Alain Vigneault was asked if he expected to be back behind the Blueshirts’ bench come the 2018-19 season just shortly after the New York Rangers’ disappointing campaign concluded with a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers. His answer, in a word, was yes.
Unfortunately for Vigneault, Rangers management didn’t share the same opinion. In fact, mere hours after the season-ending defeat, the Rangers announced that Vigneault had been relieved of his duties. Even if it came on the penultimate day of the campaign, Vigneault’s firing was the first of the season, as 2017-18 came oh-so-close to being the first campaign in the post-expansion NHL without a coaching change.
Vigneault getting the axe isn’t all that shocking, of course. While he has an astounding track record in New York, including two trips to the Eastern Conference final and one Eastern Conference championship to go along with a 226-146-37 record across five seasons, the Rangers’ 2017-18 campaign was one of great disappointment and Saturday afternoon’s loss to the Flyers was significant in that it put a final, sour stamp on what has inarguably been the worst season for New York in the post-lockout era. The loss to Philadelphia was the 38th of the season, five more than any other season since the 2003-04 campaign, and excluding the lockout-shortened season, this was the first time since 2005-06 in which the Rangers failed to eclipse 77 points. By that measure, it’s the 10th-worst season the franchise has had to suffer through since the NHL’s first round of major expansion.
Consider then that New York finished in the bottom third of the league in goals, goals against, shots and shot against per game, finished with the sixth-lowest regulation and overtime win total and had absolutely dreadful underlying numbers across the board. At 5-on-5, the Rangers’ shots for percentage was last in the league, their Corsi for percentage was last in the league, and only one team, coincidentally the cross-town rival New York Islanders, allowed more scoring chances against and high-danger attempts against. So, yeah, it’s wholly unsurprising that a coaching change was made as a result of a season this objectively poor.
What is slightly more confusing about Vigneault’s firing, however, is that the decision wasn’t made sooner.
Say what you will for an all around woeful season in New York, but the Rangers didn’t exactly give Vigneault much to work with ahead of the season. In an effort to build towards the future, longtime pivot Derek Stepan was shipped off and defenseman Dan Girardi was bought out, and while it could be argued New York made an upgrade by bringing in Kevin Shattenkirk to fill the lost minutes on the blueline, no suitable replacement was made down the middle. That’s not to say the choices made by GM Jeff Gorton were the wrong ones, either. Most would likely agree that it was necessary for the Rangers to have some turnover as they build toward the future, and landing a high first-round pick in the Stepan swap with the Arizona Coyotes — the pick, seventh overall, was used to select promising center Lias Andersson and bolstered New York’s weak prospect stock — but the moves did leave Vigneault, even on paper, without a team that was considered a true playoff-worthy contender.
With that in mind, the off-season could have represented the perfect opportunity for New York to make a coaching change. Admittedly, it may have been a hard move to justify to some given Vigneault was fresh off of a 102-point campaign and second-round appearance, but the organization had the distinct feeling of one on a downward trajectory and if the Rangers were set to go all-in on the changes, they could have done so with a different voice and new guidance behind the bench. And if not in the summer, few would have argued with the change shortly after mid-season when the Rangers were last place in the Metropolitan Division. Even a late-February or early-March change would have given an interim bench boss or new hire a chance to start making some alterations with a mind towards next season.
The one person who will be pleased with the Rangers’ decision to wait until Game 82, though, will be Vigneault’s successor. There will be no 100-point season or playoff appearance to follow, and whoever steps behind the bench next will have the bar set relatively low considering New York’s substandard season. And Vigneault’s successor will, too, benefit from a roster that has some pieces with which to work, even if most of the former Stanley Cup contending roster has left for greener pastures.
The aforementioned Andersson should be a full-time NHLer by the start of next season and prospect Filip Chytil has shown some encouraging signs in his brief audition for the big club to end the campaign. In addition, Pavel Buchnevich had himself a noteworthy sophomore season, Brady Skjei continues to look like a significant piece of the future on the Rangers’ blueline, as does Neal Pionk. Mika Zibanejad’s first full season as a top-line center had its up and downs, to be sure, but 27 goals and 47 points on a low-scoring New York outfit are nothing to shake a Sherwood at. And, if nothing else, a new bench boss will inherit the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, who, even in a down year, posted a .915 save percentage on close to 2000 shots against.
The coaching search will begin soon and really, truly get underway in earnest around as other teams make their own decisions behind the bench. Anyone from Rangers assistant Lindy Ruff, whose job status is presently unknown, to an off-the-board AHL candidate could be next in line to step behind the bench on Broadway, and who’s next to coach in New York likely won’t become clear until weeks from now. But the one thing that’s for sure is that it won’t be Vigneault, even if he felt he was still capable of getting the job done.
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