Last season, the New York Rangers’ roster was the third oldest in the NHL, giving Head Coach Alain Vigneault the exact type of roster he seems to prefer. Throughout his career as a Head Coach, Vigneault has prioritized the older players over the youngsters, benching the young guns for minor mistakes, while covering up the elder statesmen’s gaffes.
Perhaps Vigneault has tried to make the youth “earn it” while respecting that the veterans have already paid their dues, but it has led to some head-scratching roster decisions in the process.
Kevin Hayes was benched numerous times, including in the postseason, despite leading the NHL in even strength primary assists in his rookie season the year before. Vigneault publicly blasted Hayes for his poor performances, while turning a blind eye to the struggles of veterans Dan Girardi, Tanner Glass, and Marc Staal.
In the playoffs it appeared as if Vigneault had finally reached his breaking point and benched Girardi, but instead Girardi was too injured to play. Tanner Glass entered the Rangers lineup in a time the Rangers were desperate for scoring, as Vigneault again opted for veterans over young talent.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Rangers have a revamped lineup. The projected lineup for the Rangers averages in at 26.4, two whole years younger than last year’s average player.
The youth infusion includes adding Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad, all of whom are under 24 years old. Getting younger is a way for the Rangers to keep their window open, but there may be a catch to the entire process.
Alain Vigneault was not originally hired to coach a team of developing players. Vigneault was hired to coach a successful Stanley Cup contending group with veterans across the lineup, and he successfully did that in his first two seasons in New York.
The veterans aged too much in his third season, and the Rangers adapted their roster accordingly. Vigneault must adapt too now, as the entire foundation of the New York Rangers is different.
When Vigneault was fired from his position coaching the Vancouver Canucks, his inability to develop their young players was one of the main reasons cited. The reasoning should be of great concern to Rangers fans.
Clearly, young players who were committed to defense first (like Tanev and Hansen) would be in the good books of Vigneault, while those with creative offensive instincts (Hodgson and Kassian) would be forever shackled. At yesterday’s press conference, Gillis acknowledged the importance of getting contributions from younger players going forward, a passive indictment of Vigneault’s record in that regard.
This issue is exactly how Kevin Hayes found himself out of the lineup last season, and if Vigneault doesn’t adapt, it will be exactly how Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey could find themselves out of the lineup in the coming season.
Buchnevich and Vesey are both seasoned offensive weapons, but they have not yet had to play the tight defense of the NHL. It’s expected that they will be bullied around a bit by opposing offenses, and Vigneault must leave room for that to happen. It is acceptable for young players to go through growing pains defensively. Not every player is going to be Sean Couturier right out of the gate, and those that are likely do not have the offensive skillsets of Buchnevich or Vesey.
Additionally, there is a simpler matter at hand. The Rangers have tremendous forward depth, including the aforementioned young forwards. With that depth, however, New York also currently employs the likes of Nathan Gerbe and Tanner Glass. It is unfair to pair the talented Gerbe with the essentially useless Glass, but for the sake of putting veterans over youngsters, the two are together for now.
Vigneault cannot hit the panic button every time a poor turnover is committed by a young forward and turn to Gerbe to provide “veteran presence” or Glass to provide an enforcer in the lineup. Vigneault must watch those mistakes and use them as teaching moments, or his young players will never learn.
New York will ice the exact type of roster that Alain Vigneault has failed to coach successfully throughout his career. While pundits are lauding the Rangers’ youth movement, the youth cannot move forward without a helping hand. Either Alain Vigneault will serve as that helping hand, or the Rangers will take a step back.