Vigneault would become only the 15th coach in the league’s 100-year history to reach 600 wins, and only the second in the 90-year history of the Rangers to have gotten some of his 600 behind the Blueshirts bench.
The other one? Mike Keenan, who lasted only one — albeit glorious — season on Broadway.
Which brings us to the question: Where does Vigneault stack up against other Rangers coaches?
We can spit out all the numbers you want, but this is certainly a different era. Some of the other coaches at or near the top of the NHL and Rangers lists didn’t have the benefit of overtime wins or shootout wins. They had ties instead. And in the early years, the Rangers – i.e. the 1940 Cup champs – played only 48-game seasons. So back in the day, 600 was a much more daunting number. That’s a given.
You could also argue that the road to a Stanley Cup in olden times was not nearly the gauntlet it is today. Frank Boucher, who won that ’40 Cup in his rookie season as Rangers coach, had a 27-11-10 record and finished second in a six-team league, winning two playoff rounds for the trophy. By comparison, Vigneault won three series in his first season with the Rangers, then two in his second.
Again, to compare eras by numbers is a fool’s errand. I prefer to go by the eye test and these old eyes have only been closely watching since 1978-79 – though they did see, from a distance, much of the Francis reign that was so frustrated by the Boston Bobby Orrs.
These eyes, up close, saw various degrees of success and failure, from Keenan’s 94 Stanley Cup, which stands as the team’s only title in 76-and-counting years, to the depths of teams that didn’t get a sniff of postseason play.
On that list, in that timeframe, Vigneault stands quite impressively and stands up to the “competition” quite well.
Let’s start with Shero, the coach of that ’78-79 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final and lost to the end of the Montreal dynasty. Shero’s best days, by then, were behind him in the two Cups he won in Philadelphia. His one shining season (40-29-11) was good for third place before the out-of-the-blue playoff run. He also coached only 180 games as Rangers coach, or to put that in perspective, five fewer than John Muckler.
Herb Brooks, you might think, would have to be on the best-of list – not counting his Miracle on Ice – but his Rangers won only 131 times, and he coached in 285 games, or 13 fewer than Vigneault. His playoff teams also continually butted heads with the Islanders dynasty.
Roger Neilson had a renaissance run, first winning a division title in 1989-90 – the club’s first title of any kind since 1942 – and won a Presidents’ Trophy in 1991-92 before the great disaster against eventual champ Pittsburgh in the second round. But he won only 141 out of 280 and walked the plank in a 1992-93 mutiny before Keenan came on board to win it all the following season.
Keenan won the Stanley Cup. That speaks for itself. Is he the best coach in Rangers history? Or even in the 40-year window we’re discussing here? You could surely argue that.
He did a tremendous job with a tremendous team, challenging as he was. You could also argue whether those Rangers might have won that Cup with another coach and whether they could have won it without Keenan sacrificing Tony Amonte for Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan, or without the senseless (in my opinion) personal-bias trade of Mike Gartner for Glenn Anderson.
Again, he won, so he gets a free pass for those moves. But my argument with Keenan’s place on the list, if there was a list, was what he did to nearly sabotage the Cup run by attempting to wiggle out of his contract, and by actually negotiating with – according to many sources and reports – two other teams, Detroit and St. Louis, during the Cup Final.
His assistant coaches had to build a gameplan for Game 7 of the Final vs. Vancouver, and his players had to talk him out of a plan to take the team for a Lake Placid retreat between Games 6 and 7. Keenan froze up during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final as the Devils ran roughshod over the Rangers for half the game, before Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch and Alexei Kovalev saved their coach. They won with Keenan, but did they win despite him?
The best single-season Rangers coaching job in my eyes was done by John Tortorella in 2011-12, with a rag-tag roster of young players who arrived way ahead of schedule, combined with a lack of depth that forced Tortorella to use three lines and two defense pairs. His third line, with Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle, would be a fourth line on most good teams, and it surely would be too slow in today’s rapidly-changing NHL. To win 51 games (finishing behind Vigneault’s Vancouver team for the Presidents’ Trophy on the final weekend of the season) and reach the Eastern Conference Final with that lineup was Houdini-like.
Which brings us to Vigneault. In his fourth season, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton added two more seasons to his original five-year contract, through 2019-20.
Vigneault went 45-31-6 and led a remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season in New York, after replacing Tortorella. Though three of the Rangers’ four losses to Los Angeles were in overtime (two in double-OT) in that series, they were outplayed for key stretches of those three losses, and let’s face it, the Kings were the better team.
The following year, Vigneault won the Presidents’ Trophy with a club-record 53 wins and 113 points (breaking Keenan’s ‘93-94 totals by one each) and was in a Game 7 in the Eastern Finals, despite four injured defensemen.
Last year’s record (46-27-9) was a mirage built on Henrik Lundqvist’s early-season brilliance, and the year unraveled down the stretch and in the first round of the playoffs. But this season, mixed bag that it has been so far, the Rangers were nevertheless 33-18-1 heading into Tuesday’s game (6:30 PM, MSG), in the best division in the league.
Since he arrived, the Rangers are tied for the second most victories in the NHL, and most in the Eastern Conference.
Vigneault’s style is more of speed and finesse and skill than that of his predecessors, and one that is not nearly as universally embraced by fans as, say, Tortorella’s brawling Black-and-Blueshirts, or the complete package of talent and character and true grit of Keenan’s champions.
But over the span of his tenure here, his record speaks for itself. His approach is unwavering – to play fast, to play whistle-to-whistle, with orders to stick to a structure, and a leash to allow the locker room leaders to police the group.
“I’m not about gimmicks,” Vigneault said after signing his contract extension. “It’s about the process, it’s about what needs to be done … on a daily basis. I really believe in empowering my staff, empowering my players, giving them the direction they need to do their job. And when you do it the right way, it’s a good environment. It’s an environment where you can grow. It’s an environment where you can have success and hopefully win.
“My teams have won. I haven’t won that one (last) game. But I’m working my butt off to do it.”