New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has shown a penchant for playing favorites this season, an unsettling habit about which I recently wrote. Certain players are granted longer leashes and more margin for error than others, which, in the humble opinion of this writer, is not a truly fair way to run a team.
Vigneault’s selective accountability hit perhaps its most troubling and perplexing note of the 2015-16 season in Sunday’s 6-4 home loss against the rival New York Islanders, where J.T. Miller, who has been one of the Rangers’ most consistent forwards all season, was benched for the vast majority of the second and third periods.
Rough Start Leads to Benching for Miller
Collectively, the Rangers came out with an alarmingly flat start against their rivals in a big game, falling behind 3-0 within the first five minutes. Defenseman Johnny Boychuck opened the scoring for the Islanders, as he cut in toward the net and released a quick shot from the right circle that beat goaltender Antti Raanta. Miller, who was on the ice for the goal, was not quick enough to pick up Boychuck, otherwise the tally could have perhaps been prevented. But Miller’s defensive miscue was one of many for the Blueshirts as a team in the first period.
After the Rangers battled back to cut the deficit to 3-2 later in the period, Boychuck scored again, this time on a long shot that Raanta should have stopped. Miller was on the ice again, and was unable to corral the puck near the blue line before allowing Boychuck to release a shot that eluded Raanta.
From that point on, Miller did not see much ice time the rest of the way, as he was the player singled out by Vigneault to pay the price for the entire team’s horrible start, which saw them yield the contest’s first 10 shots on goal, and not register their own until halfway through the first period. Miller finished the game with just 6:35 of total ice time.
While Miller certainly needed to be better in his defensive coverage on Boychuck’s two goals, it was not fair of Vigneault, nor prudent, to staple him to the bench. The entire team needed a wake-up call after falling behind so quickly, and while Vigneault’s timeout at 3-0 came perhaps a goal too late, the Rangers did pick up their game shortly thereafter.
They got to within one goal, at 4-3, by the end of the first period, before things tightened up in the second period. Miller did not play much of that period at all, and one has to wonder if more ice time for him would have led to more offensive chances and perhaps a tying goal. While the Rangers did eventually tie the game in the third period, they coughed it up with just 1:28 to go. If they had found a way to tie it going into the third period, or earlier in that period, the entire complexion of the game would have changed, and there is no telling what would have transpired from there.
Miller, with 17 goals and 34 points on the season, could have been a major catalyst in making that happen for the Rangers, if Vigneault had afforded him the opportunity that he has earned with his strong play all season. When asked why Miller was benched for virtually all of the final two periods, Vigneault responded very concisely.
AV says JT Miller’s game “wasn’t good enough,” which is why he was benched.
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) March 7, 2016
To be fair, Vigneault’s assessment is not off base. Miller was culpable on two of the Islanders’ goals during the first period barrage. Again though, the whole team was not awake for this game until the score was 3-0. Miller, just 22, is going to have a few bumps in the road. With those bumps, though, come a greater number of successes, as his point production this season clearly illustrates.
In a season marked by inconsistency for the club as a whole, Miller has been one of the Rangers’ best and most consistent players. He was a critical reason why the team was eventually able to dig itself out of its awful December swoon. Hasn’t that earned him anything this season? Apparently not, according to Vigneault, as Miller is still constantly just a couple of mistakes away from punishment. For the benching to occur with the Rangers down by a goal reflects even more poorly on the head coach.
While Miller has to essentially walk on egg shells all the time, other players on the club can make mistake after mistake and never find themselves pinned to the bench. Look no further than Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who have often been liabilities this season, yet still eat up big minutes for the Rangers.
Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes have also had their ups and downs this season. Hayes was a healthy scratch for two games earlier in the year, after being publicly called out by Vigneault. Kreider, meanwhile, has not had to face such criticism and consequences.
This article also would not be complete without the requisite mention of Tanner Glass, who, despite a goal in Sunday’s game, has largely been a detriment on the ice in his two years with the Rangers. Despite all of his shortcomings though (negligible offensive contributions, a driver of opponent possession, untimely penalties, etc.), Vigneault continues to give him ice time. In fact, he even got a shift in Miller’s spot, with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, late in the second period! For how much longer will this go on?
To put everything in perspective, Vigneault is a very good hockey coach who has been excellent overall for the Rangers since being hired in 2013, having led the club to the Stanley Cup Final and Game 7 of the Conference Final in his first two seasons. But to this point, this has been his worst year, with his unequal treatment of players rearing its ugly head more so than ever before. It’s a problem that, if it persists, will not only be detrimental for the Rangers in game to game situations, but could also create discord between the coach and his players. The ramifications of such a situation would undoubtedly be severe.
* Featured image was provided by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers