The Alain Vigneault Era Begins

Hockey is backkkkkkkkkkkkkkk! Yes, it’s already been back for two days, but the Rangers open their season on Thursday night, so now it’s really back. It’s been over four months since I chose to walk to a bar in the pouring rain rather than watch the final minutes run on the 2012-13 Rangers season in Game 5 against the Bruins, but the devastating postseason ending can now be erased for a new season.

With the Rangers opening their season against the Coyotes in Phoenix on Thursday, I did an email exchange with Kevin DeLury of The New York Rangers Blog to talk about the difference between Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella, Henrik Lundqvist’s contract situation and whether or not Chris Kreider will ever live up to his first-round draft status.

Keefe: The Rangers are back and just in time with both the Yankees season and Giants season ending last Sunday. After last year’s 48-game schedule was squeezed into 99 days and then the 12 postseason games the Rangers played, it seems like just last week they were being eliminated by the Bruins in Game 5 of the conference semifinals even if it was 131 days ago.

Let’s start with the biggest change for the Rangers over that time, which came at head coach with John Tortorella thankfully being fired and changing places with Vancouver’s Alain Vigneault.

I was never really a Vigneault supporter from what I had seen from afar during his three-plus years with the Canadiens and seven years with the Canucks and wasn’t really sold on him being the No. 1 target for Glen Sather and being given the job so quickly and easily. But I have gotten to learn more about him starting with his introductory press conference and how he has performed through the preseason schedule and with the media. I’m definitely all for his offensive coaching style, which won’t have players like Rick Nash and Brad Richards diving headfirst at bombs from the blue line or being asked to muck it up in the corners and sacrifice their bodies. It’s just too bad Marian Gaborik isn’t here to play under Vigneault and had to be traded during the Tortorella era. (Yes, I’m still bitter.)

DeLury: I’m not sure why any Rangers fan would be thankful that John Tortorella was fired. The guy changed the entire perception of the Rangers organization. Instead of being a country club for veteran players to cash one last huge paycheck before riding off into the sunset, Tortorella held players accountable for their actions and made sure they did things “the right way.”

He was able to convince Glen Sather that trying to buy a Stanley Cup was never going to work and that building from within was a winning strategy. Hard-working and dedicated young players such as Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Marc Staal were given leadership positions and became the core of the Blueshirts under Tortorella. When talented veterans such as Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards were acquired they were seen as part of the equation, not the answer. And the results proved Tortorella correct as the 2011-12 Rangers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997. That success was followed up last season with a trip to the conference semifinals in which the shorthanded Rangers (no Staal or Ryan Clowe) were knocked out by a talented Bruins squad.

Now that I’ve painted that rosy picture of Tortorella, I’ll cut him down a bit.

Despite the change in culture and all the success, Tortorella’s constant line changes and reliance on top players to the point in which they were burnt out was beyond maddening. And don’t get me started on the Rangers power play, which was beyond pathetic under a coach who was supposed to be a guru with the man advantage. How can a team with Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards not have a successful power play?

I do feel Torts got a bad rap for the shot-blocking mentality the team had. Right away, he recognized the team didn’t have a wealth of goal scorers, so he felt the only way the Rangers could win was to pack the defense in, rely on his all-world goaltender to steal games and hope the forwards generated enough of a forecheck to produce timely offense. And it worked.

That was until Rick Nash was brought in last season. Tortorella’s stubbornness got the best of him. Yes, his shot-blocking ways led to a conference finals appearance, but when you bring in a Rick Nash, you have to open up the offense and his refusal to modify his game plan to fit a team that didn’t need to grind their way to victory ultimately led to his demise.

I was initially against the firing, but after hearing the reports about what a nightmare it was for the players last season, I don’t think Sather had much of a choice.

As far as Vigneault, I wasn’t a big fan at first. For all the talent and regular-season success he had in Vancouver he was only able to guide the Canucks out of the second round ONCE in his seven years as head coach, including first-round upset losses in each of the last two seasons. Sure, he got the Canucks to within one game of the Stanley Cup, but he lost a Game 7 in his own building with everything on the line.

Having said all that, he’s been a breath of fresh air for the Rangers so far as the positive energy surrounding the team in training camp is palpable. Unfortunately, the results on the ice didn’t reflect it during the preseason. The Rangers scored just nine goals in six games, while giving up 22. So not only are the Blueshirts still not scoring, now they can’t play defense.

Vigneault used most of the preseason to evaluate the talent on the Rangers instead of prepping for the season, which likely led to the uneven play. While I understand that mindset, I just have to question whether the evaluation process went on a little too long and the team is behind the eight ball as they’ve yet to play a game with the opening night line-up.

Yes, it was preseason, but Rick Nash and Brad Richards combining for zero points along with prized prospect Chris Kreider being re-assigned to the AHL after a very unimpressive showing is cause for concern.

So, going into the season, I’m a little uneasy.

