Imagine if Francesco Aquilini had chosen the other guy. He would have saved himself millions and avoided a huge public relations headache. Oh yeah, and the New York Rangers wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are today, three wins away from the Stanley Cup final.
Funny how a dumb move by one team can turn out so brilliantly for another.
Things could hardly have gone any better for the Rangers Saturday afternoon in their 7-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. They went up 1-0 in the series, took away home ice advantage, kept their power play hot, rested their stars for the third period and, perhaps most importantly, got their star sniper, Rick Nash, going after he scored what would be a nothing goal, if not for the fact that it was his first of the playoffs.
Behind the bench the man who has orchestrated New York’s success throughout this post-season quietly took it all in. He and Rangers fans have Aquilini, owner of the Vancouver Canucks, to thank for their good fortune.
About this time last year, after his Canucks were eliminated with ease in the first round for the second straight post-season, Aquilini knew he had to make changes. His team was two years removed from making the Stanley Cup final and was nowhere near getting back there. Either GM Mike Gillis or coach Alain Vigneault had to go.
Well, we all know how that one worked out. Aquilini picked the wrong head to roll. It was his Eugene Melnyk moment, when in the summer of 2006 Melnyk let GM John Muckler keep Wade Redden and allowed Zdeno Chara to leave via free agency.
Because of his brain cramp, Aquilini is paying somewhere between $8 million and $16 million for Gillis and John Tortorella not to do any more damage to the organization. Vigneault, meanwhile, is making a case for being the best coach in the NHL this season.
If the criteria for the Jack Adams Award included the playoffs, which is what we do at here at The Hockey News for our annual awards, Vigneault would be the frontrunner, if not the runaway winner. He’s taken what looks like a middling Rangers roster on paper and turned it into a Stanley Cup contender on the ice with the same philosophy that brought him and the Canucks so much success, and almost a Stanley Cup, in Vancouver.
Recall the hullabaloo in Van City over Tortorella’s increased ice time for Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Vigneault always kept them below 20:00 per game, because he wanted them fresh and focused on offense. Under Vigneault the Sedins were among the best players in the NHL. Under Tortorella they had their worst seasons in more than a decade.
In New York, Vigneault has taken that same strategy and worked it to near perfection so far. The Rangers are Mariana Trench deep, and Vigneault has used every foot of the team’s depth that GM Glen Sather put together.
Throughout 2013-14, regular season and playoffs, not one forward has averaged 20 minutes of ice time or more. Only Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, all defensemen, have averaged more than 20 minutes per game. That’s why the Rangers were able to get through back-to-back seven-game series and yet still be fresh against the Canadiens Saturday.
More than that, though, Vigneault has the right players in the right roles. Take Benoit Pouliot, for example, a fourth-overall pick in 2005 who has never panned out offensively and likely never will. Instead of trying to force what’s just not there and putting him in the top-six, Vigneault has Pouliot on the third line where he’s thrived.
And there are others. Brad Richards has gone from a head-scratching healthy scratch last season to a solid second-line center again, McDonagh is showing Norris Trophy candidate potential and Mats Zuccarello has become an even more miniature version of Martin St-Louis – all under the watchful eye of Vigneault.
If you think owners have little impact on teams aside from cutting checks, think again. Their decisions filter down, positively or negatively, throughout an organization, and occasionally into another. The coaching flip-flop between the Canucks and Rangers is a perfect example. Exchanging Tortorella for Vigneault has to be the most lopsided de facto trade in NHL history. And New York has Aquilini to thank for it.
Ronnie Shuker is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRonnieShuker.
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