By: Michael Abitabilo
As sports fans, we are taught early on not to care about preseason games. The preseason is an opportunity for our teams to get ready for the season – to get in shape, to practice fundamentals, and to allow coaches and management to evaluate players and make personnel decisions. So when the New York Rangers stumbled to a 1-3 record in their first four preseason games , I didn’t think it would be fair to publish a Doomsday piece on the Rangers 2013-2014 prospects. But after last night’s 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the John Tortorella coached Vancouver Canucks, it’s time to at least start to wonder: how good (or not good) can the 2013-2014 Rangers be?
The Rangers 1-4 record this preseason isn’t necessarily the problem. With a new head coach implementing an entirely new “system” (more on that in a moment), it’s only natural that the Rangers would struggle somewhat in the beginning.
Of greater concern is the way they have lost their games. The Rangers have been outscored this preseason by a 17-8 margin. Of their eight goals, three were scored by defensemen (two by Marc Staal and one by Dan Girardi). Rick Nash has been a non-factor in the three games he has played and Brad Richards seems to have picked up right where he left off last season. Even more troubling is that the Rangers have not seemed to improve from game to game. To the contrary, and despite having had time to implement and adapt to coach Alain Vigneault’s system, they seem to have regressed. Their team defense – which was a hallmark during the John Tortorella era – has become sloppier with each game. The Rangers allowed a total of three goals in their first two games and 14 in their last three. Against Calgary and Edmonton in particular, they looked too slow and either unwilling or unable to match the speed and physicality of their opponents – a similar problem they faced last year against the Boston Bruins.
As for coach Alain Vigneault and his new system, much has been made by the media of the philosophical differences between the way Vigneault and Tortorella want the game to be played. Indeed, Tortorella’s firing has been decorated with a familiar narrative. The defense-first coach is fired and replaced by a more offensive minded leader who will get the most out of the team’s offensive stars. It’s a narrative we’ve heard before. In fact, we heard it almost five years ago, when Tom Renney was fired and replaced by – you guessed it – John Tortorella. This time, though, it is Tortorella who has been painted as the defense-first boss, while Vigneault is promised to bring a more exciting brand of hockey. Throughout the preseason, we have been reminded that coach Vigneault wants to open up the game offensively by pressuring the puck, pushing the pace, and encouraging his defensemen to join the offensive rush. But the repeated implication that Tortorella wanted to slow down the game and/or discouraged his defensemen from contributing offensively is simply absurd. Yes, Tortorella consistently stressed that all players would be held accountable for their defensive play, and yes he wanted everyone – including his top stars – to be willing to go down and block shots. But Tortorella was not exactly trying to replicate the 1995 Devils and their neutral zone trap (which, by the way, almost ruined hockey, but I digress).
In the end, though, this isn’t about the coaches as much as it’s about the team. And the reality is, during his time as the Rangers’ coach, Tortorella adapted his coaching style to his personnel. Despite being picked by many as the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the 2013 Rangers had to fight just to make the playoffs, and ultimately were not good enough to compete with the League’s best teams. Due in large part to their total lack of salary cap maneuverability, the Rangers have mostly brought back the same team with which they finished last season. With even the slightest of regression this year, the Rangers could very possibly miss the playoffs entirely. So, if the expectation is that the Rangers will be in the hunt for a playoff spot then yes, this piece is a bit premature. But if Rangers fans are hoping for a championship parade down the Canyon of Heroes next summer, maybe it’s not too early to panic after all.
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and thinks this might be the earliest he ever gave up on a Rangers team!