Why Alain Vigneault Failed the Rangers

After a day to reflect on the end of the New York Rangers 2015-2016 campaign, my initial thought has not been swayed. Coach Alain Vigneault failed the New York Rangers organization this season.

There are a few reasons that stick out on specifically how AV failed this year. Some easy to prove, others not as easy.

In no particular order but how they pop into my mind, I’d say the following are the most egregious in my opinion:

  1. Inability to adjust
  2. Inability to evaluate his personnel appropriately
    1. Use, or lack thereof of young talent
    2. Use, in this case too much, of struggling veterans
  3. Special teams… what the hell?

No three of these things should come as a surprise to Rangers fans. These three items where AV failed the Rangers were the top three items discussed by Vancouver Canucks fans in their warnings to New York in 2013; specifically AV’s puzzling use of his personnel, which is where I’m going to focus this blog.

First, let’s talk about Eric Staal. Hindsight is 20/20 on this one, but I’m not even going to change my position on this trade; I thought it was great. Two 2nd rounders and a ‘closer-to-probably-than-maybe’ prospect for Eric Staal 50% retained is a good deal to me. The issue with the Eric Staal trade is that AV had absolutely no idea how to use him.

Despite playing on the wing in Carolina, AV had Eric Staal playing center for the Rangers, claiming it was where Staal was more comfortable. I have no issue with that. My issue with AV’s use of E. Staal is his admitted carousel of wingers that he tried to use with him before mind-bogglingly settling on Jesper Fast and Kevin Hayes. Hayes, an abomination on the wing, was flipped with Staal at C to see if that line could work, and it still didn’t.

What truly baffles here is that AV found the correct linemates for Eric Staal during his 3rd game as a Ranger – in between Viktor Stalberg and Oscar Lindberg. During their short-lived three game stance together, everyone could see that this line was dominating the play when they were on the ice. In terms of possession, they would accumulate an individual shot attempt differential of:

Staal: +23
Stalberg: +22
Lindberg: +22

After a 4-2 victory over Buffalo where Eric Staal would put 5 shots on net out of 6 attempts, the line was broken up with Rick Nash returning from injury. Nash and Staal were given two games with each other before AV realized it wasn’t working. Rather than reuniting the proven line of Stalberg-Staal-Lindberg, AV rotated the carousel once again stashing Staal between Hayes and Miller for four games, Hayes and Kreider for one, and then Hayes and Fast where Staal would finish the season.

Looking at Eric Staal’s with or without you chart via Hockeyviz.com should tell you a lot of what you need to know about AV and his use of Eric Staal.

A great key takeaway of this image? Staal’s second most common icemate was Dan Boyle. A defensemen. A forward’s 2nd most common teammate was a d-man. Let that sink in a bit.

Eric Staal is a great microcosm of AV and his inability to apply his personnel correctly. There are two more standout cases for AV and this phenomena. Next, we will take a brief look at Oscar Lindberg.

Between March 13th and April 23rd, the Rangers played 18 games. On March 13th, among rookies who had played in more than 35 [roughly half the Rangers season up until that point] games on that date, Oscar Lindberg was 11th among all NHL rookies in points per 60 (Connor McDavid at that point had played in 34 games, so 12th if you include him, which you should). This date is important because after March 13th, Oscar Lindberg would play in just four more games for the Rangers. Meanwhile, Tanner Glass would appear in 17 games, not being a healthy scratch until the Rangers final game. If you’re curious, Glass would record 2 points in those final 17 games.

Against the Penguins, AV was desperate to have his team create more offense. Desperate enough to put Rafael Diaz into the lineup. Meanwhile, Oscar Lindberg sat in the pressbox. When Lindberg would finally get into a game, it would be at the expense of Kevin Hayes, and Tanner Glass remained in the lineup. This, from a coach desperate to create offense… Here is how Hayes, Lindberg, and Glass stacked up in 5v5 points per 60 this season.

If he was trying to generate offense, AV wasn’t doing himself any favors continuing to handcuff himself to Tanner Glass.

On to the biggest error of AV’s season: Breaking up the defensive pairing of Dylan McIlrath and Keith Yandle.

The Rangers drafted Dylan McIlrath in 2010. You all know this story. McIlrath was perenially destroyed by the fanbase as long as he was not in the NHL. This, even from the casual observer who had never seen him play in Moose Jaw nor in Hartford – purely judging McIlrath’s skill after two brief stints in the NHL where he totaled 3 games between two seasons. Run-of-the-mill stuff no doubt, but still very frustrating.

This season, McIlrath was able to earn a spot on the Rangers and in the NHL full-time. When he played (not anchored by Dan Boyle), he proved to be a serviceable NHL defenseman in the modern-day sense. Capable of collecting the puck in his own corner and making a quick outlet pass to start a rush, being able to stop an opposition rush down the wing with a bone-crushing hit, or force players outside the circles where they would fire weak shots on net, or get no shot off at all.

Complemented by the puck-moving abilities of Keith Yandle, they would go on to form what could have been a borderline great NHL 2nd defensive pairing behind McDonagh and Klein. When they were on the ice together, during 5v5 play, the Rangers had 53% of the shot attempts, and 62% of the goals, scoring at a clip of 2.06 GF60 while surrendering just 1.29 GA60. In fact, on the whole season, McIlrath’s goals against per 60 would lead the Rangers, with the opposition scoring just 1.37 goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 time versus McIlrath. In the past, I have mentioned not using goals against per 60 as a way to evaluate defensemen. However, since we are only comparing McIlrath to his teammates, in this sense, the skill of the goaltender remains constant, and we can use it in this evaluation.

The Rangers organization has now invested 6 years into developing Dylan McIlrath since his draft day. They have stuck with him through knee injuries that derailed his progress at the AHL level. Finally, McIlrath pays that back in full, and yet his coach refuses to play him full-time despite outplaying veterans Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi – both of whom should be far, far away from the Rangers next season.

At the beginning of the season, AV mentioned how important it would be to be able to get Boyle and Girardi their rest during the regular season to keep them fresh for the stretch run and the eventual playoffs the Rangers were bound to appear in. Vigneault would quickly back off of his word with moves like rushing Dan Girardi back from a cracked knee-cap that he clearly was not healed from, and removing McIlrath from Yandle’s pairing to allow Girardi back into the lineup. Dan Boyle, the 39 year-old d-man on his last legs, would appear in 78 of the Rangers 87 games this season.

Despite the length of this blog, this is truly just a brief overview of the issues I had with the way that AV ran the Rangers this season. I believe fully that the Rangers would be better off moving on from Alain Vigneault as their head coach, and hiring someone in his place who is a little more open to the growing analytical aspect of hockey. Perhaps a coach who would realize that he had a great third line with Stalberg-Staal-Lindberg; a coach that realized that if he wanted to increase his offensive output, maybe taking out two of his best 5v5 offensive threats wasn’t the best move; and maybe, a coach who could see how well McIlrath and Yandle played together, and keep that as a pair moving forward, not forcing them apart because Dan Girardi was returning from injury prematurely.

I’d be surprised if AV wasn’t behind the bench for the Rangers next season. If that is the case, than Jeff Gorton, I plead with you: Give AV the horses he needs to run his unbelievably stubborn man-to-man defensive zone coverage. Boyle is gone, but if you’re going to keep AV around, you need to force Marc Staal and Dan Girardi off of their No Movement Clauses, and off of the New York Rangers.