Alain Vigneault has proven to be an excellent head coach in the NHL, highlighted by his years of success with the Vancouver Canucks and his guiding of the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final and Conference Final in his first two seasons, respectively.
Despite that success though, it is fair to wonder how much more effective the Rangers would be this season if Vigneault made his lineup decisions based on objective player performance this year, rather than past success, veteran status, or muddled perceptions.
I’ve written before about how egregiously Vigneault has misused his most dynamic defenseman — and one of his most dynamic players overall, for that matter — this season. That player, of course, is Keith Yandle. Yandle is the Rangers’ best possession player, and he leads the entire team in assists, with 30. Yet somehow, Vigneault favors both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal over him, despite the fact that each player is having a poor season, which both the numbers and the eye test will tell you.
When New York’s other best defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, recently missed time with two separate head injuries, Vigneault seemed to come to his senses somewhat, finally getting Yandle off of the bottom defense pair and giving him top minutes. Lo and behold, Yandle shined and the Rangers were winning games. They even potted a few power play goals with Yandle on the top unit instead of the second one. What a coincidence!
— Sean Hartnett (@HartnettHockey) February 24, 2016
Vigneault seemingly had all the evidence he needed to keep giving Yandle heavy minutes, even when the defense corps was fully healthy. When the Rangers finally had all of their defensemen healthy for their game in St. Louis Thursday night though, Yandle was once again relegated to bottom-pairing minutes. He logged a mere 16:54 of total ice time, while Girardi and Staal were given 18:57 and 21:16, respectively. The Rangers were dominated all night, as the Blues consistently had them on their heels with offensive zone pressure. The only reason they escaped with a 2-1 win was because of a brilliant performance from Henrik Lundqvist in goal.
Maybe if Yandle had played more than the Wonder Twins, the Rangers would have been able to generate a little more offense and make things a little easier on Lundqvist. But why utilize a player who is effective right now when you can instead hope that two other players suddenly start playing like it’s 2012 again? (I should note that even if it was 2012, Yandle might still be the stronger player.)
It was disappointing but unfortunately not altogether surprising that Vigneault showed no willingness to deviate from a formula that by and large has not worked this season. He strongly favors Girardi and Staal on his blue line, and has each of them on a very long leash. Perhaps Vigneault has been limiting Yandle’s role to prepare the team for life without him, as he has been the subject of trade rumors with unrestricted free agency status looming this off-season. But with the Rangers sitting in second place in their division right now, they will be looking to add at the upcoming trade deadline for another run at the Cup, not subtract. So if that is their plan, they might as well give it their best shot by giving Yandle more minutes than Girardi and Staal.
Another defenseman who inexplicably has a shorter leash than less effective players is Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath has played very well for the Rangers when given the opportunity this season, but that has only been when Vigneault has occasionally decided to rest the 39-year-old Dan Boyle, or when injuries have beset one or more of the other defensemen.
McIlrath too deserves more playing time than he has gotten this season. While he has not been perfect, he has certainly been better than Girardi, Staal, and even Boyle. McIlrath also provides a physical presence, which is one of the main reasons why a certain forward continues to draw a spot in the lineup…
Of course, that player is Tanner Glass. While he actually scored a goal in St. Louis and played reasonably well, one good game does not make up for countless more that are ineffective at best. Glass is still a possession black hole, and his spot in the lineup takes away from other players who could provide the Rangers with better defense, more offense, and more dynamic play.
Glass was actually waived earlier this season, and it seemed as though Vigneault’s ridiculous favoritism toward the physical forward had finally been overpowered by common sense. But alas, he was called back up to the Rangers in December and likely will not be heading back to Hartford anytime soon, unless a trade forces him for the lineup (more on that in a bit).
Vigneault’s favoring of Glass is one of the reasons Emerson Etem was never given a fair shake. Once Glass was called up to fill in for Etem, who was ill at the time, the lineup spot was pretty much his again, and Etem never could get enough time to fit into the Rangers’ system and contribute meaningfully. He was eventually dealt away to Vancouver, and has as many goals in his brief time with the Canucks (three) as Glass does since he signed with the Rangers in 2014.
It will be interesting to see what Vigneault does with the lineup if the Rangers add a forward or two before the trade deadline on February 29. Will Glass be pushed out of the lineup so the Rangers have a deeper attack with four dangerous lines? Or will the head coach favor Glass once again, and cost the Rangers in so doing?
Time will tell with this situation, but in the bigger picture, this is a trend with Vigneault that is really beginning to cost the Rangers.
Featured photo by: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers