It’s been more than two weeks since the New York Rangers parted ways with head coach Gerard Gallant, with their search for his replacement ongoing as of Sunday evening.
A few names that we’ll cover have emerged as early front-runners, but the sense among multiple league sources who spoke to lohud.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, is that the situation remains very fluid. Team president Chris Drury’s reputation as a meticulous decision-maker leads many to believe the process will be thorough, with his close-to-the-chest style making it especially difficult to gauge his timetable.
While Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan remains a pipedream − he’d be the top choice if he were to shake free, but the new Penguins’ ownership group seems intent on keeping him around − the situation in Toronto is worth monitoring. Two sources believe that the exit of general manager Kyle Dubas increases the chances of the Maple Leafs moving on from head coach Sheldon Keefe. It’s possible they won’t make that decision until a new GM is hired, but it’s plausible that Keefe would land on Drury’s interview list if he does become available.
Another notable development involves controversial candidate Joel Quenneville. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, the three-time Stanley Cup winner is expected to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as soon as the season ends to “review his status.” Has he been crossed off the Rangers’ list entirety? Or would a pending reinstatement put him back in the mix? There is belief that initial reports of cooling interest were based more on doubts about whether he’d even be an option, as opposed to the organization taking a moral stance against a man who was involved in covering up sexual assault allegations against former Chicago Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich.
While Quenneville is back on the radar, it’s still fair to call him a long shot − especially considering a decision on his future may not come for another month. But no one would be surprised if the coaching search lingers into June.
Among the currently available names, the one who continues to come up in conversations is Peter Laviolette. His next NHL head coaching gig will be his sixth, but multiple sources believe he’s at or near the top of the Rangers’ current list. He’s also interviewed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, according to one person familiar with the situation.
The other veteran coach who has been mentioned repeatedly is Mike Babcock. There’s a checkered past there, too, with former players accusing the 60-year-old of bullying tactics. But the Blueshirts have definitely made calls and done their homework on him, with one source saying “the door hasn’t been closed” on that option.
Among the coaches with no history of running an NHL bench, there are at least three who have been connected to New York: Leafs assistant Spencer Carbery, AHL Hartford head coach Kris Knoblauch and Kraken assistant Jay Leach. Each would represent something fresh and new, but doubts remain about whether the Blueshirts will go the inexperienced route. That may not exclusively be a Drury preference, either. As one source put it, going with an unknown would be a hard sell with owner James Dolan, who expects the team to compete for a championship next season.
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As we continue to sort through candidates and await word on the 37th head coach in franchise history, I found myself thinking about what the Rangers will need from the next person in charge. There are necessary boxes to check to inspire hope that whoever Drury picks can maximize the potential of this talented roster. With that in mind, I came up with these five priorities that should be addressed in any interview setting or research process:
Improve 5v5 play
The next coach will inherit one of the NHL’s best safety blankets − goalie Igor Shesterkin. But if the first-round loss to the New Jersey Devils proved anything, it’s that excellent goaltending isn’t always enough.
Shesterkin is their backbone, but the Rangers must improve their play in front of him if they want to become champions. And for as much success as they had under Gallant, it became painfully obvious by the end of his second season that they were a step behind the top teams in the NHL at even strength.
In those two seasons, the Blueshirts ranked 22nd in the league with a 48.11% xGF at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. Compare that to the four teams remaining in this year’s playoffs, with none worse than the Dallas Stars’ 51.49%.
Despite all their talent, the Rangers have regularly been outplayed in the area where most of the game is typically played. Shesterkin and strong special teams’ play carried them to plenty of wins along the way, but the next step is becoming a better 5v5 team.
Gallant’s north-south, keep-it-simple system didn’t produce consistent enough results at even strength, with one of the primary tasks for the next coach to implement a system that’s better suited for this roster.
Be willing (and able) to adjust
Gallant took issue with claims that he didn’t make enough adjustments during the series against the Devils, but clearly there were some in the Rangers’ front office who felt it was an issue.
It’s not just about lineup choices, either. Gallant frequently juggled his lines − too frequently for some players’ tastes − but rarely seemed to alter his game plan to fit the different combinations.
The most successful coaches in the league uncover the right counter moves when the stakes are high, be it in between periods or from game to game. If the opponent is running a neutral-zone trap, can you find ways to break it? If an aggressive forecheck is making it difficult to maintain possession and advance pucks, can you scheme up plays to beat it? If a particular line is causing headaches, can you figure out ways to stop them? And if your team needs a spark, do you have any tricks up your sleeve to create it?
It ultimately falls on the players to execute, but having a creative thinker on the bench who has a good feel for tactical adjustments would certainly help the cause.
Get through to the stars
While some players felt smothered by the micromanagement of former coach David Quinn, Gallant’s approach may have been a bit too hands off.
Initially, the space with which the veteran coach gave them to live their lives away from the rink and police themselves within the walls of the locker room was refreshing. But over time, the lack of personal relationships and limited communication between players and Gallant began to feel like a disconnect.
The next coach must strike the balance between the two extremes. It will be imperative to learn what makes certain players tick, lay out clear expectations and make sure they feel comfortable offering input, all without overstepping.
This will be especially important to get the most out of the Rangers’ top players. Artemi Panarin tops that list after back-to-back disappointing postseason showings, including a six-game point drought to conclude the series against New Jersey. Finding ways to unlock his unique playmaking ability when the ice tightens is a high priority.
But it’s not only about connecting with Panarin. They’ll also need to get on the same page with Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad and the rest of the core players. Some of them suffered from fractured confidence during the playoffs, with their frustration snowballing as the series wore on. The mental side may be just as important as any systematic changes.
The Blueshirts will only go as far as their stars take them − and they need a leader who can get through to them.
Develop the youth
Improving the play of the highly paid veterans will be critical, but unleashing the potential of the young players who are either on the roster or arriving soon is also a key part of the job description.
There’s a balance there that must be achieved.
A quintet of recent first-round picks who are 23 or younger − forwards Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière, along with defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider − remain vital parts of the present and future, with higher ceilings for all five to strive for. It will be incumbent on any new coach to aid their development, as well as the next wave of contributors, led by No. 1 prospect Brennan Othmann.
Part of that will come through teaching, while another component will be challenging them with increased responsibility. Kakko was vocal on breakup day about his desire to move up in the lineup and play a more prominent role. It’s time for him and Lafrenière, in particular, to get that chance, which Gallant was reluctant to try for more than sporadic spurts.
Deal with the pressure
This is less about handling the New York media and more about stepping into a position that will come with sky high expectations from ownership, management and fans.
Gallant took the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and even that wasn’t enough to keep him around for more than two years. Whoever succeeds him will be charged with turning a contender into a champion, with anything short of that liable to be treated as a disappointment.
If the next coach achieves that lofty goal and ends a 30-year Cup drought, they’ll forever be a New York legend. Otherwise, the merciless cycle could lead to another coaching search in the next year or two.
The Rangers need someone with a steady hand who embraces that pressure and brings the best out of a talented group whose confidence took a hit this spring.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.