Since the start of this rebuild, which is now rapidly shifting in its trajectory, there have been a few surprises. What started as an “on the fly” endeavor got a bit contentious when the Rangers went for Lias Andersson instead of Casey Mittelstadt at 7th overall (which seems to be fine) after making that particular draft location the centerpiece of the Derek Stepan trade. Things got a little more interesting when the Rangers passed on Oliver Wahlstrom to select Vitali Kravtsov, another controversial move, at least initially (it’s looking better and better each day though). The most important rebuild maneuver however, at least until Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes is a Ranger, was the hiring of David Quinn.
That might seem bold, but I think when we look at where the Rangers came from and are attempting to go it really comes into clearer focus. The Rangers started the Henrik Lundqvist epoch with John Tortorella as coach (more on him later, and no, Tom Renney doesn’t really count, at least not for purposes of our present framework) and moved to Alain Vigneault when it appeared things had grown a bit rough with Torts at the helm. AV was an attempt to unlock the offensive potential of a team that had spent so much time blocking shots in the name of defense and it worked for a little while until it all fell apart. By this point the brain trust was shifting somewhat both in its composition and outlook, and push eventually came to shove, with the Big Question becoming who would lead the Blueshirts into their next contending era. It was a brief, weird time, what with all the rumors and conflicting reports circulating, but it happened. The question became whether he’d be the right fit.
The short answer is yes, and I’m going to lay out the case, but just on the odd chance that you’re only here to read two short paragraphs there you have it. The long answer is yes too, because of the team’s needs this season and their evolving needs; the way Quinn came out of the gate and the way Quinn has shown his ability to adapt and evolve. He’s the perfect mix of acknowledgement of where we’ve been and the hard work required by where we’re hopefully going, taking the best of what we had, changing with the times, and pushing us into the future with something synthesized effectively from years of almost-there-hockey. With the addition of Kakko, Kravtsov, and the rest of the blue chippers coming into the mix it’s only going to get better.
What did Torts do well? A lot actually, and although he certainly wore out his welcome, he brought the Rangers out of a stale and unprofitable state at precisely the right time and turned guys who could’ve just as easily been busts into bona fide NHLers. John Tortorella got a bad rap for being all about shot blocking and a defense-first mentality, but let’s remember him at his best. He taught this team how to work hard and never give up – his apocryphal training camp skating exercises and workout regiment would cause a shrimp like me to collapse – and it showed in the results. The Rangers in 2012 for example seemed to be something special, something unrelenting and forceful on a visceral level that showed how talent that works hard can beat elite opposition if there’s that extra little push. His ability to bring out that X-factor in guys who we now know to be fairly mediocre players, suggesting that they maybe always were just average, was what set him apart. He proved the difference between toughness and roughness, and if you need evidence of what a John Tortorella win looks like just rewatch that Columbus/Tampa Bay elimination game.
He was also abrasive, and working guys into the ground only works for so long. It’s also true that his system, which did privilege certain habits over others, wasn’t particularly well suited to the kind of players the Rangers were looking to pursue to push them up the mountain. He certainly had, in Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik but also in others to a lesser extent, as he put it “flash and dash”, but he didn’t seem to know how to use it. His firing after a disappointing out against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs beckoned for that extra special sauce, an X-factor behind the bench itself, and so the Rangers turned to Alain Vigneualt.
AV was also someone who did things well, and although his failings probably sink lower than Torts’s he certainly hit some high notes, not just in the season that he brought the Rangers the closest they’d come to a Stanley Cup since 1994. His play style was exciting, bringing that offensive mojo we all felt we needed, but unfortunately he too became a thin and one-dimensional coach that couldn’t close it out. I won’t spend too much time dissecting AV’s tenure because it’s been done before and you can all (hopefully) remember the time between 2013 and the present day. What I’ll say is this though: AV was good at helping guys hit their ceilings, while Torts was very much about preventing guys from hitting their floors.
So now we’ve got Quinn. We’ve seen that in the past, a step too cautious and a step too bold can be problematic. We’ve seen that brashness and a firing-on-all-cylinders approach can be depleting, but we’ve also seen that coy complacency is equally as wasteful. Indeed, it may seem like the Rangers wasted an all-timer’s best years, but now things might not be so dreadful. That in some ways has to do with the second overall pick and other solid rebuilding moves undertaken by Jeff Gorton, but one of those rebuilding moves was hiring Quinn as its own action, and it’s already paying dividends.
