From affable Tom Renney to hard-driving John Tortorella to laid-back Alain Vigneault … to?
The Rangers’ coaching pendulum is about to swing again, and the man who replaces the recently fired Vigneault seems likely to keep the pattern intact.
The last three Blueshirts coaches have proved to be more than individuals; viewed organizationally, they form a singular study in the grass always being greener – behind the bench. And it’s difficult not to conclude after general manager Jeff Gorton’s press conference Monday that the next man to lead the rebuilding Rangers is going to be more like Tortorella than Renney – if not Tortorella himself.
The upbeat, engaging Renney led the Rangers to three consecutive playoff berths from 2005-08, including a 100-point season in 2005-06, but was dismissed in February 2009 after a stretch of 10 losses in 12 games. That slump was the catalyst for then-general manager Glen Sather’s decision to make a sea change in leadership and hire Renney’s polar opposite, Tortorella, with 21 games remaining in that season. The Rangers went 12-7-2 under the new coach and made the playoffs.
Sather claimed the primary reason for the change was a departure from the style that had worked so well earlier that season for the team, but going from Renney to Tortorella also seemed to signal that the GM had reached a clear conclusion that Renney’s even-keeled, hands-off approach had been tuned out by the players. Tuning out Tortorella, of course, is next to impossible.
You know the rest. Tortorella’s iron-fisted, high-pressure approach brought discipline and success during his five seasons at the helm, with four playoff appearances and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2012, but he also feuded with the media and even opposing fans in an emotional high-wire act that eventually wore thin. Taken by surprise by Tortorella’s substantial lack of support among players during exit interviews following the 2012-13 season, and reported calls from many of them to get rid of the coach, Sather fired Tortorella four days after the club was eliminated from the playoffs.
Issues with Vigneault Similar to Those of Renney
Enter Vigneault. Laid-back, engaging with the media, a subscriber to an open system of hockey that emphasized speed and skill and was a world away from Torts’ shot-blocking bonanza and tightly structured approach on the ice. It worked, of course. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final in Vigneault’s first season, captured the Presidents’ Trophy and came within one win of another trip to the Cup Final in 2014-15, and earned berths in the tournament the two seasons after that.
Until it didn’t. The Rangers’ defense and discipline had started to slip and emotion seemed to gradually drain on a game-to-game basis, the team becoming a reflection of Vigneault’s preference to de-emphasize physicality and avoid tit-for-tat feuds he saw as distracting from the goal of winning. The Blueshirts missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10 this season, which by the time it ended had long been turned into a full rebuilding effort with Gorton’s trades of Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and other key veterans.
Gorton wasted little time in extending the sweeping organizational change to the coaching staff, dismissing Vigneault shortly after a lifeless, season-ending, 5-0 loss at Philadelphia that seemed to embody everything the Blueshirts had become under AV. Judging by the GM’s comments, that result – the third straight defeat to a Metropolitan Division rival to close out 2017-18 – might have played more than a minor role in his decision.
“I think the Philadelphia (game) was really disappointing,” Gorton said at Monday’s press conference announcing the firing. “I understand where players are, and the other team’s playing for something, but you know what, at the end of the day we have players in the lineup that are trying to stay in the league that should be playing for something too. If they wanted to be here, they need to show that.
“It was disappointing, I think the last week, the way it ended. But it’s over now and we’re moving forward.”
A Tortorella-esque Coach Might be Next in Line
Next up? Don’t bet on another touchy-feely type.
“We’re looking for somebody who can help us get back to an identity we want to get to,” Gorton said at the press conference.
Translation: It’s time tighten things up again. An emphasis on team defense, more accountability, a harder physical and mental edge as the eventual goal for the team’s persona.
“I think A.V. had a certain way and after a certain amount of games he had a plan that worked for him,” Gorton said. “But I think that with the youth on our team going forward, we’re going to have a coach that’s hands-on, for sure.”
So who will that be? If someone from the Tortorella mold is indeed the desired leader now, no-nonsense candidates Dave Tippett and two-time Stanley Cup winner Darryl Sutter could be the favorites. Dan Bylsma, who has a reputation as a players’ coach and won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh but flopped in two seasons in Buffalo without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, might prove to be a long shot. Hot coaching prospect Sheldon Keefe of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, former Colorado coach Patrick Roy and other college coaches look like wild cards.
Or maybe – just hire the genuine article? It seems unlikely Tortorella would be dismissed by the Blue Jackets, but could a second straight early-round playoff loss change that? The Rangers, of all teams, certainly shouldn’t be surprised should that scenario come to pass.
While Gorton stated that he wouldn’t consider any candidates with no head coaching experience, an emphasis on new-age analytics will probably be a prerequisite for the next coach on Broadway. Still, the players who remain on the roster, and the ones that end up joining it next year, seem certain to encounter an older-school approach as part of the Rangers’ reconstruction.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.