Rangers Must Solve Problems With Stars After Quinn Firing

One can argue that former New York Rangers coach David Quinn, dismissed this week after three seasons on Broadway, did exactly what he was primarily hired to do: Create a structure of accountability for the team’s deep pool of young players that would help them to grow into legitimate NHLers.

Surprisingly, it was the Blueshirts’ veterans that Quinn struggled to reach, and that appears to have been a key reason for why Tuesday’s firing became an almost foregone conclusion.

Amid the intense focus by the fanbase and much of the media on the growth or lack thereof when it came to each of the kids, it looks as if a troubled relationship with the team’s established stars was largely overlooked. That is until Quinn paid for it with his job.

David Quinn New York Rangers
Former Rangers coach David Quinn (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In hindsight, the signs were there. Perhaps the most telling was the Rangers’ top forwards stubbornly refusing to buy into the north-south, simpler style of play that Quinn preached, instead of trying to make perfect passes and pretty plays rather than putting pucks on net during odd-man rushes that were plentiful, thanks to the team’s high-end skill and skating ability. The problematic trend increased in frequency and severity as the season wore on, and at the end, it seemed egregious – at times creating the impression that the players were doing it to make a point.

There was the sometimes sloppy, unbalanced power-play approach, in which those top players would sometimes linger on the ice for nearly the full two minutes, showing no apparent interest in coming off in favor of the second unit. Numerous blind drop passes, such as Pavel Buchnevich’s in the defensive zone that led to a goal against in the Rangers’ season finale against the Boston Bruins, surely went against Quinn’s philosophy and certainly raised his blood pressure.

Also telling: The Rangers went 4-2-0 and outscored opponents 27-16 during a March stretch in which Quinn and his assistants were sidelined due to COVID protocols, with Hartford Wolf Pack coach Kris Knoblauch filling in.

Quinn’s Inconsistent Approach to Players Hurt Him

Quinn has plenty of successes he can point to on the subject of player development. Buchnevich, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, Igor Shesterkin, K’Andre Miller, Vitali Kravtsov and to some extent Filip Chytil all rose under their ex-coach’s tutelage, fulfilling his main mission. Yet the coach also deserves blame for enabling some of the veterans’ behavior, often holding those young players to a less forgiving standard while sweeping inexcusable errors such as Buchnevich’s under the rug, sending the vets back out for their next shift when similar plays by the kids would get them benched or pulled from the lineup altogether.

The players’ side’s culprits are none other than the Blueshirts’ best – Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider Buchnevich. Whatever the full extent, the relationship was clearly troubled, and a coach can’t win that way without his stars buying in and setting the example for a very young group. The nonexistent performances by the veterans in the three critical games against the New York Islanders down the stretch – in which the Rangers were outscored 13-1 – were jarring and impossible to ignore, particularly after those top-six mainstays played outsized roles in winning the 2019-20 season series from their bitter rivals.

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The irony is that most of the Rangers’ top players thrived statistically under Quinn. Panarin put together his two best seasons, establishing career bests with 95 points in 2019-20 and 1.38 per game this season. Zibanejad recorded 149 points in Quinn’s first two seasons and finished with 24 points and 26 assists in 56 games this season after a very slow start, one hampered by contracting COVID at the outset of training camp. Strome totaled 109 points in 126 games the past two seasons, while Buchnevich blossomed into a solid two-way forward in 2020-21.

Yet something was still amiss, the team too often flat for long stretches, the big stars seemingly absent when needed the most. We may never know what was said in the players’ exit interviews, which turned out to play the biggest role in the firing of coach John Tortorella after the 2012-13 season, and perhaps they weren’t as revealing of the coach-player relationship this time around. However, it would hardly be surprising if Quinn didn’t receive stellar reviews from his big guns.

What seems obvious now is that this Rangers team will require an exceptional – cliche alert – communicator, but one that can expertly get through to the two significantly different groups of players. Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider are in their primes, driving the offense and more than ready to take the next step back toward consistent contention. The aforementioned neophytes, the ostensible future core, are still learning what it takes to succeed for 82 games in the best hockey league in the world.

It’s going to take some calculated coaching to bridge that gap and forge an all-in, one-goal roster for 2021-22.

There’s been plenty of debate around the team about whether owner James Dolan got impatient and dumped the general manager, team president, and then coach because he expects playoff berths now and doesn’t really understand the situation. That’s a legitimate concern, but the owner’s idea that new voices could be needed to guide the next phase of a rebuild that might not have remained on an upward trend under the same leadership is also legitimate. A significant issue existed last season, and fixing it will be crucial to the team’s fortunes in the near future.

Plenty of big names have been bandied about as realistic candidates for the Rangers’ coaching job – Gerard Gallant, Rick Tocchet, Bob Hartley, Claude Julien, Tortorella. Whoever gets the job needs to be able to thread what seems like a narrow needle. The coach has to develop a strong relationship with the veteran stars – while making it clear he expects them to fully embrace what will presumably be a more straightforward style of play. No more freewheeling or practicing passing drills on the rush.

Vegas Golden Knights Gerard Gallant
Former Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant (AP Photo/David Becker)

He’ll also have to honor the fact that the kids are still learning – while also conveying that it’s time for them to take steps toward being key contributors and that their grace period of youthful mistakes can’t last forever. Most importantly, a sense of consistency – again, noticeably absent at times last season – must be established in how that coach applies expectations and reacts when a player isn’t fulfilling his responsibilities. The Rangers need one roster. They can’t have one for veterans who want to showcase their stickhandling and one that amounts to a developmental program.

The ideal coach who’s willing to take on this complex undertaking is probably an established winner who’s had at least some experience with a similar situation. This doesn’t seem like the right time for another first-time NHL hire.

The hiring process will mark the first major test for new president and general manager Chris Drury. He needs to get this one right, take his time and not have his decision affected by any pressure to hire one of the available coaches before someone else does. The last thing the Rangers need is to be conducting another coaching search in two years. Stability and competence are desperately needed for this delicate – and potentially hazardous – upcoming stage of the building process.

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The team is sure to look different in 2021-22, perhaps fortified by a big acquisition at center, grit in the bottom six and maybe a veteran defenseman who will play regularly. Dolan has made clear that he expects the rebuild to ramp up, to start yielding trips to the playoffs as early as next season. That means the new coach will need to meld a group of players – some wearing Rangers jerseys for the first time – into a cohesive, focused group as fast as possible.

James Dolan New York Rangers
Rangers and New York Knicks owner James Dolan (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

Quinn wasn’t able to do that last season, and he’s gone. He might have deserved one more season, uninterrupted by a pandemic, to prove he could, in fact, take the Rangers to the next level, but that’s irrelevant now. The task will fall to someone else.

For the sake of Drury, the organization and the team’s extended reconstruction project, the Rangers had better pick the right person.

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