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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tough to Criticize Vigneault Administration... Benefit to Lundqvist's Injury?... Rick "Pay That Man His Cash" Nash...

   If Rick Nash scores 11 more Even-Strength goals in the 23 remaining NYR regular season games, he will be the oldest NHL player to score 39 ESG’s since Phil Esposito’s 1973-74 season. If Nash continues his pace, he’s set to lead the league in not only ESG’s, but #1 in Shorthanded Goals, Game-Opening-Goals, & Home Goals. Oh yeah, all this while playing only 17:36 per game. Yup. Rick Nash is scoring 2.175 goals-per-hour, an unprecedented amount considering it would also be an NHL record should Nash sustain his trajectory and win the Maurice Richard trophy.

   Last year’s Rick Nash has left the building. This year’s Rick Nash continues to own the joint. 

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   I am certainly no “runner,” but I imagine the strategical basics for winning a marathon involve a large element of sustainable-pace running, with bits of sprinting at the final stretch. Well folks, winning a Stanley Cup is a lot like winning a marathon. It involves a minimum 82 regular season games, followed by 16-28 playoff games, any of which could go as long as 12 hours in theory. All the while, it is one of the most hazardous and physically-grueling professional sports leagues in North America. Teams will start hot in October, only to be skydiving in fretful by February (I’m talking to you, Toronto). So why make this point when it comes to coaching?

   John Tortorella was a fine coach for New York in my opinion, but he was a coach who relied (perhaps sub-optimally too much, in fact) on sprinting. There was too much of an unsustainable-pace in play to leave the roster anything but winded by May. To be fair, Tortorella probably needed to overwork certain quality players of others, because simply the team wasn’t good enough to win rolling 4 lines smoothly. If not total oblivion to the detriment of sprinting too much to win a marathon, Tortorella perhaps figured a winded 2nd round exit could keep him from getting canned. But Glen Sather walked out to the mound and took the ball from Torts nearly 2 years ago.

   Alain Vigneault, released from Vancouver following a 1st-round sweep to San Jose, was hired by New York shortly after. Vigneault was a staunch contrast to Tortorella in several ways: Tortorella was not a ‘player’s coach.’ Vigneault embodies a ‘player’s coach.’ One is stand-offish and has some wonderful press-conference YouTubes highlighting his temper, the other has vids of him laughing uncontrollably at Vernon Fiddler  impression of Kevin Bieksa. Night and day in aura, both demonstrating successful coaching is found all over the spectrum… but a few other key items also changed under the AV administration.


   2011-12:           4th                 15th           110th          Callahan (T-92nd)
   2012-13:           8th                 22nd           19th           Callahan (71st)

   2013-14:           38th               12th          T-101st        Richards (T-198th)
   2014-15:         T-38th              30th            73rd            Stepan (T-212th)

   Last season and this season, Vigneault has had a balance rotation of attack. He’s called upon, coached, seemingly been uniformly obliged by his cadets, and exercised every bit of supposed “depth” out of the rosters he’s been handed… all while coming through with magnificent results. That’s why both of AV’s seasons as NYR coach, they are also the only two seasons the NY Rangers have not had a forward average 19+ minutes per/game (since its tracking began in 1997). In fact, the only other time a Rangers forward has not averaged 20 minutes a game in any season was the 1999-2000 Rangers, where Petr Nedved averaged 19:54/game. Vigneault’s pine-piloting has been a revelation, totally unseen in Madison Square Garden’s home bench approach.

    Why are the NY Rangers such a successful team this year? Why are they so equipped to protect 3rd period leads under Vigneault’s approach? Simple: The NY Rangers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NHL when it comes to burning all parts of the candle. When the 3rd frame is underway, players like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh & Dan Girardi will have exerted several minutes’ less worth of ice time, and will have simply been more rested than their opponents. NYR, along with the Boston Bruins & Florida Panthers, are the only NHL teams with no forward averaging 19+ minutes per game. 

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   There’s some sentiment floating around (and becoming less guilty to think about with more updates of Henrik Lundqvist’s rehab cardio drills) supposing Lundqvist returning for the playoffs with a long rest could be a serendipitous weapon of mass reduction come late April. Incredibly, the NY Rangers are in no need to rush his return, as the team’s parts have come together to stopgap sloppy wins with Cam Talbot suddenly taking the wheel. 

   My thoughts on it?

   Lundqvist won the 2012 Vezina Award, and carried the NY Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals for the 1st time in 18 years. It was certainly his best season at that time, and perhaps arguably his best overall year of hockey in the NHL. It was also the 1st season Lundqvist was rested more than a dozen games in a single season since he took the starting job from Kevin Weekes in early 2006. Last season, en route to the Cup Finals, Lundqvist was rested 19 games (though some form injury), and had his most impressive postseason campaign to date. 

   Lundqvist rested is probably good news for the NY Rangers winning a marathon. The players being administered Vigneault’s soft, diluted, apportioned icetime-per-game is better for a marathon than Tortorella’s strong, fiery, bitter straight shots of 25-minutes-per-game. But that’s not an overwhelming reason why I’m genuinely getting ‘excited’ about this year’s Broadway Blueshirts…

   It’s the adversity. The results from that adversity. When given no room to breathe, this team has held its breath, gone to war, and constantly been able to fight their way out of corners. 

   On a team with a bare-bone crop of 4 or 5 needed centers, losing Derek Stepan the 1st dozen games of the season was supposed to cripple the team’s expectations to start the year. They went 6-4-2 while juggling Derrick Brassard, Martin St. Louis, Dominic Moore, J.T. Miller & Chris Mueller in various pivot placements. Remember Ryan McDonagh’s ugly-looking injury in November, causing him to miss 4 weeks, coupled with Brian Boyle’s broken hand? While deploying fill-ins like Matt Hunwick, Mike Kostka, Conor Allen, & Dylan McIlrath to defend work assignments of superior pedigree, the team still managed to go a respectable 4-4-3 while the shallowness of depth on the blueline was exposed during the turkey season.

   The come-from-behind comebacks early on against the NJ Devils & Minnesota Wild, as well as the memorable 3rd period rally over the NY Islanders a few weeks ago. These are amazing results. These are efficient hockey players executing a winning system, not without its occasional sloppiness, but assuredly above expectations, even in the mere months following last June’s drive to the Finals.

   Of course the NY Rangers are undoubtedly scavenging the trade deadline rental market, imaginably keen on improving depth, perhaps in center's or defenseman’s position. There is a tight leash as to NYR's financial liberties under the $69-million salary cap, so there’s unlikely a mesmerizing trade to be made. More likely a few additional pieces, to protect a team looking to make a run from a wave of untimely injuries. But, akin to the 2012 trade deadline where the NYR remained neutral, and pursued the playoffs with the same squad that had won the East in the regular season… Is this a team that can go the distance without any significant upgrades, transactions or contractual-outsourcing?

   If they are, it’s of certain thanks to coach Alain Vigneault, the riveting assortment of skill, smart & speed deployed with impressive balance night-in, night-out, fetching continually remarkable results. If this NY Rangers team is for real, the gentle hum of a balanced, hard-working engine sure can be a sweet soundtrack for a taking a drive at hockey’s highest of hardware hoists.


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