The early returns on the Great Coach Swap of 2013 were not kind to the New York end of the bargain.
Sure, they had Alain Vigneault on a five-year deal – airlifted in from Vancouver to replace John Tortorella, who curiously went the other way to the Canucks – but what they didn’t have was a whole lot of wins.
Road warriors to start their season because of the massive renovation to Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won just 16 of their first 36 games, struggling to adapt to a radically different coach and mindset and feeling a little lost as to why.
Without Tortorella barking in their ear, they couldn’t score. Netminder Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t find his game.
And no one was quite sure what to make of the oddly serene new fellow behind the bench.
“We got embarrassed a couple times,” veteran Brad Richards recalled.
Today, that early season face plant is but a footnote for a team that is only two wins from playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 20 years.
New York has quietly become one of the NHL’s best teams since about Christmas, winning 39 of its last 62 games (including 10 of 16 so far in the playoffs) entering Thursday’s pivotal Game 3 with the Montreal Canadiens.
But when you ask players about the man they call “AV,” they all talk about the respect they gained for him in those tough early times – and not any wizardry he’s managed of late.
“How he handled all that [losing],” Richards said of what impressed him, “without really making it feel like he’d lost confidence in the group. He kind of steadied the ship through those waters. … I just saw the calmness.”
“We started trusting the coach more,” big centre Brian Boyle added.
What it took to pull them out of the funk was a lot of what Richards called “frank discussions” about who the Rangers were and what they wanted to be. Under Tortorella, they had become a will-and-guts type team, one relying on their animated coach for motivation and focusing on things such as shot blocking and out-hustling the opposition.
Vigneault is a different breed, and what he wanted was smart, efficient hockey – the kind that eventually led to some in Vancouver labelling him as a boring coach.
What the Rangers skilled players heard, however, is they had more leeway to be who they were.
“He changed quite a bit,” defenceman Anton Stralman explained. “We’re not as defensive as we were last year. We’ve got more freedom offensively and defensively. But the biggest thing is we play a little faster, a little more unpredictable – we move the puck when it’s open and we manage the puck well.”
“It’s AV’s style, and it’s worked for this group,” added John Moore, a young defenceman on the team’s third pair. “It’s nothing against Torts – it’s just the way AV coaches. It’s very methodical; it’s very thought out. It’s patient.”
Stralman chuckled when asked if Vigneault was the anti-Tortorella.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “AV has been good for us. He tries to keep calm.”
There’s that word again.
“He’s very calm. Very calm,” Stralman said. “There’s a few times he’s had a little temper on the bench, but other than that he keeps poised. I think that’s contagious on most of the players, too. We try to keep calm on the ice and try to make the right play. If something goes wrong, we always have support. That’s really good.”
Next to the systemic changes, the thing Rangers players credit Vigneault with the most is creating a sense of purpose for everyone on the team, something only aided by the fact ice time is shared so evenly throughout the lineup.
The Boyle types often get minutes that aren’t far off the stars, in other words, and every role and micro-role is filled and valued.
Which comes back to the efficiency of it all.
“I just think the biggest thing is everybody feels part of it,” Richards said. “Everybody. I think that’s why our group is so close and has become closer.”
“A successful team is when everybody’s playing minutes and everybody’s involved,” Stralman said. “And it’s about putting the hottest guys on the ice. Sometimes it’s not always the first line. Sometimes it’s the fourth line.”
Vigneault, 53, has had an unusual path to sitting 23rd on the career coaching wins list, less than another season shy of 500. He was hired in his mid-30s for what became a trying three-year stint with the Montreal Canadiens and then didn’t get another NHL job for six years until Dave Nonis took a chance on him in Vancouver.
Year 1 there, Vigneault was coach of the year.
Year 5, his Canucks went all the way to Game 7 of the finals.
So there was consistency and there was success, but not the ultimate kind, which makes the fact he lasted seven seasons in such a difficult market all the more remarkable.
These days, that’s something he wears with pride, and while it’s left unsaid, it’s clear he feels vindicated by what’s happened not only in New York, but Vancouver as well.
Tortorella lasted all of one messy year with the Canucks, with an $8-million buyout all that remains of his five-year deal. (The man that fired Vigneault, general manager Mike Gillis, is gone, too.)
Vigneault, meanwhile, appears to be in for another long tenure in one spot, a just reward for converting what had been a good-but-flawed Rangers team into a contending one.
Whatever you want to call it, his style won the day – and it may yet win him that elusive Cup.
“Everybody says to be yourself and to stick with what you believe in,” Vigneault said of the best advice he’s been given as a coach. “If at one point you’re shown the door, at least you did it your way.
“I lasted seven years in a Canadian market, and in the other Canadian markets at that time, 20 coaches went through. It's a tough environment to coach in. But I did it my way, and I've come here to New York – another great hockey market – and I'm doing it my way.”
Frank Sinatra would be proud.