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September 14, 2017

From Fast To Faster

New faces and players cast in new roles haven’t altered the ambitions of the Rangers’ head coach. He still expects to win.

BY ALAIN VIGNEAULT

(Photo: Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos)

For three days in early August, in a hotel conference room on Manhattan’s East Side, we huddled, my coaching staff and I, to take stock of our team and map out the year ahead. Over binders filled with stats and scouting reports, and between maybe a thousand video clips, we brainstormed on how to take this new version of the Rangers — with a new group of players coming in and familiar ones stepping into new roles  and make it click.

With an eye toward maximizing the talents of each player, we broke the game down to its fine points, and when we parted, we had homework assignments. Each of us drew up schemes on the style and strategy that fits us best, in all zones of the ice, skating with and without the puck, from back-checking to special teams.

When we regathered a few weeks later, we had a consensus — that all the changes still left us with a club that above all is built upon team speed, especially when it comes to getting the puck out of our zone and getting into our offense. That’s been the Rangers’ foundation since I arrived here four years ago. And now, with training camp for the 2017-18 season officially opening today, we’re putting an exclamation point on that.

With the changes we’ve made, we’re actually going to be quicker than we were a season ago.

We are younger, too, but make no mistake. We’ve come close a few times in recent years, and our goal this year remains the same: to get into the playoffs and then make up that small difference and win the Stanley Cup.

 

It’s Your Turn Now

Maintaining excellence in the NHL is not an easy thing. Top to bottom so little separates the teams, and assembling a squad within the constraints of a salary cap means having to shuffle the roster year to year. But as key players leave, others are presented with an opportunity to assume high profile roles and define just what kind of team we will be.

This is the way it works in sports, and this is the way it’s been with the Rangers since I got here, a kind of passing of the torch. From Ryan Callahan to Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, and now to leaders like our new defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, the inspiring Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, as well our captain, Ryan McDonagh. And of course, our great goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.

In short, we have a lot of character players to anchor our team as we go through a quiet transformation.

Mika Zibanejad, just 24, is a player with unbelievable potential and talent, with his puck handling, his shot, his skating. But it’s not always there on a consistent basis. He’s wanted this chance for a long time, and now, by giving him a long-term deal, we’re saying to him, “it’s your turn now. It’s there for you, no excuses.” He’ll be competing for the first line center spot with Kevin Hayes, now 25.

Obviously, there’s pressure on them to take on new responsibilities. And the same goes for another young center, J.T. Miller, and a defenseman like Brady Skjei, just 23.

No doubt, speed has been our trademark. Speed with skating, with puck handling and with all facets of the game. The quicker you get to your assignment and check well, then the quicker you get the puck back, and that means you’ll be quicker into the offensive zone.

That’s exciting for our players, who prefer having the puck instead of chasing it. And it’s exciting for our fans.

Still, quick as we were, I believe we were a little behind last year and needed to bring in someone like Shattenkirk. He’s a puck-moving defenseman who will help us in transition and on the power play. He has a reputation for making guys around him better. He’s extremely dedicated and has a strong way of keeping his teammates accountable.

 

Soft Love, And Hard Love

You also have to like that as a free agent, he could have gone elsewhere for more money. But he’s from the area and he’s kind of a throwback. He’s excited by the idea that he now gets to play for one of the NHL’s original six teams. He will help set the tone for the entire team.

Thankfully, Lundqvist is still our bedrock. He’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t as consistent last year as he would have liked, but he’s still one of the game’s elite goalies.

I’m going to make one small adjustment going into the season and not set a number of games for him. Last year he played in 57 in the regular season, and I don’t know if he’ll play more than that, or less. I’m just going to feel him out and see how he’s feeling and how he’s playing.

I’m starting my fifth year with the Rangers, and my role remains the same — to give players the strategies to help them exploit the other team’s weaknesses. I have to understand what each player needs to excel. Some need soft love. If I raise my voice in certain situations, I’ve lost them. Others need tough love.

They say in golf, that to succeed you have to “stay in the zone.” The same is true in hockey. You have to block out all the white noise. If we can do that this season  if each man can do that — I really believe we have a chance to take the next step.

 


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