Early Impressions of Alain Vigneault's Start with New York Rangers

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Early Impressions of Alain Vigneault's Start with New York Rangers
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Alain Vigneault

“I expected some (growing pains) but I didn’t think it would be this bad.”

That’s what New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather had to say when he was asked about how he felt his club was adapting to life under new head coach Alain Vigneault.

And it’s a sentiment I’m sure the 70-year-old shares with nearly the entirety of the Rangers fanbase.

Former coach John Tortorella and Vigneault are nearly polar opposites. The former preaches grind-happy, defensive hockey, while the latter encourages his players to use time and space to produce a more offensive and attractive brand of hockey.

Therefore it has come as no surprise that the group—which is largely unchanged—has gone through an adjustment period. Players like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan were going to have to not only change their mindsets, but become more comfortable playing under a coach with a completely different demeanor.

Sather wasn’t the only one who knew it would take time.

But what we didn’t anticipate were the Rangers sitting at 2-4-0 six games into the season with a minus-14 goal differential, due in part by successive 9-2 and 6-0 losses to the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively.

In both of those the defeats, the Rangers were the epitome of pedestrian, failing to ever truly get into either game.

But in matches with the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, the Rangers had flashes of brilliance. In the L.A. and Washington games, New York completely dominated, creating scoring chance after scoring chance, but still only managed a handful of goals. In St. Louis, we saw a team that carried the momentum for stretches, but Martin Biron’s poor goaltending display and the defense’s continuing struggles downed the Blueshirts.

And it’s that game that encapsulated much of what the Rangers’ season has been about thus far: a lot of frustration mixed with a bit of positive intrigue. There’s a lot in this Rangers team we haven’t seen in a long time, and it’s going to take time before Vigneualt can get his players playing the way they should be.

But right now, it’s about first impressions. The good and the bad. Check it out.

 

Good

Two things stand out for the Rangers on the positive side. The first has been the team’s ability to move the puck quickly out of their own zone, through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, where they’re ready and capable of challenge the opposition’s defense.

Derick Brassard and Brad Richards have exemplified this change of philosophy best thus far, and as a result we’ve seen the Rangers attacking their opponents in ways they never did with Tortorella at the helm.

Torts’ idea of initiating an attack almost always began with his team dumping the puck into the offensive zone. From there the players either had to beat the opposing defenders to the puck in the corner or force them to turn it over once they’ve retrieved it. Safe to say that’s not the most intuitive of strategies for creating offense.

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Brad Richards

Vigneault, on the other hand, is introducing a more creative system that allows the Rangers to make a pass, support the receiver of the pass and look to create even more time and space heading up ice. The idea is that the Rangers will then carry more momentum into the offensive zone and create coverage problem for their opponents.

The other positive to take from the Rangers' first six games is the team’s ability to shut down the opposition in the neutral zone. Unfortunately, the team hasn’t been able to consistently impose themselves in neutral ice successfully, but in both of their victories, the Rangers just so happened to win the battles there.

Wednesday night in Washington, the Rangers proved how good they could be when they control neutral ice. But it starts with the forecheck. We’ve seen the Rangers send one man deep and send another on the weak side, to lock down surging wingers. When the Caps had the opportunity to get out of their own end, the Rangers’ high forward and defensemen would swarm them, break up the play and turn defense into offense.

As a result, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had literally no effect on the game five-on-five.

And it’s funny, because everyone though the Rangers would play all-out offense under Vigneault. Yet in the two victories the Blueshirts have played a more defensively sound game, and their performances incorporated a lot of Tortorella principles in terms of neutral- and defensive-zone responsibilities.

 

Bad

When a team has the worst goal differential in the league, it’s pretty obvious what the biggest problem is.

Although the Rangers, at times, have done well as a team defending in all three zones, the majority of the 2013-14 season the Rangers have been outright atrocious in their own zone.

First and foremost, it’s always going to be hardest for the defensemen to adjust to a new coaching staff. And in the Rangers’ case, there’s been a pretty serious change in defensive-zone philosophy under Vigneault.

We haven’t seen much in terms of net-front collapsing and shot-blocking, as we saw when Torts was in charge. Rather, AV has asked his defenders—both of them—to attack in the corners while the centerman assumes the responsibility of clearing out the front of the net. Yeah, I don’t get it, and clearly the Rangers defense corps doesn't, either.

It’s a pretty bold and unorthodox strategy, and Vigneault should have expected hiccups. There has to be a solid understanding between the three parties for it to be successful, and in those two losses to San Jose and Anaheim, there seemed to be no understanding whatsoever.

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Ryan McDonagh

Good news, though, is that AV seems to have somewhat abandoned the strategy in the last two matches against St. Louis and Washington, opting for more traditional in-zone strategies instead.

Granted, as awkward a system as it was, the Rangers’ back line wasn’t playing great, either. Stalwarts Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal played some of the worst hockey of their careers through the first five games, getting beat wide by mediocre players and totally flubbing coverages in the defensive zone.

And, finally, another aspect of Vigneault’s born-again Rangers that could be chalked up on the “bad” side is the team’s lack of honor and pride.

The Rangers’ performances against San Jose and Anaheim can be described in no other way than gutless. At what point of a 9-2 defeat do you start taking prisoners? Several players after the game said the loss was embarrassing; yes it was, but nobody did anything about it. Heck, AV didn’t even call a timeout. How does stuff like that happen?

I understand mixing it up toward the end of the game doesn’t change the result, but maybe if the team would have played with some pride it would have never gotten out of hand. The lack of honor is a reflection of the coaching staff and its failure to either communicate with its players or emphasize the importance of the Rangers’ crest.

That has to change.

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