The New York Rangers put on a grand spectacle in June 2013 when they hired Alain Vigneault to replace John Tortorella as the franchise’s coach.
But almost five years since the celebratory afternoon of his hiring, Vigneault was fired late Saturday after a season in which the Rangers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The move came hours after the Rangers were drubbed, 5-0, in Philadelphia and finished last in the Metropolitan Division at 34-39-9, their worst season since 2004.
It was yet another step in a huge franchise overhaul that began in February when the Rangers’ management signaled that big changes were coming as the team wallowed near the bottom of their division. They traded several veterans to acquire young, talented prospects — and now they will search for a new coach to lead them.
The firing was foreshadowed by Vigneault’s cryptic comments after the team’s last practice Friday afternoon in Westchester. Vigneault, who coached the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks before joining the Rangers, was asked if he felt he had found fresh pathways of learning and growth during his most challenging year in New York.
“Ask me that same question tomorrow after the game and I will have a really good answer for you,” he said.
He indeed delivered the next day, giving an impassioned defense of his career after the loss in Philadelphia, saying that he “without a doubt” expected to return to start his sixth season with the Rangers.
“I think my staff is the right staff for this job,” he said.
But Vigneault’s words of self-defense were not enough to sway the team’s high command.
There was no immediate word on the fate of his assistants Lindy Ruff, Scott Arniel and Darryl Williams. Goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, who has been with the Rangers through three coaching regimes since July 2004, is expected to stay as long as Henrik Lundqvist, the franchise’s veteran goaltender, is playing. Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton is expected to address the media Monday.
In a statement Sunday, Vigneault thanked the Rangers’ ownership and management. “The Rangers have an incredible fan base and I will cherish many special moments, especially our trip to the Stanley Cup Finals,” he said. “The Rangers are going in a different direction, I respect that and I wish them all the best.”
Vigneault had signed a two-year contract extension in January 2017 that extended through the 2019-20 season. But he could not survive after losing in the second round of the playoffs last season to Ottawa and failing to reach the postseason this year.
The Rangers’ defense and goaltending let them down against the Senators last season, and that theme continued into this year, as they left Lundqvist vulnerable too often. Lundqvist, 36, failed to reach the 30-win mark for the first time in a non-lockout year, finishing 26-26-7 with a career-worst 2.98 goals-against average.
Vigneault had said that the Rangers would only go as far as their goaltending would take them this season, a comment that was perceived as being critical of Lundqvist and his backup, Ondrej Pavelec.
Lundqvist, who has publicly vowed to remain with the Rangers during their revamp, will presumably play for his fourth coach next season. Before Vigneault and Tortorella, there was the cerebral Tom Renney, who took the Rangers to the playoffs three straight times.
Vigneault received a vague vote of confidence from Gorton on Feb. 8, the same day the Rangers released a letter to fans asking them to bear with the departure of popular players while the team rebuilds.
“A.V. is a good coach. He’s been a good coach for the Rangers,” Gorton said as he stood next to Glen Sather, the team president. “We’re all responsible. We’re all not good enough right now and it’s shown.” But when Gorton was asked directly in February whether Vigneault would return next season, he was noncommital.
“I wouldn’t want to answer that today,” he said.
Vigneault’s quiet and intense style often seemed to favor veterans at the expense of rookies, and he wanted his teams to play with a turn-the-other-cheek mindset so as not to take unnecessary penalties.
He also had three different assistant coaches in charge of defense the past three years: Ulf Samuelsson, Jeff Beukeboom and Ruff. Yet the defense struggled with different cast members, and the Rangers never matched the success forged during Vigneault’s first two seasons.
Vigneault’s replacement will take on a much younger team with plenty of draft assets. The Rangers have seven picks in the first three rounds of the June draft, including three in the first round. And with a raft of prospects in the pipeline, the Rangers may also seek a younger coaching voice to guide a franchise still seeking its first Stanley Cup title since 1994.
Perhaps the Rangers will follow the Flyers in plucking a coach from the college ranks, as Philadelphia did with Dave Hakstol, who was previously the coach at the University of North Dakota. Or they could emulate the New Jersey Devils, who are having success with John Hynes, who came straight from the American Hockey League.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.