Freedom can be a beautiful thing. It's something the New York Rangers players have known for a while, but they are about to find out firsthand when training camp opens and Alain Vigneault takes over behind the bench.
Vigneault was hired earlier this summer when Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather decided that John Tortorella had outlived his usefulness as the Rangers head coach.
Vigneault is all about giving his players freedom on the offensive end. He told the CBC that those who play without restrictions have a much better chance of being successful than those who are constrained by their defensive responsibilities.
Tortorella was a seemingly earnest man who coached out of fear. He was afraid of his team getting embarrassed on the ice and his players were afraid of attracting the ire of their coach. Instead of operating in a creative environment that led to offensive development and opportunities, Tortorella wanted his team to play a suffocating defensive style.
Body checking, shot blocking and takeaways were his life blood and offensive hockey came after that. Tortorella believes defense is the key to winning and that offense has to come second.
Players were limited in their ability to speak out because Tortorella was their boss. But at their end-of-season interviews with Sather, enough players dropped hints that they had grown tired of Tortorella's coaching, according to the New York Daily News.
That was all Sather needed to hear, because he wanted a team that could threaten the opponent's net, build a lead and then pour on additional pressure.
The fluid nature of the game does not allow a hockey team to use a dominant defensive style to take advantage of its talent because teams can go from defense to offense in a heartbeat.
"I believe your top skilled players have to be given a little more latitude," Vigneault told the CBC. "They have to understand the game, they have to understand the time in the game where you need to play higher percentage but they also have to be given that latitude to make something out of nothing "
The numbers bear Vigneault out. During his run with the Vancouver Canucks—one that concluded with a sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks last spring—the Canucks have been one of the most explosive teams in the league.
While there was a downturn in the 2013 lockout-shortened season, the Canucks finished no worse than fifth in goals per game in the previous three seasons and were at least fourth in 5-on-4 goals in all of those seasons.
The Rangers were decidedly ordinary in scoring and their 5-on-4 power plays often struggled.
The Canucks had supremely talented offensive players in Henrik and Daniel Sedin, but Vigneault does not think he will be operating at a disadvantage in New York. He told Steve Zipay of New York Newsday that the Rangers have enough talent to form two good lines and that they also have young players who are on the verge of becoming productive offensive players.
That means that Vigneault is going to count on Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle to lead the way while he helps develop youngsters like Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin develop into stars.
Vigneault will also give his defensemen far more opportunity to join the rush and create on the offensive end.
It will be a brave new world for the Rangers and they will need to make an adjustment to their new freedom.
In some ways, the transition period from Tortorella's restrictive regime to Vigneault's free-flowing attack could take a while. The Rangers players are used to a leader who would crack the whip any time a mistake was made. They may cringe as they wait to hear Tortorella's blunt criticisms.
But they are not going to hear them and the players will ultimately learn to relax. One of Vigneault's jobs is to make this transition happen as quickly as possible so the Rangers can make a run at the top spot in the Eastern Conference and possibly playing for the Stanley Cup.
That means that the 2013-14 season could be a banner one for the Rangers and for Vigneault.
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