Is there a Mark Ciaccio problem with NY Rangers skills development?

Do the Rangers have a skills coach Mark Ciaccio problem?

NY Rangers skills development has been a topic for quite some time, but has come into focus lately. As the Rangers continue to try to get more out of Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, their progress with skating, stick handling, and reading plays comes into question. These are all hockey skills, and it makes you wonder whether their skills coach and player development is adequate. Do the Rangers have a Mark Ciaccio problem?

What we know

The Rangers have a pair of top-2 picks plus a pair of top-10 picks. None have panned out the way people have hoped, with two (Lias Andersson, Vitali Kravtsov) considered to be busts. We hear the phrase “they didn’t develop” and it ends there.

But we’ve also seen prospects like K’Andre Miller, Filip Chytil, Ryan Lindgren, and others develop. So the argument that the Rangers can’t develop talent isn’t truly accurate. The question is why the top-ten pick forwards either didn’t develop or haven’t hit their stride yet.

We also know that the Rangers have had the same skills coach for a decade now. A Jeff Gorton hire for the 2013-2014 season, the Mark Ciaccio problem stretches back at least that far. He also appears to be the only coach with a direct Skills Coach title. There are several ex-NHLers with a Player Development title, for what it’s worth.

The last thing that we know is the Rangers didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to develop top-ten picks, specifically skill picks, until very recently. The only other top-ten pick they had since the 2005 lockout was used on Dylan McIlrath. Al Montoya was taken 6th overall in 2004. So the potential Mark Ciaccio problem coincides “nicely” with the Rangers drafting four high skill forwards with top-ten picks.

Ciaccio was with the Arizona Coyotes for the previous decade, where the Yotes also had similar problems developing high end picks. Blake Wheeler (2004, 5th overall) didn’t play a single game with Arizona. Peter Mueller (2006, 8OA) didn’t hit his ceiling. Kyle Turris (2007, 3OA) needed to escape to Ottawa to pan out. Mikkel Boedker (2008, 8OA) never even hit 20 goals. Only Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a defenseman, panned out as a top-ten pick in Arizona.

Educated Guesswork on the Mark Ciaccio problem

Disclaimer: The above pieces were facts. The rest is inference based on what we’ve heard elsewhere and seen on the ice.

The reason this is labeled as the Mark Ciaccio problem is two fold. The first is quite simple. It wasn’t working before under Gorton/Glen Sather. When Gorton was fired and Chris Drury took over, you’d think he would get his own guy into that role. After all, the scouting and player development teams were both overhauled. Why not the skills coach that failed to develop both Kravtsov and Andersson.

This problem was an extension of why he was likely let go by Arizona in 2013. He didn’t develop any high end talent there. There are certainly issues with their draft strategy and philosophy, but to have all four top-ten picks (forwards) whiff with the team over the span of 5 years is pretty impressive. Even dumb luck says one will hit.

Naturally, this has extended to the Rangers. We can give Ciaccio a pass on Lias Andersson, who was a bust. However there’s a strong argument that the Mark Ciaccio problem impacted all three of Vitali Kravtsov, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere. Kravtsov potentially less so, but it’s hard to ignore his successes in the KHL that simply didn’t translate to the Rangers.

Now not all of this is part of the Mark Ciaccio problem. Player attitudes, quality of the draft, ice time, and plenty of other reasons factor into this. And again among high skill forwards, Filip Chytil still turned out nicely. But he wasn’t a top-ten pick.

The second factor in the Mark Ciaccio problem is the reputation that preceded him. Let’s just go with it isn’t strong around the NHL among people I’ve spoken to. This checks out, given the number of forwards taken top-ten with both the Rangers and the Coyotes that simply did not pan out. Again, a number of other factors matter, but to have none hit their ceilings isn’t bad luck, it’s bad coaching.

This may seem like a call for the Rangers to rid themselves of the Mark Ciaccio problem, and perhaps it is. It’s tough to blame one person for all of the teams’ failures in developing their top-ten picks. But as mentioned above, his reputation precedes him and he simply has poor results.

Skills and skating seem to fall under Ciaccio, and skating was certainly an issue against the Devils in the playoffs. We’ve cited that Lafreniere specifically needs work. The Rangers also haven’t been a consistent 50% faceoff team since before Ciaccio came on board. Again other factors are at play, but faceoffs are a skill that can be taught.

If we can see that faceoffs and skating development are issues that haven’t seen progress, and there is a coach in place to address these things, then how difficult is it to connect the dots? This appears to be a Mark Ciaccio problem to any outsider who goes beyond the first layer of “the Rangers can’t develop players.”

Perhaps these kids all needed some time in Hartford. That is a good discussion point, as until recently Hartford had been a disaster to play for. John Davidson’s goal was to overhaul the Wolf Pack, something Chris Drury and Ryan Martin seem to be carrying forward. There are questions about Hartford’s purpose in the grand scheme of things for the Rangers, but that’s a topic for a different day.

Back to the Mark Ciaccio problem, it’s clear the Rangers need a change somewhere. Either change the approach and give targeted development plans and opportunities to Kakko and Lafreniere, hire a skating coach to complement Ciaccio, or change the coach entirely. Something needs to give here, as the same old same old isn’t working, and for Ciaccio, hasn’t worked in 20+ years.