Keefe: You mentioned the power play under Tortorella and how it’s unfathomable that a team with Nash, Gaborik and Richards could have a bad power play. But going back even farther than just last season, I don’t remember the last time the Rangers had even a mediocre power play. Actually it was the 2006-07 season when they finished with eighth-best power play in the league. But in the six seasons since then?

2012-13: 23rd
2011-12: 23
2010-11: 18th
2009-10: 13th
2008-09: 29th
2007-08: 23rd

It’s not the like the Rangers have had offensively-challenged players over the last six seasons and it’s not like they have lacked skill players or true scorers. And this year they certainly don’t aren’t lacking those either with Nash and Richards as the should-be focal points of the power play and Derek Stepan finally signing to guarantee a boost to the team’s offense and the man advantage.

On Tuesday, Vigneault told Mike Francesa that the team has been working on the power play of late and there were reports of Nash being put in front of the net to put a pure scorer with a big body in the slot to create traffic and pick up rebounds. I’m torn on this since theoretically it makes sense, but I would rather see him at the top of the dots ripping one-timers.

The power play has been the Rangers’ downfall and was again last year, especially in the postseason when they went 2-for-28 against the Capitals and 2-for-16 against the Bruins. With Ryan Callahan returning from offseason surgery and Carl Hagelin also due back in a couple of weeks from offseason surgery, the Rangers are currently constructed like a high school team with a dangerous first line, an above average second line and then a third and fourth line that aren’t exactly the definition of “depth.” The Rangers are going to have to rely on their scoring to come from the Richards-Stepan-Nash line and the power play with two of their better scoring options unlikely to be in the lineup soon.

Are you worried about the Rangers’ early-season depth?

DeLury: I’m beyond concerned about the scoring depth on this team. While I don’t think Nash has a 40-goal season in him this year, 35 is absolutely doable for him. After that, I’m not sure who else the Rangers can truly count on to supply consistent goal scoring.

Rangers fans have been fawning over Derick Brassard this offseason, but the fact remains that he’s never eclipsed 20 goals in any season during his career. And while it’s great that the Rangers got Stepan re-signed, he’s never been known as a goal scorer as he’s failed to score more than 21 goals in a season. Callahan and Hagelin’s absence from the lineup as they continue to recover from shoulder surgeries will obviously keep their goal totals down and even when they’re back in the line-up there’s no guarantee they’ll immediately return to form. See Gaborik’s return from shoulder surgery last season. Many predicted a breakout season for Kreider, but he’s down in the AHL, and even if he was on the Rangers he has a grand total of TWO career regular-season goals.

How’s this for a stat: After Nash, only two players on the current roster (Callahan and Richards) have reached 25 goals in a season. And as I mentioned above, it is very doubtful Callahan will reach that total this season. Ditto for Richards if he continues his downward spiral.

Sure, Vigneault is going to open up the offense this season, but if he doesn’t have the players who can execute his new schemes, does it really matter? As far as Vigneault’s power-play strategy, I did like what I saw in the preseason. There was a lot more puck and player movement. I also loved that there was always someone in front causing havoc. I definitely anticipate a more successful power play this season. Hell, it can’t get worse.

The biggest reason for the Rangers power-play failings under Tortorella has been the lack of a true power-play quarterback. The guy who has all the talent to do it is Michael Del Zotto, but I have lots of questions about what goes on between the ears with him.

Keefe: The idea of Henrik Lundqvist leaving via free agency is scarier than the idea of Robinson Cano doing the same. Lundqvist is the reason the Rangers have been relevant in the post-lockout era and the only reason they have gone as far as they have in the playoffs during that time.

Lundqvist and the Rangers have still been talking about an extension, which he says he will ask the talks to cease during the regular season, so they don’t become a distraction and he can focus 100 percent on playing. That means the Rangers have just hours left to get a deal done with No. 30 or it will be a long, long season of the unknown. (Editor’s note: Since the end of the email exchange it was reported that Henrik Lundqvist backed out of contract extension talks.)

And with the Francesa-Vigneault interview mentioned earlier, Vigneault told Francesa that he plans on playing Lundqvist for 60 games this season and then giving 22 to Martin Biron due to research done in the past about Stanley Cup winners and how many games their goalies played. The fewest number of games Lundqvist has played since entering the league was in his rookie season in 2005-06 when he played 53. Since then he has played 70, 72, 70, 73, 68, 62 and 43, but the 43 came in the shortened season and was 89.6 percent of the season, which is the equivalent of 73 games in a regular 82-game season.

What do you think will happen with Lundqvist’s extension? Please don’t tell me we will be looking at a revolving goalie door for a decade starting in 2014-15.

DeLury: Now that the regular season is virtually upon us and Lundqvist has declared that he’s not going to be a part of negotiations during the summer, it looks like if a deal is going to get done it won’t be until next summer. Which makes this season, probably one of the most important in franchise history.

