Alain Vigneault sounded devastated on Monday — a lot more distressed, frankly, than many of his players on the Rangers. He spoke about being in “the midst of emotion, still trying to sort out what happened, why it happened.” He talked about how his 22-year-old daughter, Janie, couldn’t stop crying, how his whole family was impacted by the seven-game defeat to Tampa.
“The goal was the Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said, up at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh. “There were so many positive things from within this group. (But) if you’re looking at it strictly that we didn’t get to the final, we didn’t. make it.”
The Rangers fell short, Vigneault fell short. He was asked about that infamous window of opportunity, and of course nobody knows more about that concept thana hockey coach for the Rangers. It’s more a mouse-hole than a window for Vigneault. Glen Sather already has gone through six coaches, including himself, and there is no reason to think his patience has grown longer over the past two years. Vigneault is on the hook, on the clock.
The Rangers didn’t get as far this spring as they did last spring. That’s a step backward, even after you factor in all the injuries. If they don’t get as far next spring as they did this spring, then Vigneault may not get a fourth chance in New York.
That’s not to say he deserves such an ultimatum. In the first two years of his five-year contract, Vigneault has led the Rangers to two conference finals, a Stanley Cup final and a Presidents’ Trophy. Then again, John Tortorella led the Rangers to a conference final and the best record in the Eastern Conference. He was fired a year later, and never knew what hit him. Back in 1993, Roger Neilson was just one season past winning the Presidents’ Trophy when he was dumped by Neil Smith. He never saw that train coming, either.
So these bad, quick endings arrive from nowhere, and the coaches understand that each playoff run is golden. Vigneault lost the Stanley Cup Final in seven games when he was with the Canucks and admits it is still too painful to think about that. He lost the Cup Final last year in five games. He was within 20 minutes of reaching the Cup Final this time. Too close, too many times.
We are only finding out now how Vigneault didn’t just coach the players on the ice lately. He also coached the injuries. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal had problems for much of the playoff drive. Vigneault acted quickly before Game 7 when Ryan McDonagh, whose fractured foot was frozen and taped, finally suggested the coach dress a seventh defenseman.
Then there was the Mats Zuccarello matter, which was far more serious than the media and several of the players understood. Vigneault knew full well that Zucc would not be able to return to the team for any playoff series. The forward couldn’t speak for four days after he was struck in the head with a shot, and is still taking speech therapy after his dangerous brush with more permanent brain damage. McDonagh spoke Monday about how frightening it was to visit Zuccarello in the hospital, see all the wires coming out of his good friend.
Yet Vigneault made the intriguing decision to withhold some information from teammates, feeling it was imperative for morale to allow hope for Zuccarello’s return. For morale sake, Vigneault made it seem as if Zuccarello was always just a few skating sessions away from rejoining the fray.
Vigneault spent a lot of time Monday talking to each of his players, a series of exit interviews aimed at gleaning more information about what went wrong in those last two home playoff games. They were tough to watch for everyone, most of all the coach.
He got some answers, and a few new puzzles to solve. Vigneault knows there are no guarantees for 2015-16, beyond the terms of his own contract.
“If the Stanley Cup champions (Kings) and the Presidents’ Trophy team (Bruins) didn’t get in (to the playoffs), it’s a tough league,” Vigneault said. “Next year, it’s a restart button.”
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