Rangers coach Alain Vigneault does it his way
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Alain Vigneault doesn’t bristle often, at least not publicly. If a question is one he doesn’t care to answer directly, he will do it with a smile or a joke.
For example, when one of the many video replay rulings went against the New York Rangers this season, instead of complaining about it — and possibly facing a reprimand from the NHL office — Vigneault said he has “a friend who says, ‘They make it up as they go along.’ ” The coach emphasized that it was the “friend” who says it.
But during these playoffs, Vigneault was asked a question he didn’t like, and he bristled. He was asked how much of a selling point his calm demeanor was when he applied for the Rangers’ coaching job last summer — coming in, as he did, to replace John Tortorella.
Their personalities could not be more different. Vigneault’s is breezy, Tortorella’s sandpapery. Vigneault is ice cream, Tortorella spicy garlic.
“It had nothing to do with following John,” Vigneault said, his voice declaring his annoyance. “This was about me being me and bringing what I believe is the right thing for this team. It has nothing to do with what happened before me.”
That’s been the tactic from Day One, when Vigneault had T-shirts printed that read: “Clean slate. Grab it.” He probably said 100 times this season, “I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t here,” when asked about last season or seasons before.
To be clear, though, Vigneault’s was the personality the Rangers needed after the fiery coach before him wore out his welcome and they traded places (Tortorella went to Vancouver for one rocky season before being fired again). Still, that personality wouldn’t matter a lick if Vigneault couldn’t coach, couldn’t win.
The last coach who won big-time in New York was Mike Keenan, and he was as prickly as Tortorella, maybe even more so behind the locker room doors and on the practice rink. He won. Then he booked, before the players revolted.
Just as Keenan replaced nice guy Roger Neilson and was followed by nice guy Colin Campbell, Tortorella followed nice guy Tom Renney and was replaced by Vigneault.
That might be too simple a comparison, though. Vigneault isn’t just the players’ buddy. “AV” can mean business: He pushes buttons, kicks some tails, uses the doghouse, plays mental games — all the stuff good coaches do.
“He certainly lets you know if it’s not good enough, and he will give you positive reinforcement when it’s going well,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “It’s a tough thing as a coach to know that sometimes. But with us, he’s been great.”
“Yeah, he gets worked up,” said forward Brad Richards, one of the clean-slate grabbers after a nightmarish 2013 during which his relationship with Tortorella crumbled. “He’s a human being, and he’s a coach. Coaches have to do things sometimes to get things going. But his worked up is different than other people’s worked up.
“I think you’ve just got to be around it and be behind closed doors, and you’ll know when he wants a little more of a practice or a little more preparation or whatever he’s doing. He still sets the tone when you see him that day, if things need to be changed or need to be worked on.”
Vigneault sent Chris Kreider to the minors to start the season. He scratched two other forwards, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, early in the season. He challenged goalie Henrik Lundqvist, during the worst regular season of his career, by repeatedly playing first-year backup Cam Talbot. He criticized rookie forward J.T. Miller’s commitment. He said, during the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, that Ryan McDonagh wasn’t playing well enough.
So, it certainly hasn’t been all rosy. But all of those players — other than Miller, whose chance will come next season — responded in a big way.
Patience pays off
The style of play under Vigneault is starkly different — a game of speed and transition and depth, of having defensemen activated in the offensive zone, and playing a man-to-man system in the defensive zone. Tortorella wanted to play that way at first, saw that he didn’t have the skill or the depth, and went a different way. And, to be fair, the depth Tortorella had — the Rangers’ fourth line of Dominic Moore centering Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett would have been his third line — wasn’t what it is now.
Most questioned, though, whether the Rangers had the skill to play AV’s way.
Turns out they did. Turns out he was the right man with the right plan.
“I personally just like how calm he is,” Lundqvist said. “Obviously, he changed a lot the way we play, so it was a big change early on in training camp and the first couple months for us to adjust and for me to adjust. It was a little different game. But he was very patient and calm and understood the process for us to get there. It’s going to take awhile to get there.
“But obviously having Tortorella for almost five years and having that coaching style and then AV comes in, they’re opposites. As a player, you learn from both, and I enjoy both. But it’s refreshing when you see a new coaching style that you haven’t had before, and the way he handles pressure situations. That’s been impressive to see, I think. The heat you felt early on and not getting the results and now getting in the playoffs, he’s pretty consistent with the way he talks to us, good or bad.”
It wasn’t easy. Vigneault was saddled with a cockamamie schedule that included a needless portion of training camp in Banff, Alberta, a needlessly long western preseason, followed by a quick trip home and then a nine-game, season-opening road trip. The new coach and his clean slate of players learning a new system started 2-6.
But the man’s personality, being who he is and nothing more, eventually worked.
True to himself
Vigneault’s humility is rooted in an early-career failure. The Quebec native was fired after 3 1/2 seasons as Montreal Canadiens coach.
“I was six years in between NHL jobs,” Vigneault said. “Got fired from the Habs, and my next coaching job was in Montreal coaching the junior team. Instead of being in front of 21,000 people, I was in front of 1,000 people coaching my team. But at that time, I had bills to pay, I had a family to make sure I was providing for, and that was the only place I could work. That’s where I always felt that working was honorable, and I went to work there. Did a couple more years of junior, and I was fortunate to land a job in the American (Hockey) League. Then from there, I was fortunate enough to get a second chance at coaching in this league.”
As coach of the Vancouver Canucks for seven seasons, Vigneault had a .632 winning percentage, won six division titles and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, losing in seven games to Boston after leading the series 3-2.
He won just one of his final 10 playoff games with Vancouver and found the unemployment line shortly before Tortorella did. Not for long.
People wondered if any bum off the street couldn’t have coached the Canucks with all that talent, wondered if he could possibly succeed with what the Rangers had instead.
Vigneault answered the second part in the affirmative. He left the leading to the players in the locker room, before and after captain Ryan Callahan’s departure. He left it to Richards, Lundqvist, Staal, Dan Girardi, McDonagh, Moore, Boyle and others, and then to Martin St. Louis, who was obtained for Callahan.
Vigneault said what he has learned, what has helped him to be so successful, is simple: “Be yourself and stick with what you believe in,” he said. “If at one point you’re shown the door, at least you did it your way.
“I was 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. I did it my way, and I’ve come here to New York in another great hockey market, and I’m doing it my way.”
The guy before Vigneault did it his way, too. Just don’t ask the coach of the Stanley Cup finalist Rangers about that. He wasn’t here.