The Disappointment of David Quinn

Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Going into this season, we all knew this would be a rough year for the Rangers.  Sure, in those quiet places in the back of our minds, we reserved some hope that an inspired group of kids might make a run, but we all knew the reality.  There were always going to be rough patches, consternation, irritable frustration and no light at the end of the tunnel.

The team’s (relatively) hot start gave us some false hope.  The offense looked much more dynamic and the goaltending was propping up the defense.  Alas, as in all things, reality came calling.  The Blueshirts have since dropped four straight, including games to the rival Devils and Capitals.

Not lost in this sequence of events has been David Quinn’s, quite frankly, rather disturbing trend of lineup decisions, deployment and spoken word regarding the state of things in Rangerland.  In the least surprising news of all time, it has created quite a schism in the domain of Ranger fandom.

One camp has seen enough of Quinn’s machinations since the beginning of his tenure last season to settle on the fact that he has fully committed to the often-asinine coaching methodology that tends to infect NHL bench bosses once they leave the amateur ranks.  On the other side of the fence, Quinn still carries a certain good will from his track record at BU and the significantly altered roster he has been charged with from last season.

Now, every coach, especially new coaches, should have some latitude to experiment and tinker with lineup and deployment choices; gathering observational and statistical data to help inform their future decisions.  The problem we have had over the past week or so is that neither the rationales nor the choices themselves have passed the smell test.

For those who have not been (understandably) living and dying by the Rangers this season, Quinn has been playing converted defenseman Brendan Smith as a third line winger and given him more minutes and a more significant role than Lias Andersson.  Quinn also appropriately demoted Ryan Strome out of the 2C spot, but instead of Andersson or calling up Filip Chytil, the coach inexplicably placed Brett Howden in the role.  Then to cap it off, he publicly states that the skills and playing style that propelled Kaapo Kakko to the number 2 overall pick this June wouldn’t be effective in the NHL and will need to modify his game.

I’ve spent a little time over the past few days processing these events, both separately and together.  The thought that I ultimately can’t get out of my head is a line from Mark Wahlberg in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Departed:

My theory on Feds is they’re like mushrooms, feed them shit and keep them in the dark”.

If you replace “Feds” with “Fans”, you basically have the NHL’s approach to explaining these painfully obvious poor decisions to their fanbase. This got me thinking about those two competing fan positions about the series of decisions in the past week: you can either call out the coaching staff/front office for incompetence or you can argue there is a process and the organization has information that we don’t and we should trust their expertise.

The problem here is the truth is binary: either the organization has absolutely no respect for the intelligence level of their fans or they are truly incompetent at their jobs. There is no third option.  Hockey is an entertainment industry.  To take the position that they aren’t accountable to the fans to provide even plausible explanations for their process is absurd. Especially in an environment where fans are looking for guideposts that their continued commitment to the team during difficult times is moving in the right direction.

The whole point of a rebuild is to cultivate and grow a new young core into a future contender.  Part of that process is the kids taking their lumps and learning not only how to be a professional, but how to be a winner over the course of that process.  It is incumbent on the coaching staff to help navigate the trials and tribulations with the lessons that must ultimately be learned for the team to have success.  Quinn to this point has unapologetically not done this.

One of the core tenants of a professional, not just in hockey, but in any industry, is the ability to separate the personal relationship from the professional evaluation of a subordinate’s performance. This is not to say it’s easy.  I work with people every day who struggle with it.  In hockey it is especially difficult due to the close proximity and unique work environment of professional sports and the trust needed to be effective in your position.

This also includes managing egos, competitiveness and pride.  Being able to look a Marc Staal in the face and say “I’m reducing your role because it is in the best interest of the team” is not an optional capability.  Being able to clearly communicate to European players what your expectations are from a personal accountability perspective is not an optional capability.  Most importantly, putting your players in the best position to succeed and tailoring your coaching style to your player’s strengths and not forcing them to fit into your box is not an optional capability.

In this regard, Quinn is failing.  Significantly so.  He clearly values certain types of players over others and has allowed his personal preferences to poison his objectivity. Quinn’s charge was to move the organization into the future and modernize the process of evaluating players and nurture the development of young assets.  The longer we watch this movie, the more apparent it becomes that we have seen it before.

As I’ve said here before (probably ad nauseum), there needs to be a philosophical separation between the current hockey power structure and forward-looking approaches to the game for any meaningful change to take place.  As Albert Einstein once said:

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

This is especially true in hockey.  Years of cultivating this toxic expectation of boringly insincere faux-selflessness, xenophobic closedmindedness and protectionist exclusion of any discernable deviation in thought has decimated any competing philosophical approach to professional hockey; championed by unqualified, overpaid relics that refuse to cede an ounce of power or influence.

Given the choice between my binary explanation of these moves, I suppose I choose both.  I believe the league and by extension, the organization has a profound lack of respect for the intelligence of the fanbase and a profound lack of process or capability to actually see beyond their own bullshit to make the right decision.

To be clear, this goes way beyond the decisions made over the past week by David Quinn.  It is a symptom of NHL fandom and the inability to break this insane cycle of ignorance. It completely sucks all the enjoyment out of watching the game and following the team.  As time goes on, it starts to feel a little like Groundhog Day.  I guess the question ultimately remains how long we will continue to invest ourselves emotionally and financially in a product with the same defect over and over again before someone fixes it.  How long before the NHL needs to learn the hard lesson that we are not mushrooms?