With the 2018 Trade Deadline now passed, the crew here at Blue Seat Blogs has decided to take a step back and assess the New York Rangers’ rebuild so far. We’re just over one year into this grand experiment, and in that time the Rangers have taken strides forward. They’ve turned over most of the roster, created significant salary cap flexibility, and stockpiled draft picks. But asset management is just one part of the intertwining process that is creating a contending hockey team. Today, I’ll be offering my assessment of the coaching, particularly the appointment of David Quinn and whether he’s the right guy for the job. On Thursday, Pat will share his take on GMJG’s transactions thus far, and on Friday, Dave will tackle player development.
Last Sunday, the Rangers played a wildly entertaining game against the division rival Capitals. In and among the chaos of Brady Skjei’s last minute game-tying goal, I tweeted the following, which got a much larger reaction than I expected:
No BS, David Quinn has this team playing its ass off. #NYR
— Rob Celebrity (@RobCelletti) February 24, 2019
I think this sentiment resonated with Rangerstown in part because of recency bias. The Rangers have played objectively better hockey over the last six weeks than they did the six weeks prior to that. The Blueshirts are 10-8-2 over their last 20 games, with nine of those wins coming in regulation or overtime (bear in mind, they have just 21 ROW all season). A cursory look at the stats (fancy and otherwise) shows that the team has made real strides over the last six weeks.
In the 20 games from January 10 through February 24, the Rangers posted a respectable 48.45 score-adjusted CF%, and created 50.68% of the high danger chances at 5v5. Their power play has been fourth-best in the NHL in that time, converting at a 26.3% clip and the penalty kill has been successful 81.3% of the time, good for 12th in the league.
It’s always difficult to pin down the cause-and-effect relationship between improved performance and the factors behind it, but I do think Quinn and his staff deserve some credit here. The Rangers have been better at limiting Grade-A chances against, and when they’ve had the puck, they’ve been able to sustain possession (even though it hasn’t always led to a high quantity of shots). The Rangers have shown the ability to forecheck, recover pucks and keep the other team hemmed in, something that rarely occurred the last two seasons under Alain Vigneault.
The most impressive part: Quinn has coaxed these results out of a roster that is – to put it nicely – short on talent. Outside of Henrik Lundqvist, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers are a collection of bottom six forwards, bottom pair defensemen and young players in the early stages of development.
Stepping back from the last 20 games though, it’s clear that Quinn has successfully established an identity and gotten the players to buy into it. When hockey players talk about things like “trusting the system” and “structure,” this is generally what they’re referring to. Good coaches get their teams to play a recognizable style, but also adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. This Rangers team certainly has more of an “edge” than recent iterations, though Quinn certainly doesn’t sacrifice skill or punish players explicitly for taking risks.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Quinn’s tenure so far has been his ability to keep the Rangers culture intact. It is very easy for a rebuilding team to slip into prolonged periods of malaise, and for the culture of a franchise to turn downright toxic as the losses mount. That problem can then manifest itself in a variety of ways and take years to solve (see: Oilers, Edmonton). While they never achieved the ultimate goal, the Rangers have been an objectively successful franchise for the last decade-plus. David Quinn is a big part of the reason that the Rangers have been able to thread the needle during this transitional period, balancing a real desire to win every game with the realities of the rebuild.
Of course, Quinn isn’t perfect. Dave will get into player development more deeply on Friday, but there have been several instances throughout the season where Quinn has chosen to give minutes to veteran players over younger ones for (seemingly) arbitrary reasons. Quinn tends to take a traditional view on how he constructs defense pairs, meaning that an “offensive defensemen” always needs to be balanced out by a “stay-at-home” guy, hence the reliance on pairs like Staal-Pionk and Skjei-McQuaid. He also seems to have only a passing interest in advanced stats, but that generally falls in line with the rest of the organization.
Lastly, it’s certainly fair to ask whether Quinn is the right coach long-term. There are legitimate concerns about his system, which often sacrifices the defensive blue line in order to protect against slot-line passes. The problem with that, of course, is that it leaves elite shooters with lots of time and space at the top of the circle. Quinn tends to – at times – value “grit” and “effort” over talent, though I challenge you to name an NHL coach that doesn’t follow a similar thought process. It’s also fair to wonder if those relatively positive results and stats I detailed above would be slightly better if Quinn simply optimized his lineups.
Ultimately though, the answer to the question “Is David Quinn the right coach for the New York Rangers at present?” is yes. He’s a thoughtful, passionate coach who has done a credible job balancing player development and the overall state of the franchise with remaining competitive on a nightly basis. The Rangers are rarely an easy opponent, and the players have bought in. It’ll be interesting to see how this all unfolds over the next couple of seasons, particularly if the Rangers are able to land some elite talent and begin competing in earnest once again.