I’ve never seen an athlete so driven by winning as Lundqvist. He has made no bones about it, he wants to win a Stanley Cup. Would winning it in New York be his ideal scenario? Of course, but if he isn’t enamored with the direction of the team under Vigneault and doesn’t feel the Rangers give him the best chance to achieve his goal, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him bolt for a team like the Penguins.

And while most so-called experts expect the Rangers to break the bank to keep “The King” on his throne in New York, I’m not so sure. It would be beyond the height of stupidity for the Rangers to offer a 31-year old goaltender an eight-year, $80 million contract in the salary cap era, epecially when the team still needs to re-sign Callahan and Dan Girardi next offseason as well.

I love the idea of limiting Lundqvist’s workload in an attempt to keep him fresh for the postseason. One of the knocks over the years of Hank has been his inability to carry the team on his shoulders to the promise land in the postseason. Hopefully this strategy will allow him to do that. Although, that workload could increase significantly if the Rangers fall behind in the standings early and Vigneault needs to lean on the All-Star goaltender down the stretch.

Keefe: In February 2012, I would have traded anything for Rick Nash and that anything included Chris Kreider. At the time Kreider was a 20-year-old college hockey player and 2009 first-round pick of the Rangers. The debate favored keeping Kreider over trading him for a player, who if Kreider lived up to his potential would still never match in talent, ability or skill. Ultimately the Rangers decided not to trade for Nash and ended up needing seven games to get by the Senators and Capitals before falling to the Devils in six games in the conference finals.

I argued that the Rangers can’t keep wasting years of Henrik Lundqvist’s prime by not balancing the team with offense. How many more documentaries and shows can be squeezed out of the 1993-94 season? Isn’t it time the Rangers start to make new memories and stop reliving ones from two decades ago?

Kreider was called up for the postseason and scored five goals in 18 games. But last year he became a frequent traveler between Hartford and New York, playing only 23 games for the Rangers and scoring just two goals and adding one assist. He played in eight of the Rangers’ 12 playoff games and had a goal and an assist.

Earlier this preseason, Kreider was playing with Nash and Richards and looking like he might be part of the Rangers’ top line and given a chance to finally prove his first-round worth. Instead he had a poor camp and was sent to Hartford on Sunday to start the season.

Kreider isn’t that young anymore when it comes to a former first-round pick (though he’s not old by any stretch). He’s 22 now and it’s been over four years since he was drafted and he has 23 regular-season games under his belt. To put that in perspective, out of the 29 others players taken in the first round with Kreider in 2009, 25 of them have played more NHL games than him.

What are we to make of Kreider?

DeLury: Last season, Tortorella caught a huge amount of flak for his handling of Chris Kreider. His constant bouncing from the Rangers and Hartford was said to be ruining the kid’s confidence. But I think this preseason’s underwhelming performance from the Rangers No. 1 prospect leading to his assignment to the Wolf Pack almost vindicates Tortorella’s hesitancy to use Kreider in a bigger role.

Kreider has first-line talent, which is why you saw Vigneault put him on a line with Nash and Richards in the preseason, but what the new Rangers head coach found out very quickly is that Kreider might not have the NHL IQ to go along with that talent.

A ton of minutes in every situation in the AHL will be much better for his development than 15 minutes of even strength action in the NHL. I have all the confidence in the world that he will be recalled at some point this season and will succeed at the NHL level. He’s just too talented not to.

Keefe: So here we go with 82 games between now and April 12. It will be a tough stretch out of the gate for the Rangers with nine games on the road to start the season because of the third and final year of MSG renovations.

I’m not as concerned with the early-season schedule as I am with the scoring depth and apparent lack of secondary scoring options, which has pretty much been my biggest concern with the team over the last six years. I’m also obviously concerned about Lundqvist’s contract situation even if that might not get taken care of until the end of the year and by then Lundqvist might decide he wants to play for a team that can score a goal in a playoff game.

What are you most excited about this Rangers team other than the season starting and what worries you about this team?

DeLury: I’m most excited about a fresh start for the Rangers. Despite all the doom and gloom I’ve been spewing, there is a sense of camaraderie that is very similar to the 2011-12 club that was one of the closest Rangers teams I’ve rooted for.

While most might see the nine-game road trip to start the season as a negative, I think it’ll be a huge bonding experience that fosters a ton of chemistry with the team. It also doesn’t hurt to have one of the league’s best goal scorers in Nash and when everything breaks down it’s always nice to turn to the greatest goaltender on the planet.

I’m most worried about the lack of team toughness. I watched the Rangers get pushed around all last season with zero push back. Both Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash got run last season without a response which is absolutely unacceptable. When the Rangers were successful under Tortorella they displayed toughness and grit. When an opposing team faced the Blueshirts they were prepared to fight for every inch of the ice. Torts’ crew wasn’t the most talented team, but would outwork their opponent and were always there for each other. For some reason the “jam” as Torts liked to call it disappeared last season.

When the Rangers parted ways with heart and soul guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko and John Mitchell after the 2011-12 season, I think management miscalculated how integral those guys were to the success of the team. And up until this point, those players have yet to be replaced.