Quinn is a toughness guy, that’s for sure. Sometimes he coaches with his heart, another basic fact that you can figure out if you watch maybe ten seconds of one of his press conferences. But he’s not pure Id, in that he has a certain sense of control and serenity about his demeanor. He might go with his gut from time to time, but he also knows to examine that gut feeling and look to its rationale and justification regardless. Not to play inside baseball, but last year after the season ended the Rangers held a town hall Q&A for season ticket holders, and a guy who looked suspiciously like my dad was selected to ask Quinn, Gorton, and Sather a question. He asked about analytics’s role in the coming years, and although they all had different answers and were especially diplomatic in how they responded both individually and as a unit, Quinn mentioned that no stone would go unturned in actualizing a successful future for the Rangers.
That stuck out to me – the knowledge that our new coach was at least willing to implicitly concede his limited perspective and inherent biases by saying he might have to look to something beyond just his own two eyes was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t stop there though, and although he certainly yielded a bit to Gorton to reassure the oldschoolers that we weren’t going soft, he took time to explain himself and his style.
He’d continue to do this, talking about work ethic, buy-in, and what analytics mean to him in interviews throughout the offseason. Once October rolled around he didn’t stop, with similar, common themes popping up in his pressers. He’s a show-and-not-tell kind of coach, demonstrating (mostly) consistently that he acts with purpose and thoughtfulness in his coaching style. He’s the sort of coach who’s aware of players’ perceptions of him, aware that everybody comes from a different place and the functional prudence of meeting people where they’re at, and on an essential level aware that what guys need to know to be successful in hockey comes from more than just X’s and O’s.
In doing so, David Quinn has shown us what he isn’t: opaque, stubborn, or uncritical of himself. He’s firm but not unyielding in the way he handles players who are struggling, and keeps his focus on playing root-level-strong hockey first, with ethos and sound process being the necessary ingredients.
This is long, so I’ll leave you with two encapsulations of what I like so much about David Quinn. The first is the Rangers’s win against the Sabres shortly before the trade deadline (that much I know because Kevin Hayes was exceptional in it, and therefore definitely still on the team). The Rangers won every puck battle, and it led to them having the time and space to make plays, generate high quality scoring chances, and stymie Buffalo’s few players who actually bothered to try against a team that had been evidently revving up their engines well before the puck dropped and floored it as soon as the rubber hit the ice for the first time. It was Rob who said it to me, I wrote about it at the time, and I stand by it: it was the platonic form of a David Quinn victory, and it was pure, excellent hockey. That’s what Quinn brings to the table, on the ice. This next bit has to do with what he does off the ice.
Pavel Buchnevich has been a small controversy for some time, and as I’ve already covered in my report card (I’m sure you read it, right?), he had a great season and is well on his way as a direct result of Quinn’s coaching. He did well more than he didn’t, but for some reason after things were seemingly sailing along just fine he was benched. This perhaps inexplicable move caused a minor stir, but Quinn calmly explained that he and Pavel had talked about what more he needed to do, the proper steps to take in his execution, and that it wasn’t a big deal. David Quinn served up the ball right there and then in honesty and good faith – what would Buch’s response look like?
It was the same thing we saw from Quinn as it happens. Buch was sincere and forthcoming in his own words after the scratch, saying that he hadn’t been quite where he should be, that he’d be pushing to to get to the right place, and that there were no hard feelings. He was self-critical but not self-loathing, and it was evident that this was a different kind of coaching than we’d seen in earlier years during the golden era. The dynamic there was simple to grasp, tidy in its lack of drama, and wound up being practically effective on the ice. Buch hit 20 goals, and solidified himself as a top-six forward who’ll blossom over the years and be a part of this team (ideally, and I think probably) for years to come. Not bad, Coach Quinn.
This was an incredibly long-winded way of saying that David Quinn did a good job, but that’s pretty reductive and unhelpful. The David Quinn era will be about learning from the past, tireless work ethic in the present, and steady, maybe even rapid, progress back to being among the league’s best teams. There’s plenty of other factors – I don’t mean to suggest that this rebuild hasn’t shown a blended model of improvement or problems in the particular permutation the front office has chosen – but it’s a relief to know that things are under control with David Quinn as coach. Nothing in this league is given, but just the hope of true growth and forward movement, the knowledge that the Rangers are at least conscious and awake in their efforts to change their ways instead of doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result, is more than enough for me to give Quinn his proper marks.
Final grade: A+.