GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said the decision to fire Alain Vigneault after five seasons was made in the last week or so of the season, had nothing to do with Vigneault’s remarks after Saturday’s season-ending 5-0 loss in Philadelphia and was more of a “general change.’’
“I just think that after five years, we think it’s time for a change,’’ Gorton said Monday in a 15-minute question-and-answer session with reporters at the team’s practice facility. “The players needed a new voice and the organization needs a new coach as we go forward with our group.’’
Gorton said assistants Scott Arniel and Darryl Williams also were let go, though assistant Lindy Ruff remains, at least until Gorton gets a chance to speak to him. Asked if Ruff is a candidate to replace Vigneault, Gorton said he wants to speak to Ruff before determining that. Later, while doing interviews on local sports radio, Gorton said Ruff will be going home and that he will talk to him “in a few weeks to see where things are at.’’
Given the direction the team is going, it would seem a long shot that Ruff will be the guy. The Rangers are committed to rebuilding, so the roster figures to be young next season, and Gorton acknowledged that management is looking for somebody “fresh’’ to be the next coach.
“I think ‘fresh’ is a good word,’’ he said. “We’re looking for somebody that can help us get back to an identity we want to get to; we’re looking to go through this process and hear some thoughts on how, with the personnel we have . . . they can help us move forward with a young group.’’
Gorton said he will not hire a coach with no experience. Later, on WFAN, he was asked if he would consider hiring Rangers great Mark Messier as coach. He said he would not.
“Listen, Mark’s done a lot of good things in hockey for the Rangers and all that,’’ he said. “He’s definitely a real qualified hockey person. But I would say, as the head hockey coach of this team, that we probably are going to be looking in another direction.’’
Gorton wouldn’t put a timetable on hiring a new coach. He sees no need to have a coach in place in time for the NHL Draft, which will be held June 22-23 in Dallas. He did allow that it would make sense to have one in place by the time free agency begins July 1.
Asked if he is open to making some kind of major trade or signing a big-name free agent this summer, Gorton said, “I think we’d be foolish to rule anything out, because the league changes quickly. Players could become available; I think for us to sit here and say we’re going to have 20 18-year-old players on our team, it’s unrealistic.’’
He would not comment on a report Monday morning that the Rangers had agreed to sign Russian winger and former Devil Ilya Kovalchuk to a two- or three-year contract. Kovalchuk, who will turn 35 on Sunday, played in the KHL this season and is a free agent. He has been linked to a return to the NHL — and to the Rangers — for months.
Responding to a question on ESPN Radio, Gorton agreed that this year’s team lacked toughness and grit, and he promised that will be addressed.
“We do want to be a team that plays harder,’’ he said. “In the last couple months, since the deadline, I think that we were pretty void in that area, and it became more and more clear. It’s something that we will address, yes.’’
Gorton said he liked what he saw from teen forwards Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in their seven-game run with the team at the end of the season and said both were asked by their national team federations to play in the upcoming World Championships (Andersson is from Sweden, Chytil from the Czech Republic).
Gorton said he would like as many of his team’s players to play in the World Championships as possible. So far, he said, only forward Chris Kreider (U.S.) is confirmed, though Andersson, Chytil, Mika Zibanejad (Sweden) and some others have been asked.