the core players that doomed this past season. It can be argued that the drop in play from Kevin Hayes was clearly the most alarming development of the season, but the list of under-performers also includes Chris Kreider, Brian Boyle, Dan Girardi, Marc Stahl and, to some extent, Ryan McDonagh.

As for Hayes, he was a consistent no-show in terms of effort and failed to contribute to the level that was expected. He seemed detached, confused and at times indifferent. This was more than a sophomore jinx, this was falling off a cliff. Final point totals for Hayes do not demonstrate just what a tremendous step back he took, and the most disconcerting aspect from an organizational perspective has to be that the effort was simply not there. These deficiencies were certainly noted by and commented on by Vigneault on many occasions, and yet he chose to coddle Hayes through the process. J.T. Miller, on the other hand, who despite being error prone was engaged, combative and productive essentially the entire year, found himself bounced from line to line during games far too often.

Kreider, for his part, did too much aimless drifting, only applying his considerable skill to its full extent over the last 20 or so regular season games. There is virtually

Jan 14, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; New York Rangers left wing Chris Kreider (20) controls the puck against the New York Islanders during the third period at Barclays Center. The Islanders defeated the Rangers 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
New York Rangers left wing Chris Kreider /

no discernible statistical difference in Kreider’s performance over the past two seasons. It was in the area of the eye test, however, where Kreider failed to progress. He didn’t take the body, use his speed or present himself as an opponent that needs to be feared, despite the fact that he should do and be all of those things night in and night out. Here again, Vigneault used the carrot and not the stick, and this was with Kreider making comment after comment in the press regarding his own poor play.

As for McDonagh, injuries have slowed his development, no doubt, but cannot be considered the primary influence on his pedestrian play, and pedestrian lay from McDonagh is not enough. He is simply not the player he was two years ago on a number of levels. As outsiders we have no way to

New York Rangers
New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh /

know what his locker room presence may be, but he is certainly respected by his teammates. Regardless, his on-ice impact is not what it once was and in this regard Vigneault and his staff have not appeared to push the right buttons.

Which brings us to the core point of the discussion, the fact that Vigneault was incapable of pushing the right buttons on too many players that were critical to the success or failure of the team. When alternatives existed, such as Dylan McIlrath for Girardi and/or Boyle, a more prominent role for Oscar Lindbergh to push Kevin Hayes, or the insertion of rookie d-man Brady Skjei into the mix earlier and more often to alleviate a tired or overworked d-corps, Vigneault stubbornly clung to the horses that served him well in the past. Admirable? Yes. Wise? No. This practice stunted the growth of younger players, pushed veteran players beyond their limits and sent the message that mediocrity was condoned.

The Rangers’ Cultural Breakdown is Evident Too Often

This was a team built on unity that failed to consistently unite, even progressing to the point where players publicly grumbled about dedication and effort levels. Vigneault is well known as a hands-off coach, preferring that players police themselves. With a veteran group this approach is viable, but when a veteran group demonstrates that it is incapable of sustained effort and intensity it is time for the coach to step in to change the dynamic. More often than not, changing the dynamic means changing the players, at least incrementally. Vigneault’s unwillingness to sit Kreider and Hayes, replace Girardi and Boyle with McIlrath more frequently and insert Skjei into the group until injuries forced his hand hurt this team tremendously.

What’s Next for AV?

Dec 15, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei (76) warms up before a game against the Edmonton Oilers at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei /

As the saying goes, you cant replace an entire team but you can replace the coach. One sub-par season does not warrant Vigneault being let go, and there is no chance this happens during the off-season anyway. If the team struggles out of the gate, though, and is mired in the type of funk that infected the 2015-16 group far too frequently, look for Vigneault to be on the hot seat no later than December of this year. While the Rangers project to be much younger heading into the new season, with a number of prospects pushing for substantial ice-time, wholesale changes to the older core do not appear in the making. This means the clock ticks louder for Vigneault, 48 wins per season notwithstanding.

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