If patience is indeed a virtue, coaches for the New York Rangers haven’t exactly been bastions of morality recently. Since the 2004-05 lockout, the men calling the shots for the Blueshirts have been almost neurotic in their decision-making, arranging and rearranging like a compulsive home decorator.
First it was Tom Renney, a man whose vision could most kindly be deemed unusual. Renney would frequently throw third and fourth line players on the top unit when things weren’t going well and bury skill forwards in the bottom six. (Or, in the case of Petr Prucha, banish them to the press box.) The result was players like Jed Ortmeyer playing alongside Jaromir Jagr, which kind of felt like the product of some between-the-periods promotion called “Play with Jaromir for a Day!!” Goals were a rare sight during the Renney era.
After Renney it was John Tortorella, who soon discovered that the maximum number of potential line combinations, assuming 12 forwards and four lines, is 26,467. Or something like that. It didn’t take Tortorella long to make this calculation in New York, where the coach wiped the board clean and started anew every time one player missed one assignment. (If Tortorella picked an apple from a tree in his backyard and waited to eat it until he was inside, it’d end up in the trash for being rotten.) Goals were a rare sight during the Tortorella era, too.
Needless to say, the arrival of Alain Vigneault has been a breath of fresh air.
Vigneault, unlike his predecessors, makes personnel decisions without a ticking time bomb hanging over them. He puts players together and then actually lives with the short-term consequences, aware of the fact that familiarity breeds chemistry. Instead of separating players after one sluggish night, he gives them time to come to know each other – and, by effect, play without the fear of screwing up. Where Renney and Tortorella saw a combination that was stale, Vigneault sees one that isn’t yet ripe.
Last night, in the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to the Lightning, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Rick Nash took the ice together as the team’s first line for the 20th game in a row. And despite the loss, expect that trio to be the same Thursday night against the Red Wings. Vigneault has found a combination he likes with those three, and has confidently stuck to it. In doing so, he has afforded his top unit some room to take risks, which is exactly what any first line should be doing. (The last time even two forwards played together this long for the Rangers was in the 2005-06 season, when Michael Nylander loyally centered Jaromir Jagr from seemingly start to finish.)
And it’s not just the top line that has stuck together. The trio of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, though ineffective early on, was reunited early this month and has flourished since. They play together at even strength and on the power play, and are beginning to show signs of that Crosby-to-Kunitz-esque telepathy. In deploying these three as his third line, Vigneault has now punch from each of his first three units. (Dan Carcillo adds a little punch of his own on the 4th line.)
Vigneault hasn’t been free from criticism, though. When the Rangers struggled out of the gates and their coach kept his cool, AV earned a reputation as apathetic, strangely detached. As the losses piled up in October, there was the impassive Vigneault, saying the same things, deploying the same players. After years of watching Tortorella approach every game with life-or-death intensity, it all had the feeling of a coach who just didn’t seem to care.
But Vigneault was never apathetic. He was simply being patient. The Rangers were banged-up, learning a new system, and trekking across the West Coast from one stronghold to the next, taking their lumps and pressing on. With October being no time for panic, Vigneault kept a level head, maintaining faith in his players even while recognizing the need to be better. The roster might not be the same today as it was on opening night, but the current assembly Vigneault has formed is a product of patience.
Even before Thursday’s morning skate, you can bet the lines against Detroit will look just like this: Kreider – Stepan – Nash. Hagelin – Richards – Callahan. Pouliot – Brassard – Zuccarello. Boyle – Moore – Carcillo. They may have lost on Tuesday night with the same exact arrangement, but the Rangers played well and thus Vigneault, ever the antithesis of haste, will stick with it. Without having to say anything at all, his message to the team will be clear: just keep doing what you’re doing.
Apathetic? Hardly. Self-assured? Absolutely.