Before the already numerous Alain Vigneault haters get their tail feathers ruffled, remember that we are only SEVEN games into the season, so none of this means a whole lot yet. However, Vigneault was brought in to implement widespread changes to the team’s tactics and approach to the game, so we are understandably keeping a close eye on the new bench boss in the early going. So without further ado, here are several of the things we expected from Vigneault when he was hired, and how they’ve actually turned out in the infancy of the 2013-2014 campaign.
Less line juggling - Not so much. To be fair, Vigneault would be much better able to keep his preferred combinations together if the Rangers hadn’t been ravaged by the injury bug, but so far Vigneault has shifted his players around as much as John Tortorella ever did. Taylor Pyatt on the first line? Come on.
Carefully planned zone starts - Granted, Rick Nash has only played in three games, but according to Extra Skater he’s started a whopping 77.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone (when comparing OZ versus DZ, and eliminating NZ starts from the equation), significantly more than any Ranger did last season under Torts. Brad Richards has clocked in at 70.7%, also much higher than a year ago. After that, there aren’t many Blueshirts that have been given significantly more cushy assignments than their teammates. Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett have been deployed almost exclusively in their own zone – each has started 32% or less of their shifts in the attacking zone. Last season, Boyle was Tortorella’s most relied on defensive forward, and he still started 38.3% of his shifts in the O-zone. Vigneault is already working hard at this and it will only become easier when some of his key soldiers return.
More offense - Oof. New York has managed just 11 goals in seven games – a paltry average of 1.6 goals per game. Last year, New York ranked 15th in the league at 2.63 goals per game and in 2011-2012 they tallied 2.71 goals per contest. Many thought offensive-minded players like Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard would flourish under Vigneault, but so far only three Ranger forwards (Richards, Callahan and Dorsett) have scored this season. It was also expected that the aforementioned offense would come at the expense of team defense, and unfortunately that has proven true. The Rangers rank dead last in the league, allowing 4.1 goals per game.
Chris Kreider would finally get an opportunity - Again, Vigneault’s hand has been forced a bit by injuries, but he gave Kreider every opportunity to succeed at training camp by placing him alongside Richards and Nash. Now Vigneault is teaming the youngster up with Richards and Derek Stepan following his recall. It’s going to be up to Kreider to prove that he deserves that spot, but Vigneault is at least prepared to give him the ice-time and linemates to make that possible.
Everyone gets a clean slate – Vigneault has followed through on this. Players that Tortorella ignored were able to earn Vigneault’s favor with their hard work in training camp and Vigneault kept who he himself thought were his best players. The one question mark here is the Marty Biron situation. Biron has repeatedly said this week that he was contemplating retirement entering camp, but it’s still a mystery what went on with Biron during his early absence that led Vigneault to bring in Johan Hedberg. Did Vigneault already know that Biron’s heart wasn’t in it, or did he think he might need a better backup?
More puck possession - You don’t have to bother examining advanced statistics to see that this has been a complete disaster thus far. That said, injuries again deserve a large amount of the blame and seven games are way, way too few to determine whether Vigneault’s new system (wonderfully explained by The Suit here) is a failure. The players need much more time to learn their new roles.
Better power play – New York is converting at a 16.2% clip through seven games, just slightly better than its 15.7% pace of a year ago. However, the new coach spent a considerable amount of time at training camp and in practice working on the man advantage, and his players have been glowing about how much more confident and optimistic they feel about their power play unit. The results have been slow to come, but it certainly seems like the power play is on the right track, if for no other reason than the players’ mindset toward it has improved.
Less attention to blocked shots – A year ago, New York finished sixth in the league with 773 blocks, 16.1 per game. According to the sometimes less than reliable realtime statisticians at the seven road arenas the Rangers have played in this season, they’ve blocked 108 shots in seven games so far this year, 15.4 per game. Of course, that number is also a little skewed considering how much time opponents have spent pinning the Blueshirts in their own zone, so indeed the Rangers do seem to be blocking shots at a lower rate. Still, the idea that the Rangers were going to abandon their “Black & Blueshirts” style under Vigneault was clearly a fallacy – look no further than the broken thumb that has Ryan Callahan on the shelf for the next month.
So what can we learn from all this? As mentioned at the top, basically nothing. Seven games will be a blip on the radar when the season’s over, but these trends are certainly worth monitoring as the year progresses.