Shortly after their last game of the season on Saturday, the New York Rangers relieved Alain Vigneault of his head coaching duties. In his fifth year with the organization, the Rangers went 34-39-9 (77 points) and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
It was Vigneault’s worst year in the Big Apple. It was a transition year for a team retooling on the fly– trading away Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller and others for centerpieces in Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov (among other assets).
Now it’s time for someone else to take the reins behind the bench of King Henrik’s team.
The clock is ticking in goaltender Henrik Lundqvist‘s quest for his first Stanley Cup. Vigneault was almost the man to do it having brought the Rangers all the way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final in his first season with New York.
That was the closest Lundqvist has ever been– just three wins away– but the Los Angeles Kings had other plans, given it only took them five games to beat New York for the Los Angeles’s second Stanley Cup championship in three years.
It was the closest the Rangers had come to winning its first Cup since defeating the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.
The 2014-15 season witnessed a franchise record 113 points in the regular season– good enough to notch the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best record that year. Vigneault’s team knocked out Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the First Round in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then New York got behind in the Second Round series with the Washington Capitals, 3-1. Chris Kreider tied Game 5, McDonagh scored the game winner in overtime and the Rangers rallied back in the series to force the first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden since Game 7 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks.
For the first time in Stanley Cup Playoff history, the Rangers were to battle the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Prince of Wales Trophy in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.
Despite a decisive 7-3 victory in Game 6 on the road at Amalie Arena, New York was shutout, 2-0, in Game 7 on home ice.
They wouldn’t get another chance to come that close to the Stanley Cup Final with Vigneault behind the bench.
The 2015-16 Rangers finished third in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points and battled Mike Sullivan‘s Penguins in the First Round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It only took five games for the Rangers to be eliminated in Pittsburgh’s tear through the playoffs to their first Cup since 2009.
In 2016-17, New York regrouped with a 102-point season, but was cursed by the NHL’s current playoff format.
The Rangers were relegated to the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference since three teams finished ahead of them in the Metropolitan Division with at least 108 points or more.
New York had four more points in the regular season than the Ottawa Senators (98 points)– who finished second in the Atlantic Division– and seven more points than the Boston Bruins (95 points, 3rd in the Atlantic) and Toronto Maple Leafs (95 points, second wild card in the Eastern Conference by virtue of having three fewer regulation-plus-overtime wins than Boston).
Vigneault’s team got by Michel Therrien’s Montreal Canadiens in six games of the First Round in what was touted as a rematch of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final.
Then they ran into the streaking Senators who had beaten the Bruins in their own six game series.
Ottawa jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with home ice advantage– despite having the worse of the two teams’s regular season records, but the Rangers seemed unfazed having won Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden 4-1 and 4-1, respectively.
Kyle Turris ended Game 5 almost six-and-a-half minutes into overtime at Canadian Tire Centre and the Rangers found themselves in a 3-2 series hole heading home for Game 6.
Senators captain, Erik Karlsson, had a goal and an assist in Ottawa’s decisive 4-2 victory on road ice and New York hit the golf course after just two rounds of the 2017 postseason.
Time kept ticking. Lundqvist got older.
Management grew more frustrated with the lack of a direction.
Dead last in the Metropolitan Division after all 82 games this season and under .500 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, Vigneault’s dismissal comes as no surprise.
It’s what is expected of any organization that expects to finish first, but fails in a rather large fashion.
Even more so with the league getting younger, skaters getting faster and teams placing more of an emphasis on a constant attack, a constant barrage of offense.
Lias Andersson, Pavel Buchnevich, Spooner, Namestnikov and crew have already showcased a new face of the game in “The World’s Most Famous Arena”, while Vigneault’s systems might have been the only thing slowing them down in the waning days of the season.
It was time to shake things up and head in that new face of the game’s direction.
For the first time since the 1967-68 season only one coach was fired in-season (thanks to Mother Nature having played a part in extending the season by a day due to Boston’s rescheduled matchup from January with the Florida Panthers).
Unfortunately for Vigneault, he was that coach.
New York will be just fine.
They’re stockpiled with prospects and have already integrated youth, skill and speed into their lineup.
Now general manager Jeff Gorton will look to patch the blue line and give Lundqvist a high-caliber backup goaltender to ease the workload of the grueling regular season schedule.
It might not be the quickest turnaround, but it shouldn’t turn out to become an annual groan-fest watching the Blueshirts next season.
For Vigneault, there will be other opportunities.
He led Vancouver to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in the midst of President’s Trophy seasons. He led New York back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in a generation. He’ll be studying hard, but he’s still in demand.
Somewhere there’s a team looking for his veteran coaching presence– like Buffalo– or a team that just missed the cut this season, but is on the brinks of a breakout year that very well might end up with their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970– like St. Louis.
But alas, this is all merely speculation.
More coaches will be fired for their team’s shortcomings (of their own fault or otherwise) this offseason upon diligent review in front office’s league-wide.
Rangers fans may be glad and it should be a mutual feeling of respect and good luck. They had a good run that lasted a while, but ultimately came up empty handed. Times have changed, players moved on and the game evolved.
Somewhere, Vigneault is that missing piece a franchise is looking for and it won’t just be a team finally getting over that mountain, but a head coach too.