The New York Rangers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs sooner than expected and following that defeat there has been plenty of blame spread around the team. Off-seasons always see players move around but something that seems to have stuck out from breakup day was head coach Alain Vigneault being somewhat sure that the team would look different next season. One particular comment voiced his displeasure with the Rangers’ defense, “There’s no denying that inconsistency this year was a big part of our season. Especially from our back-end this year. I mean the puck moving ability that we’ve shown in the past for whatever reason was not as good, and it affected a lot of parts of our game. So we’re definitely going to take a look at all aspects.” The displeasure spells some trouble for the players that suit up at the position but combine his feeling with the inability to assure reporters that his assistant coaches would be back, and it becomes easy to speculate about the future of defense coach Ulf Samuelsson.
AV: Can’t say at this time whether assistants will be back.
— Steve Zipay (@stevezipay) April 26, 2016
Fall from Grace
Heading into the season fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Rangers were expected to have one of the best defense cores in the NHL with their mixture of sound puck-movers, veteran shutdown men and exciting young prospects. But as the season moved along the core of experienced rearguards looked anything but seasoned. They often left men open right in front of the net and struggled to spring their forwards on the attack as they had done so many times prior.
Last year the Rangers finished the season third in the NHL in goals against with 187, this year they dropped to 15th with 215 goals against. The penalty kill is also under Samuelsson’s watch, and it dipped from an impressive 84.3 percent in 2014-2015 good for sixth in the NHL at the time, to 78.2 percent good for 26th in the NHL this season. Now I’m not saying this is entirely on the defense coach because the defenders still need to make plays, but there is no denying that this team struggled to adapt to their opposition.
Goals like this one that Justin Williams scored on December 20th were the same kinds of goals that plagued the Rangers all season long, where a forward would end up wide open in front of the net.
Breakdowns like this could only happen so many times until one starts to wonder about the teams ability to make strategic adjustments.
The coach is usually the first to go when a team looks to need a breath of fresh air, and that could be the biggest factor working against Samuelsson right now. The Rangers still have a good defense core, and they still have some decisions to make, but perhaps a new voice working with them and a tweaked philosophy could re-energize this group. Dan Boyle will not be back as he is a UFA and expected to retire; Keith Yandle appears to be headed for a big payday, and it seems unlikely that the bump in salary will come from the Rangers. Brady Skjei had a real solid postseason and should have a full-time role with the team next season and it looks like Dylan McIlrath will also have a spot on the team.
Despite the fact that there will be some new personnel added to the New York back-end it’s still fair to suspect that the Rangers will turn to a new assistant coach.
Samuelsson is not the only reason for the Rangers’ defensive struggles this year, but the fact is that all coaches have a shelf life, and one of the best ways to give a team a different look is to get a new face behind the bench. Now the interesting situation with the Rangers is that Vigneault is a terrific coach, and the organization doesn’t seem ready to move on from him, so one way that they could get a new mind in the room is by bringing in a new assistant rather than overhauling the staff.
Another factor that makes the transition easier is that the Rangers wouldn’t need to shop for a seasoned veteran coach, they could bring in someone whose relatively green as he’d still be working under Vigneault, and wouldn’t be overwhelmed by responsibilities.
If New York does move on from Samuelsson then expect him to get scooped up quickly, he’s been terrific in his tenure here but after a real disappointing season for this organization, I expect to see several changes.