Hartnett: Rangers Fans Need To Start Trusting Vigneault
By Sean Hartnett
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Alain Vigneault has steered the Rangers to a 16-7-1 record atop the Metropolitan Division, and the best goal differential and offense in the NHL.
Yet, he has some vocal critics questioning his lineup decisions because they are fearful that underlying statistics indicate the Blueshirts could be heading for a regression.
The three most common gripes aired by upset fans seem to be Vigneault's reliance on veteran Dan Girardi as a top-pairing defenseman alongside captain Ryan McDonagh, his unwillingness to hand over minutes to journeyman Adam Clendening and a perceived lack of opportunities being given to youngsters.
Unlike predecessor John Tortorella, Vigneault tends to spread minutes fairly evenly among his six regular defenseman. An early gripe from fans this season was his trust in Nick Holden, but the 29-year-old has earned his ice time by playing solid hockey on both ends of the ice. Though Girardi is skating on the first pair, he actually ranks fourth in average time on ice among Rangers defenseman (18:25), while Holden's 19:41 trails only McDonagh.
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Acquired from the Colorado Avalanche this past offseason for a 2017 fourth-round pick, Holden has been exactly what the Rangers needed as a solidifying presence on the defensive end. His offense has been an unexpected boon as his 12 points in 24 games is tied for 19th among NHL defensemen. He's fairing better than the likes of stars Shayne Gostisbehere, Drew Doughty and former Ranger Keith Yandle in points per game. Holden's 11 even-strength points is tied for fourth in the league. He has done a fine job adjusting to Vigneault's uptempo leanings and is well on his way to smashing his previous career-high of 25 points.
Though it stands out that high-performing rookie Brady Skjei is the low man among Vigneault's six regular defensemen at 16:50 of playing time per game, part of that can be attributed to Skjei not being leaned on to kill penalties. The 22-year-old is averaging only 20 shorthanded seconds per game and it's hard to argue with Vigneault's allocation of those minutes. McDonagh, Girardi and Marc Staal are all averaging over two minutes of shorthanded time on ice per game and the Rangers have made a leap to sixth overall in penalty killing percentage (85.5). That's a huge difference compared to finishing near the bottom of the league at 26th overall last season with a success rate of just 78.2 percent.
Skjei has made the most of his even-strength ice time and ranks second among Rangers defensemen in power play minutes behind McDonagh. He has recorded 12 points in 24 games and his three power play points is even with McDonagh. The Rangers' extra-man unit ranks ninth overall at 21.1 percent. The Blueshirts are the only Eastern Conference team with at least a 20 percent power play efficiency and an 85 percent penalty kill rate.
Perhaps, Vigneault could stand to keep veterans Girardi, Staal and Kevin Klein fresh by giving Clendening an occasional appearance, but it's not like he's overloading them. McDonagh is the only Rangers defenseman averaging greater than 20 minutes per night. Clendening has not seen game action since Nov. 6 against the visiting Winnipeg Jets. The 24-year-old certainly has something to offer with his ability to move the puck efficiently from the back end. His creativity and right-handed point shot on the power play could help ease the long-term absence of Mika Zibanejad.
Vigneault's detractors were vocal about his reluctance to play Dylan McIlrath, but the physical defenseman has been scratched by the Panthers for six consecutive games and has only skated in one game since the Rangers traded him to Florida for defenseman Steven Kampfer and a conditional 2018 seventh-round draft pick. Clendening has talent, but he's struggled to nail down his place with six teams in three seasons and his most consistent role was appearing in 20 games for the Edmonton Oilers last season.
Vigneault's lack of faith in youngsters is a false narrative. He wasn't afraid to trust Skjei with key minutes against the Pittsburgh Penguins during last season's playoffs and has rewarded center Kevin Hayes with 1:20 in penalty kill time and nearly a three-minute bump in all-situation ice time compared to last season. The 24-year-old has blossomed into a dependable forward in three zones.
Rookies Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey have both averaged more than 14 inures per night. Vesey has consistently been part of the Rangers' top-six forwards and has averaged 2:01 on the power play, while Buchnevich (2:38 on the power play) trails only McDonagh and Zibanejad. Back issues have troubled Buchnevich, but the 21-year-old leads the Blueshirts with .8 points per game.
It's easy to forget Vigneault is already sixth all-time in franchise history with 160 regular season victories in 270 games. He is closing in on Tom Renney (164), Tortorella (171) and Frank Boucher (181). His points percentage of .635 trails only Mike Keenan, whose only season behind the Rangers' bench resulted in Stanley Cup glory.
Vigneault has accomplished a lot in four seasons in terms of victories, deep playoff runs and molding the Blueshirts into a team that plays with pace on both ends of the rink.
Maybe it's time for his doubters to begin appreciating the sustained success he's ushered into Madison Square Garden.
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