Alain Vigneault steers Rangers ship into frustrating playoff waters

Alain Vigneault speaks to the media during Rangers

Alain Vigneault speaks to the media during Rangers training camp at the MSG Training Center. (Sept. 12, 2013) (Credit: Mike Stobe)

Steve Zipay

Newsday columnist Steve Zipay Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events

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Director and screenwriter George Lucas, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, musician David Byrne and Rangers first-year coach Alain Vigneault all were born on May 14, albeit years apart.

Outside of the NHL world, Vigneault hasn't achieved the notoriety and acclaim of those birth date compatriots, but some common threads run through their careers: Innovation. Creativity. A string of successes.

At 36, in his first season in Montreal, Vigneault, a former defenseman, led the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 1999-2000, two years later, he was a runner-up for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's best coach, although his club missed the playoffs.

Then, for nine of the 11 seasons that he was behind the bench: in juniors, the AHL, with Vancouver and now in New York, his teams have made the postseason. Vigneault did win the Adams in 2006-07, chalked up his 400th victory Feb. 1, 2013, the eighth-fastest for an NHL coach and is 23rd on the all-time wins list. And in 2010-11 and 2011-12, the Canucks captured the Presidents' Trophy by attaining the league's best record.

But pro sports is a results business, judged by fans and media on a what-have-you-done for-me-lately basis, and Vigneault has yet to bring home the NHL's silver chalice. His Canucks came oh-so-close, leading 2-0 over the Bruins in the 2011 Finals, only to fall in seven games.

That's the challenge in New York. Crossing the finish line, breaking the tape at the end of the marathon season.

Indeed, Vigneault's career playoff record stands at 37-41, and after the Canucks were dispatched in the first round by the Kings in five games in '11-12 and swept by the Sharks last season, Vigneault ran out of road in Vancouver. Has the new driver out west done better? Not this season.

Vigneault, 52, is more of a chief executive than many coaches, delegating, communicating, preparing, and according to players, being respectful and letting his leaders lead. He brought to New York a read-and-speed system and institutional knowledge, which set him apart from his competitor for the job last summer, the iconic but untested Mark Messier.

Unlike 20 years ago, NHL coaching is trending to systems and tactics, zone matchups and tendencies and playing the percentages, but Vigneault doesn't just orchestrate from the laptop or the office.

On the bench, with short, high-pitched commands, he directs line changes ("Change"), orders dump-ins behind the defense ("Deep"), encourages rushes ("Skate, skate, skate" or "Go, go, go").

The phrases resonate with former players. When the Rangers played in Vancouver on April 1, Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said he heard the refrains and noted that it was one thing he didn't miss. Compared to current Vancouver coach John Tortorella, forward Alexandre Burrows said: "I felt like [Vigneault's] decisions were more rational, based on the past or on statistics."

During his first season in New York, Vigneault has displayed a sense of candor and comedy and confidence, and, bottom line, the Blueshirts have won far more than they have lost.

As we have seen, though, the playoffs are a different creature: better teams, rematches every other day or so, high emotions, continuous overtime. There are more detours than Vigneault's jokes about coping with city traffic and the Lincoln Tunnel.

For Vigneault, who was born in Quebec, the next hurdle on Broadway awaits. The fan base seems to like the Rangers' new style -- well, most of the time -- but cannot shake the ghosts of 1994. The Rangers have battled past the second round and into the Eastern Conference finals just twice since then. That's 18 seasons.

If the Rangers are still lacing up the skates beyond May 14, they should be on the brink of, or into the conference finals, no small accomplishment given the sobering 3-7 start to the new regime. But that's a script yet to be written.

Off the ice

Forward Ryan Haggerty, who was signed March 12 out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and did not play in a game, is ineligible for the playoffs. If he does not play for Team USA in the World Championships, Haggerty will skate with Hartford Wolf Pack call-ups on the playoff taxi squad.

Chris Kreider (surgery on left hand March 28) is progressing and the 17-goal scorer should be ready if the Rangers advance to the second round.

On game days during the playoffs, the team is hosting a “Rangerstown Hockey House” at the former Borders store next to MSG. Away games will be shown live. Among the activities: a Hall of Fame exhibit, Q&As with Rangers alumni, autograph signings, and a shooting accuracy contest.

On the air

Glenn “Chico” Resch will bid farewell to Devils fans during a special postgame segment after today’s game against the Bruins on MSG, his final appearance after 18 seasons as the team’s television analyst. Resch also will be recognized by the Devils during the first period of the game. He appeared last night on MSG’s “Hockey Night Live” to look back at his career on the ice and on TV.

Resch, who played 282 games in goal for the Islanders, including as a member of their first Stanley Cup team in 1980, was traded to the Colorado Rockies in 1981 and moved to New Jersey with the team when it became the Devils in 1982. He began working for MSG in 1996. — NEIL BEST

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