Vigneault and Tortorella: A Game of Musical Coaches

Last summer, it was mildly amusing to watch Vancouver and the New York Rangers basically trade coaches in the hopes of jump-starting both teams in the hopes of abandoning their underachieving ways. Vancouver had dominated the Northwest Division; won two President’s Trophys; and was one win away from the 2011 Stanley Cup, but fired Alain Vigneault anyway because the team lacked the proper fire to win the Cup. The Rangers under John Tortorella had played with grit and determination, coming very close to winning the President’s Trophy in 2012 before losing to the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 conference finals. Yet, last season, the team fell off, growing increasingly numb to Torts’ rubber hose approach to hockey coaching. The team needed a psychic rest and a collective pat on the back.

Both teams found the solution to their mutual problems in the other’s newly fired head coach.

Right now, with both teams in the Olympic break, both men are coping with their respective new challenges and both are facing long odds in their quest for Stanley Cup glory.

Of the two, the New York Rangers have the higher conference ranking, presently the sixth seed in the playoff race. The Rangers started off poorly under A.V., at one point they were 3-7-0. The Rangers hovered at .500 during November and December but since New Year’s the team has found its center, going 11-3-1, with gutsy wins against Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia. The Rangers are a stealth team with no real star skaters although Rick Nash has won six games personally with clutch goals. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist continues to anchor the Rangers defense although not at the same level as he’s done in the past. Offensively the Rangers are below average but on special teams the Rangers rank among the top ten in power-play offense and penalty-killing.

Still, it appears that the Rangers have no hope of winning the Metropolitan Division. They are a distant second to Pittsburgh and head coach Alain Vigneault is realizing that he’s not coaching in the Northwest Division anymore (long the weakest division in the Western Conference under the old alignment). Right now (according to my rating system) Vigneault has the potential for a +3 performance which is way below his past years at Vancouver (where he advanced rapidly up the top 50 ranks). To double his season value, A.V. would have to coax the Rangers to win 35 out of 52 team points to do so—an unlikely prospect.

Vancouver has waxed hot and cold under John Tortorella. They started off hot and by mid-December they were 20-10-5 but the New Year has seen the team slump dramatically. One reason is injuries, especially in their blue line corps has sapped the team’s effectiveness. The other reason was Torts’ 15-day day suspension in the wake of his WWE behavior against the Calgary Flames on January 18 (the team went 1-4-1 in his absence). Since his return on the 2nd the team continues to remain toothless offensively.

Still in the beginning the Canucks responded to Torts’ intensity by playing with a grit and toughness not shown in the seasons past. Forwards Tom Sestito and Zack Kassian, and defenceman Kevin Bieksa supply the muscle for the Canucks while Henrik Sedin continues to generate points. John Tortorella is getting solid goal-tending effort from Roberto Luongo and rookie Eddie Lack. The Canucks have the fourth best penalty-killing unit in the NHL.

But Vancouver no longer has the great offense like they did under Alain Vigneault. They are weak in overall offense and weaker still on the power play.

John Tortorella, too, is looking at a +3 season in terms of coaching value but unlike A.V. though it will not be enough to vault him into the top fifty ranks. Tortorella (like Vigneault) needs a +6 season (according to my rating system) to rank among the NHL’s elite. Like A.V. he needs to win 35 out of the remaining 52 team points to so—again, an unlikely prospect.

If Torts wants to rank among the all-time coaching grants he needs to lead the Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals. Right now Vancouver is the 8th seed in the Western Conference (with Phoenix a whisper behind) and Winnipeg and Dallas one win behind as well. If Vancouver is to regain its poise then it needs John Tortorella to stop being his own worst enemy and help this team regain its psychic center.

For both Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella the changes in their resumes have served as living proof of the hoary old cliché: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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