VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Roll back the tape to October. After training camp away from home and in the midst of a nine-game, season-opening road trip under new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers were confused and concerned.
"There were a lot of meetings, him trying to figure us out, [us] trying to figure him out," Brad Richards recalled. "Torts was here for 41/2 years, there was a lot of autopilot on the D-zone coverage, now it's man on man, there were a lot of questions. We gave up six and nine goals back to back [to the Sharks and Ducks] and we're sitting here trying to figure it out. [Vigneault] kept it calm."
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The turnaround took months. After 40 games, the Blueshirts were a middling 19-19-2, but had revived after a 3-7 start.
"It took us awhile to get going, but the coaching staff has been awesome from Day 1," Henrik Lundqvist said here in Vancouver where Vigneault coached for seven years, twice leading the Canucks to the NHL's best regular-season record. "It was a lot about being patient. It's big when players feel the trust, you have so many new things to get used to. The dialogue has been good. Our season has been a building process and hopefully you have your best games at the end, in the playoffs."
At 42-30-4 and with 88 points before Tuesday night's game, the Rangers are succeeding with a faster-paced style under the experienced Vigneault, and closing in on an East playoff spot.
That was what general manager Glen Sather envisioned when he chose Vigneault over the iconic but untested Mark Messier. Sather saw the league changing to a speedier game, with younger players and the need to roll four lines nightly, and sought a different approach, a different voice. The domineering John Tortorella favored the muck-and-grind style, leaned heavily on top players and ground down even his most ardent supporters.
Vigneault, a Quebec native, was challenged by the roster and the metropolis. Derek Stepan missed camp in a contract dispute. Rick Nash was out for 17 games with a concussion and Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi were in midseason flux over their futures.
"You definitely have to tailor [your system] to the team you have," Vigneault said Monday. "We play north-south, we use the speed to defend and to generate some good offense when the opportunity is there."
It has been, he said, a fair comparison to his first year with the Canucks. "I've got some younger players who are really on the upswing, developing as players and as leaders, whether it be Ryan McDonagh, Step, [Carl] Hagelin, [Derick] Brassard, and we have a couple veteran leaders."
During the season, "some teams progress and some teams fade away," Vigneault said. "We have progressed, we were playing .500, then Hank sort of found his game, and the rest of the parts sort of fell in and we took off."
Only rarely has Vigneault, who delegates far more power to his assistants than Tortorella, publicly displayed anger or frustration. His demeanor tends more to self-deprecation.
On Monday, for example, he mentioned Martin St. Louis, who hasn't scored in 14 games since the Callahan trade.
"I'm fortunate to have the top scorer in the NHL for the past four years," he said. "We're 9-4-1 since he's been here . . . and I've turned him into a defensive specialist. It's part of my devious plan."