The start of the 2013-2014 NHL season can’t come soon enough for hockey fans after losing nearly half of last season. It marks an important anniversary in New York Rangers history – the 20th anniversary of the slaying of the dragon at MSG. The new season also marks the debut of Alain Vigneault as the 35th head coach in Blueshirts history. Only time will tell if Rangers fans will refer to AV’s stint in the Big Apple as the Vigneault Era or the Vigneault Error.
In a season that features realignment, new goal nets and the potential for a new hybrid icing system, one intriguing subplot to this season is finding out who will win the “coaches’ trade” between the Rangers and Vancouver Canucks as former Rangers bench boss John Tortorella heads to the Pacific Northwest as the 17th coach in Canucks history.
While coaches are “hired to be fired”, the swapping of Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella as coaches would sure make a 1994 Stanley Cup rematch even more riveting – especially when you consider both coaches were used as scapegoats for their General Managers inability to produce a winner.
While both GMs fired their coaches to deflect attention off of themselves, they each had different reasons for utilizing the same game plan.
Rangers GM Glen Sather is no danger of losing his job any time soon. He is as close to having a job for life as any GM in sports. His reasoning for turning to a scapegoat is to protect/rebuild his reputation. Sather has not been the architect of a Stanley Cup champion since 1988. His bout with prostate cancer helped lend urgency to protecting/rebuilding his legacy.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis has to consider himself in survival mode. Although Vancouver is five-for-five in winning the Northwest Division during Gillis’ tenure, the team has been knocked out in the Conference Quarterfinals (aka the first round) the last two years in five games (2012 to Los Angeles) and in four games (2013 to San Jose) while posting a pedestrain28-28 record in the playoffs.
Sather is looking to change the Rangers style of play for the third time in nine months. Leading up to last season, Sather dealt away some of the “jam” that Torts often praised as the Rangers GM attempted to correct the Blueshirts offensive woes. In doing so he never really increased the Rangers offense, rather he depleted the Rangers depth.
As a result, Slats traded away Marian Gaborik in order to fill the depth holes that Sather had created as part of the Rick Nash trade and never filled via free agency or trade.
With salary cap constraints dictating policy, Sather is once again looking to boost offense in the form of a new style of play – thus the hiring of Vigneault. Of course, the Rangers would have had maneuverability within the salary cap had Sather simply bought out Brad Richards.
Given the potential bargain basement free agents that were available after the initial free agent frenzy, the Rangers could have added depth at a reasonable price, signed Derek Stepan to a longer deal rather than a bridge deal and used some of that Rangers depth to be more active in the trade market.
Mike Gillis has had a trying off-season as well. Vancouver’s GM faced the same dilemma that Neil Smith did at the end of the 1992-1993 season. Both Gillis and Smith had championship-caliber teams that languished in the playoffs and were facing major decision in terms of goaltending.
Smith had to make a decision between Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck. While the VanRichterbrouck tandem worked well in the regular season, it was a playoff failure. Smith decided on the younger Richter as he shipped Beezer to Vancouver prior to the 1993 Expansion Draft in exchange for future considerations.
Vancouver made the deal in order to expose Vanbiesbrouck in the Expansion Draft as a means of protecting their prospects – which worked as the goalie was the first player selected by Florida. In return, the Rangers acquired Doug Lidster who would go on to play an important role late in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Smith then replaced Vanbiesbrouck by acquiring Glenn Healy from Tampa Bay in exchange for a 1993 third round draft pick.
It was pretty much an expected done deal that Roberto Luongo’s time in Vancouver was done – so much so that the veteran netminder put his townhouse up for sale. In a pre-cap NHL, Gillis would have followed Smith’s example and moved the veteran goalie. However, despite Luongo’s resume, trading the 34-year-old became less and less an option when you factor in that he has nine years left on his 12-years, $64-million contract at an annual cap hit of $5.3 million.
As you might imagine, Luongo was stunned at the news that it was Cory Schneider who was dealt on draft day in exchange for New Jersey’s first round draft pick (Center Bo Horvat 9th overall).
On August 23, Luongo spoke with TSN’s James Duthie and talked about the aftermath of the Schneider trade and his relationship with the Canucks. In that interview Duthie asked Luongo if he felt “divorced” from the Canucks following another playoff loss.
“Well I use that analogy all the time. That’s what it felt like and I accepted it and I was fine with it and I had moved on personally,” Luongo admitted. “I mean, the only problem is, she didn’t, and she wanted me back (laughs).”
In the interview Luongo says that he hoped e deal could be worked out with Florida or Tampa Bay because of his desire to return to the Sunshine State because his wife and her family are from Florida.
Luongo had grown so disenchanted by the end of last season that he even explored the possibility of voiding his contract.
So rather than have a younger goalie with a veteran backup like Smith’s Rangers had in 1994, Gillis and his Canucks have a veteran goaltender who may or may not be disgruntled and his backup is 25-year-old Swedish goalie Eddie Lack who has yet to play an NHL game (99 AHL games during the last two seasons).
In 1994, Neil Smith did not take the safe route when he hired Mike Keenan as coach. Smith had to know that he would bump heads with the fiery Keenan sooner rather than later – I just don’t think he expected their relationship to hit full boil as fast as it did.
Gillis is facing the same situation in Vancouver. While Tortorella doesn’t have the same GM aspirations that Keenan had, his baggage does make Torts a risky hire – especially for a GM like Gillis who is hiring his first NHL coach. Gillis inherited a coach in Vigneault who had a Northwest Division title (2006-07) and a fifth place finish (2007-08) under his belt in Vancouver.
ON THE FLY –
The Rangers tryout offer to goaltender Johan “Moose” Hedberg is an interesting development. While it was announced at the same time Martin Biron was away from camp tending to personal matters, could the Rangers be looking to make a switch in Henrik Lundqvist’s backup?
If the Rangers were to go with Hedberg, the Blueshirts could look to trade Biron and save some much-needed space under the salary cap.
Since Hedberg was bought out by the Devils, he might be very satisfied with a deal near the NHL minimum salary. If if he signed a deal worth $650,000, that is still half of what Biron will make this season. While it doesn’t seem like a lot, $650,000 is enough of a reason to make a switch – esepcially depending on how Derek Stepan’s contract eventually plays out.