Alain Vigneault: A Look Back, Shows a Leap Forward
Flashback to Memorial Day weekend of 2013. More specifically, that Saturday, May 25th. That was the day the Rangers were eliminated from the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs by the Boston Bruins in 5 games. It was also John Tortorella’s final game behind the New York bench.
Just a short time later, 4 days to be exact, the fiery head coach was relieved of his duties as the Rangers head coach.
Some Rangers fans (and members of the press core) rejoiced, while others scratched their heads. Had Glen Sather forgotten that just one year prior, Tortorella brought a young, unassuming Rangers squad to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 18 years? Was it really fair to judge Tortorella on a lockout shortened season?
According to Sather, it was.
And while the saga unfolded in the Big Apple, the dust was just beginning to settle from the drama that had occurred the week before in British Columbia.
Following their first round exit at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, a 4-0 sweep, the Vancouver Canucks announced the firing of their head coach Alain Vigneault, and by the time the puck dropped to kick off the 2013-2014 NHL season, Tortorella and Vigneault had swapped spots; Vigneault headed east to coach the Rangers, while Torts moved west to fill the Canucks coaching vacancy.
Rangers fans were curious, and at first fairly uncertain of what to expect from this mellow man with the cough drop. Compared to Tortorella, Vigneault seemed like Bob Marley. What were once extremely entertaining, and sometimes brow-raising press conferences under Tortorella, had quickly become rather reasonable, well thought out pressers from Vigneault.
Talk about a 180…
Things took a southern turn quickly though, as the Rangers western road trip to start the season didn’t just not go as planned, it went about as badly as it possibly could’ve gone. It was only 9 games, but “Rangerstown” was in a panic.
While things began to even themselves out for the Rangers following the forgettable opening road trip, the Blueshirts were still playing without the consistency needed for long term success.
The team didn’t have a true identity, the fans demanded AV right the ship, and demanded that it happen fast. But amongst all of the worry and concern, the even keeled Vigneault remained cool, calm, and collected, and never appeared even to be stressed, let alone in a panic.
But eventually, and ever so slowly, improvements began to take place, and signs that perhaps the Rangers were actually beginning to head in the right direction after all, started to show.
Young players like Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh began to show glimmers of offensive confidence with their new found freedoms under Vigneault’s system, and in part thanks to the emergence of backup goaltender Cam Talbot, the Rangers found the ability to simplify their game and protect the Prince, which in turn helped them ease into the new “right way” to play under Vigneault’s new possession focused system.
Were there growing pains? You better believe there were. But as the calendar went from 2013 to 2014, big changes happened for the Rangers, and the system started to click.
On Wednesday, January 8th at the United Center, the Rangers finally made a huge leap forward. As Anthony Scultore wrote in a previous article from 2/9/14:
“Finally the corner was turned against the defending Champs in Chicago, where in the third period, Henrik Lundqvist shut the door and became The King again. It was also the debut of Daniel Carcillo who has not only filled in for the injured Derek Dorsett but has turned the whole 4th line around with his play. Instantly, the head coach has been able to role 4 lines with great effect.”
The Rangers never looked back, as just 5 months later, after trading their captain and nailing down the finer details of the Alain-Train, they found themselves the Champions of the Eastern Conference, competing in the Stanley Cup Final.
It was a turnaround for the ages, and the days of questioning the hiring of AV were long gone.
Vigneault did admit though, that if he had been told after the season opening road trip that his team would be playing for the Cup in June, he would’ve asked the reporter what they were smoking.
Always honest, never overconfident, and even in the toughest of times during the season, forever calm.
Now the Rangers find themselves heading into a second full season under the guidance of Alain Vigneault. The adjustment period is over, the system is in place, and the young talent is another year older, another year stronger, and another year experienced. If reaching the Stanley Cup Final was the growing stage of the Vigneault era, then I don’t think I need to spell out what the next step should in theory be…
Looking back at what Vigneault walked into; a team that had been taught to play a specific style and brand of hockey, and was in many ways set in their ways, he really was able to accomplish quite a lot. I run the risk of sounding incredibly cliché here, but for this Rangers team under the guidance of AV, the sky is truly the limit.
Let’s just hope AV can sidestep the whole “sophomore blues” thing, keep this team moving in the right direction, and of course continue laughing and being happy.