That thud you heard late Saturday night was the era of Alain Vigneault as Rangers head coach coming to an end. Vigneault went 226-147-37 during the regular season with a 31-30 playoff record. He took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14, a close series loss to the Los Angeles Kings. The shock was not the decision, but the speed in which the decision was made after the Rangers non-playoff season came to an end.
The Rangers missed the playoffs this season for the first time since 2009-10, but it should not come as a surprise since the early season struggles led to the turning of the page of this group by General Manager Jeff Gorton at the NHL trade deadline. Out went familiar faces like Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller and in came prospects, young players and draft choices. The trade deadline bonanza came as no surprise as Gorton along with Team President Glen Sather sent a letter out to Rangers fans letting them know their plan. The window had closed on this group and it was time for a change.
But did it need to close on Vigneault? Well, Gorton was asked about the future of his coach during the season about if he would be back after this year and he answered that question by not providing an answer. He would not speculate on the future of his head coach and just said the organization has a lot of confidence in him. That proved to be an omen as the Rangers’ lost season played out.
On Saturday afternoon, following their 5-0 loss to the Flyers to close out their regular season, Vigneault defended himself by saying he felt one of the strongest assets of the Rangers was the coaching staff and their experience. He added that he expected to be back and thought his staff was the right one for the job. You have to remember that Vigneault had signed a 2-year contract extension January of 2017 that kicked in after this season. He was confident that he would be back but it did not take Rangers management long to let him know that he was wrong.
This is not a case of Vigneault not being a good head coach. He is. The Rangers simply needed a change. They needed a new voice that may be better at developing young talent like Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei. His man-to-man defensive system just did not work as you saw three different defensive assitants over the last three season with the last being Lyndy Ruff. I think ultimately what concerned the Rangers about their 56-year-old head coach was a lack of confidence that he could develop younger players and have them grow, prosper and flourish under his guidance. For the Rangers next head coach, development will be key since they are in the midst of a rebuild.
That ultimately was what led to his ouster, despite the confidence level he has in his own abilities, the Rangers organization did not have that same level of confidence in him. Ultimately, I will look back on the Vigneault era and deem it a success. The Rangers made the playoffs in four of his five seasons and made it to the Stanley Cup Final, in which they perished in five games. But his teams provided a lot of great moments for this city and he made his mark with memorable playoff moments.
With that being said, it was time for a change. His defensive system did not work. His issues with developing younger players is certainly a concern with an organization in a rebuild. The decisive nature of the Rangers decision made it seem that they had made up their mind a long time ago and the answers provided by Vigneault to media questions seemed to lead you to believe that he knew it too.
He is a good man and had a good run here in New York as he won six playoff rounds with the Rangers, but it was time for a change and the Rangers made the right decision. I am sure that he will coach again.
So now, who will be the Rangers next coach? My vote would be for the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Sheldon Keefe. He is a fresh face that has been very successful and understands how you need to play hockey in 2018 in order to be successful.
With an aging star in Henrik Lundqvist in the nets and a disastrous year now in their rear view mirror it will be certainly be an interesting spring/summer off the ice for the Rangers. If they make some of the right decisions, it could lead to playoff hockey next season. The firing of Vigneault was just the first chip to fall this off-season.