Alain Vigneault had to suspect, as just about everyone else did, that his days as Rangers coach were numbered once management threw in the towel on the 2017-18 season and turned its focus toward rebuilding.
Realistically, as long as management was tearing the roster down, why wouldn’t they get rid of the coach, too?
So Vigneault’s impassioned defense of his record after Saturday’s season-ending 5-0 loss in Philadelphia most likely wasn’t about trying to convince general manager Jeff Gorton not to fire him. Instead, it was a message to other teams that will be interested in hiring Vigneault that, hey, what happened on Broadway this season was not his fault.
Vigneault released a statement Sunday night that said, in part: “The Rangers are going in a different direction, I respect that and I wish them all the best.”
Once management announced in early February that it would be a seller at the trade deadline, what was there for Vig neault to accomplish? Gorton traded Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and captain Ryan McDonagh, and the Rangers, fielding a lineup of young players called up from the minors, finished last in the division at 34-39-9.
Vigneault’s time with the Rangers produced one trip to the Stanley Cup Final, another berth in the Eastern Conference finals, one Presidents’ Trophy and a five-year record of 226-147-37.
“When we got here, you coach what you have, and what we had was a veteran group,’’ Vigneault said Saturday. “We had some good veteran players and we put a system in place, and a culture in place, that maximized them . . . And we had a fair amount of success. We weren’t able to get it done [win a Stanley Cup], but we had a fair amount of success.’’
The book on Vigneault is that he is a good coach for a veteran team but not so much for a team full of younger players. Because the Rangers’ roster next season figures to include quite a few young players, his replacement likely will be a coach who management believes will be able to relate to youngsters.
So Hartford Wolf Pack coach Kevin McCambridge, who has coached many of the players who likely will be on the roster next season, should be considered. Other coaches in the minor leagues would fit the bill, too, such as Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach Clark Donatelli.
Keefe, 37, is in his third year with the Marlies, has 147 wins and has the team at the top of the AHL standings with one week left in the season. Donatelli, a former Rangers draft pick (fifth round, 1984) is a two-time U.S. Olympian who served as captain of the 1992 squad. He’s got 115 wins in two-plus seasons as coach of WBS.
With Mike Babcock in place as the Maple Leafs’ coach and Mike Sullivan as the Penguins’ coach, neither Keefe nor Donatelli seems likely to be in line to move up in their current organizations anytime soon.
Vigneault, who signed a three-year extension in the middle of the 2016-17 season that went into effect this season, leaves with two years left on his contract, at $4 million per. He’s a good coach with two berths in the Stanley Cup Final (the other was with Vancouver) on his resume. He also won a Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year with Vancouver in 2006-07. He’ll likely get another job soon enough.
Five names to keep an eye on in the Rangers’ coaching search:
1. SHELDON KEEFE, Toronto Marlies (AHL). Third-year coach has Maple Leafs farm club at the top of the AHL standings.
2. CLARK DONATELLI, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL). Penguins just clinched their 16th consecutive playoff berth, an AHL record.
3. DAN BYLSMA. The 47-year-old is doing TV now after his two-year stint with Buffalo didn’t end well. But he did win a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
4. KEITH McCAMBRIDGE, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL). Already has a relationship with many of the players who will be on the roster next season. Should get a look.
5. LINDY RUFF, Rangers assistant. He was a candidate for the Rangers’ job when Vigneault was hired. He’s coached 19 seasons and had four non-winning seasons (he got fired after two of those). He’s already here; why not consider him?