Following a disastrous second round loss, the Rangers have heavily revamped their roster. Coach Alain Vigneault still remains. He shouldn’t get comfy.
Vigneault’s job seemed safe after the Rangers gave him a contract extension last January. The move left some fans scratching their heads. A disappointing end to 16-17 left those same fans calling for Vigneault’s head to roll.
Last week the Rangers replaced assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom with Lindy Ruff. The move calls Vigneault’s job security into question. Ruff boasts an even longer NHL coaching resume than Vigneault does.
We don’t know if the Rangers hired Ruff to put pressure on Vigneault or because they saw him as an upgrade over Beukeboom. Neither reason makes much sense though, given Ruff’s track record.
Vigneault accomplished everything short of a Stanley Cup in his first two seasons on Broadway. The 13-14 Rangers made the Stanley Cup Final and the 14-15 Rangers won the President’s trophy before losing in the Eastern Conference Final.
Vigneault’s magic seemed to fade after 14-15 though. The 15-16 Rangers got stomped by Pittsburgh in round one and the 16-17 squad dropped a very winnable series to Ottawa in round two.
The Rangers’ advanced metrics over this period put the arc of Vigneault’s tenure in even less favorable light. Since ranking sixth in even strength corsi for percentage close in 13-14, the Rangers have dropped to 19th, 20th, and 23rd over the last three seasons.
Corsi (CF%) tracks the percentage of a shot attempts teams manage in games. This handy statistic roughly correlates to puck possession.
Corsi close limits itself to situations within one goal in the first two periods and tie games in the third. Teams tend to sit back with bigger leads, which skews the numbers. For this reason, corsi close paints a truer picture than raw corsi totals.
Most of the blame for New York’s declining performance falls on the roster, where it should. General Manager Jeff Gorton made sweeping moves to improve the team this summer. Adding Kevin Shattenkirk and subtracting Dan Girardi should make a huge difference even with the loss of Derek Stepan.
It is the coach’s job, however, to get the best out of his team and minimize its flaws. Vigneault struggles to manage that feat.
Vigneault tends to favor experience over talent to absurd extremes. His mishandling of Brady Skjei arguably cost the Rangers a playoff series. Skjei is only the most recent and blatant victim of this trend though.
Rookie Russian winger Pavel Buchnevich flashed exciting potential last season, but Vigneault never let him cement a lineup spot. Buchnevich often found himself demoted to the fourth line a shift or two into games. Late in the season, Buchnevich lost his spot to tough guy Tanner Glass despite outplaying him.
Vigneault chose to dress Glass in elimination games over Buchnevich and Kevin Hayes in consecutive seasons. Glass is a free agent and should not be re-signed, but New York won’t enter camp without adding a grinding forward or two. Vigneault can’t keep using them to push Buchnevich down and out of the lineup.
The defense presents a similar temptation for Vigneault’s worst impulses. Veterans Marc Staal and Nick Holden shouldn’t be locks for an opening night spot. The two made an awful paring, but Vigneault gave them top four minutes all of last season.
The front office added a large group of young defensemen to challenge them, including Alexei Bereglazov, Anthony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk. It’s tough to imagine Vigneault bumping Staal and Holden to the press box for rookies, but that’s exactly what he should have to do to keep his job.
Ruff and ready?
The Rangers ostensibly hired Lindy Ruff to replace Beukeboom and run the defense. Ruff’s extensive head coaching experience naturally leads to speculation about his taking over for Vigneault should they struggle early. Fans should hope Ruff’s not next in line.
Ruff served as head coach of an NHL team in every season from 97-98 to 16-17. He memorably lead Buffalo to the 98-99 Stanley Cup Final, but his teams have won only one playoff series in the last 10 seasons.
Most worryingly, Ruff’s squads tend to fare poorly in their own zone. Using even strength corsi close, which tracks back to 07-08, his teams consistently rank in the bottom half of the NHL in preventing shot attempts. The 09-10 Buffalo Sabres managed the best of this group, ranking 14th in the NHL at shot suppression.
Furthermore, Ruff appears to have the same issues Vigneault does with trusting young players. Ruff’s 16-17 Dallas Stars featured a porous defense. Yet Julius Honka, their best young defenseman, got into only 16 games despite posting very strong corsi numbers.
Comically, Ruff and Vigneault even had similar styles during their playing days. Both racked up about twice as many penalty minutes as games played.
Hot seats plural
A weak blue line proved to be New York’s undoing in 16-17. The additions of Shattenkirk and several young players, along with Brendan Smith’s re-signing, give the Rangers a significantly different look on the back end.
On paper, the Rangers now have a loaded defense. If that group somehow struggles, both Vigneault and Ruff should lose their jobs.
Likewise, the same should happen if the young forwards struggle under increased expectations with the absence of Stepan. Nothing in Ruff’s history suggests he’d handle Buchnevich or the rookie defensemen any better than Vigneault.
Hiring Ruff to replace Vigneault would accomplish little. He’s another retread and carries much of the same baggage as the man he’d replace. When Gorton finally decides to replace Vigneault, he needs to find someone with a fresher perspective.