By Sean Hartnett
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Having stockpiled a collection of high-ceiling youths to go along with an impressive group of under-30 mainstays, the Rangers are brimming with a bright future.
It's imperative for the right coach to preside over what is a crucial phase in the organization's plan to deliver a long-awaited Stanley Cup parade. The prerequisites desired are an ability to develop promising youngsters, while still finding ways to summon the most out of established stars.
Alain Vigneault has struck the right chord throughout his three-plus years behind the Rangers' bench. He has sealed three consecutive playoff appearances amid the highly competitive nature of the Metropolitan Division, while coming tantalizingly close to lifting the ultimate prize.
Since Mike Keenan famously ended a 54-year drought by delivering the Stanley Cup to Broadway in 1994, no coach has come closer to bringing the Blueshirts back to the mountaintop than Vigneault. The 55-year-old led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years in 2014, and narrowly missed out on a repeat trip a season later.
Speculation of his future riding on his performance in the 2017 playoffs has proven to be inaccurate. The Rangers announced on Tuesday that they have extended Vigneault's contract through the 2019-20 season. He was previously inked through next season.
By extending Vigneault's contract an additional two years, the Rangers are showing complete faith in him being able to accelerate the progress of their talented pool of youngsters. Kevin Hayes, Mika Zibanejad, J.T. Miller, Brady Skjei, Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey are all under the age of 24. Miller and Hayes are both on pace to set personal bests in points -- and have grown by leaps and bounds defensively under AV's watch. This bodes well for Zibanejad, Buchnevich, Vesey, plus future young forwards that will pull on a Rangers sweater.
Skjei is tremendously important to this team's future, given his top-pairing potential and the traits he shares with a younger Ryan McDonagh. The 22-year-old has a similar body type, the skating ability and confidence needed to carry the puck into the offensive zone, as well as the strength to develop into a shutdown defenseman.
"Brady is a smart kid. He's a heck of a player, he's got a talent," teammate Kevin Klein said earlier this month. "He could be the next Mac. The thing is, he's young. Sometimes it takes time to develop into exactly how you play the game. The game is fast and it's a learning process. Not everyone can come into this league ready to be a top-two defenseman right away. He takes it in stride and he's playing well. You make the odd mistake and that's expected, but you learn from it. He's a good kid, too.
"He's got that skating ability that is very beneficial," Klein continued. "It just looks effortless at times. He can carry the puck, he can make big plays. The more ice time he gets, the more he develops. He'll be quite a force out there. He's a big, physical, strong young kid, too, which helps in this league. When you have all the tools, it's something special."
When Vigneault replaced head coach John Tortorella in the summer of 2013, he inherited a version of McDonagh who was drilled into thinking defense-first. Vigneault offered McDonagh more chances to move the puck and jump into the rush, thus allowing him to truly showcase his offensive gifts. This season, the Rangers' captain has the highest points-per-game of his career at 0.58 and is on pace to set a new career high of 47 points. Skjei possesses the all-around skillset every coach desires. Now, it's up to Vigneault to guide Skjei into becoming the "McDonagh clone" everyone is projecting him to become.
Through 295 regular season games coached with the Rangers, Vigneault's points percentage of .632 is second-best in franchise history. He only trails Keenan, who finished his lone season with the Blueshirts with a .667 points percentage. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only NHL head coach who earned more wins than Vigneault through his first 1,100 games coached is nine-time Stanley Cup champion Scotty Bowman.
Vigneault has ushered in an era of stability and success at The Garden. Not every coach has the opportunity to build something and see it through. With his fresh contract extension in hand, Vigneault now has a better chance to push the Rangers on to the next level.
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