Mr. Right, Alain Vigneault

Alain Vigneault has been Mr. Cool all season and it's paid off. Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Alain Vigneault has been Mr. Cool all season and it’s paid off. Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a year makes. On June 2nd of last year, the Rangers were just getting over the news that GM Glen Sather had decided, with the blessing of owner James Dolan – to part ways with mercurial Head Coach John Tortorella.

The fiery Torts had just guided the Rangers to another post season appearance but one that was far from memorable, losing to the NJ Devils in the Eastern Conference Final. Coming into the lockout shortened season, the Rangers were tabbed as one of the favorites to come out of the East and contend for the Stanley Cup. Instead what they got was a team that played inconsistent at times, had an inability to score (even with the addition of Rick Nash), and had to struggle just to make the playoffs.

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After being pushed to the brink of 7 games in the first round against the Washington Capitals, the Rangers were manhandled by a hungrier, bigger, better prepared Boston Bruins in 5 games. GM Glen Sather had enough and got feedback from the team that they couldn’t maintain the level and style of play Torts demanded. On May 29th of 2013, Glen Sather relieved Tortorella of his coaching duties.

Speculation after the firing centered around Ranger legend, Mark Messier, becoming Head Coach. Messier publicly acknowledged his desire for the job and admitted he had interviewed for the vacancy. Meanwhile Alain Vigneault had been let go after 7 highly successful seasons coaching the Vancouver Canucks.

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In 2010-11, Vigneault had guided the Canucks to within a victory of the Stanley Cup. However after two consecutive first round exits, Canuck management decided to make a change and he was let go. Both Vigneault and Messier had similar ideas in that they wanted the Rangers to play a more up-tempo game. Vigneault had coached some high powered teams in his previous stints in Vancouver & Montreal. Messier was part of the high flying Stanley Cup winning Edmonton Oilers and he had brought that same energy to New York when he arrived in 1991-92. Messier also had the backing of the fans as he was a Rangers hero for slaying the 54 year curse and bringing the Cup to New York in 1993-94. However, when push came to shove, Sather went with the experienced coach over the legend and Vigneault was hired to be the 35th Head Coach in team history.

While not the overwhelming popular choice, Vigneault brought a pedigree with him to NY. He cut his teeth in the NHL coaching ranks in the fishbowl that is Montreal compiling a 109-120-35 record in a little over 3 seasons. He only made the playoffs once – in his rookie season. Then it was on to Vancouver where he made his name as an elite coach. In 7 seasons with the Canucks his record was 313-170 with 57 OTL’s in 540 regular season games.

Six times the Canucks won the Northwest Division and twice they posted the best record in the NHL. Unfortunately they were never able to get over the hump and sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup. This resulted in the Canucks relieving him of his duties shortly after the first round exit in the 2012-13 post season and now as luck would have it their loss would be the Rangers gain.

With the renovations wrapping up at MSG, the Rangers were forced to have training camp and their first nine games of the regular season on the road. For some, that would be a bonding experience. However, with this Rangers team it was anything but. While trying to implement a new system, the coaches getting to know the players and vice versa, the Rangers fell out the gate and had a horrific start to the season.

Fans were in a panic calling for not only Vigneault’s head but that of Sather’s (what else is new) as well. Vigneault continued to preach for the team to stay the course as he slowly started to see signs of the team coming together. Shortly after a game around Thanksgiving, Vigneault openly showed some signs of frustration with his team when he publicly questioned if he had the right players for the system he was trying to implement.

It was also around that time that subtle changes were made to the lineup. Players roles were becoming more defined. Players were being sat out if they didn’t perform instead of being given chance after chance. Line combinations were maintained through thick and thin as players were forced to adapt as a unit or sink as one. The biggest thing of all was that Henrik Lundqvist started playing more like The King. He too was adjusting to what the Rangers were doing defensively. Once they all figured it out, the Rangers became a legit contender.

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From December on, the Rangers played as one of the top teams in the NHL. AV consistently rolled 4 lines and the team was hitting on all cylinders. Del Zotto was traded to Nashville for the defensively reliable Kevin Klein. There was still an all too consuming issue though with Captain Ryan Callahan’s contract status and the impending trade deadline. Much to their credit neither AV nor Callahan would let that deter the team from their goal. When Cally was eventually traded to Tampa for Martin St. Louis, it looked like AV was finally getting the type of team he envisioned having. The Rangers rolled into the playoffs clinching a spot much earlier than they had in most other seasons under Tortorella.

In a back and forth battle with the Flyers it was the steady hand of Av that helped guide the Rangers past a pesky Flyers team in 7 games. AV had a firm grasp on his team as he was able to make all the proper adjustments to the lineup. Whether it was inserting Daniel Carcillo into the lineup, subbing John Moore for Raphael Diaz and vice versa or benching Henrik Lundqvist in the final period a blowout loss in Game 6 , all his moves worked. It wasn’t until the Penguin series though that the steady influence he had on his team would shine through as they faced adversity on several fronts.

First, they fell behind 3-1 in the series after a dreadful Game 4. Under Torts, the post game presser would have been chaotic and adversarial. Instead, AV stayed the course by remaining calm and poised. He stated that the team had indeed played bad but he had the faith in them. He believed they had the ability to come back if they played the game the right way, whistle to whistle and stayed true to what they were.

Secondly, the passing of Marty St. Louis’s mom and how AV handled it. As passionate as Torts was I am not sure if he could have held a team together under this circumstance the way AV did. AV said all the right things and did all the right things and the team followed in lockstep.

Thirdly, the light heartedness of the pressers with AV as opposed to Torts seem to have a positive effect on the rest of the team. Players seemed more engaged and willing to express how and why certain things were done on the ice as opposed to when Torts was there. Watching some players in interviews you could see they were tight lipped under Torts for fear of their words being held against them somehow.

Lastly, in the series against Montreal, AV showed a sense of humor at times when it was needed. In a series that had just about the same amount of action off the ice as it did on, AV kept his team focused on the job at hand. He didn’t let them get caught up in the off- ice nonsense. He took that upon himself and that took pressure off his team. AV had built months of respect with the press corps and it showed. When the time was right for him to complain about the refereeing he was able to do so and not have it come across as whining. Whereas if Torts had done so, it wouldn’t have helped the cause and it would have been all about him instead.

Case in point, after the Rangers had eliminated the Canadiens, AV was asked if he could have imagined being where he is now. He replied, “ I would have asked what were you smoking?” The press laughed and ate it up. If that was Torts who said that? Forget about it! He would have been accused of calling the press drug dealers or worse!

Bottom line is this, when the Rangers take on the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night, there is no way in the world they would be where they are if the man behind the bench was not their head coach. Win or lose, Alain Vigneault was most definitely the right choice for the New York Rangers.

Fate or coincidence? The NYR fired Torts on 5/29/13. One year later to the day, the Rangers win game 6 to go to the Stanley Cup Final 5/29/14. We say fate!

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