After an embarrassing loss to the Boston Bruins on national television -- a 6-1 defeat that saw his team basically cease to play midway through the second period -- New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was asked what words of encouragement he would share with his team the next morning. He recoiled before he responded, his body language screaming, "You've gotta be kidding me!"
"Let me breathe. Let me get through this. I'll figure this out. I'll sleep on it," he said.
But the message wasn't his to give on Thursday. It was sent in a letter by Rangers president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton, officially raising the white flag of surrender on the season and signaling to the fans that painful roster adjustments were forthcoming.
A Message from Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. pic.twitter.com/Q56CXS8vDc- New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 8, 2018
"As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character," they wrote, "This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it's never easy."
(This of course does not mean any discounts on Rangers tickets for what is now officially a lost season, but we digress.)
It was, without question, one of the most dizzying 24 hours in recent memory for an NHL franchise: entering Wednesday night with 55 points, three back of the wild card; ending the night having been thoroughly humiliated by the hottest team in hockey; beginning Thursday by waiving a player signed to a four-year extension last summer, on his birthday, no less; and then getting the kind of letter from management that one expects to read when a coach is fired, which Alain Vigneault very much wasn't.
What the heck happened here?
Sources tell ESPN that the decision to issue the letter came after the Rangers returned from the road on Feb. 5, after three straight losses -- to the Toronto Maple Leafs at MSG and then to the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars on the road -- during which New York was outscored 11-3. In other words, before the Boston game.
The decision all but assures that Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, both with expiring contracts, will be dealt before the trade deadline. Defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh, who recently sold an apartment he owned in Tribeca, would fit the label of a "familiar face" the team could lose, especially given that he is signed at a manageable cap hit ($4.7 million) through 2019.
But what about some of the other names on the Rangers' roster whose futures are a bit more clouded?
Mats Zuccarello. I worry about Zuc, by far the Rangers' most popular skater. He's signed through 2019 with a very cap-friendly hit ($4.5 million) and has no trade protection. But if you want the definition of "part of the solution, not part of the problem," it's the Norwegian Hobbit Wizard. Yes, he turns 31 this September, and the law of diminishing returns for forwards over 30 is well established. Yes, he's having a down offensive season, as his goal scoring has been swallowed up in the Sarlacc Pit of this lost season. But the Rangers have some young centers in the pipeline, and there are worse things in the word than having them learn from and skate with Mats Zuccarello. I'd hang on to him, but he has value, for sure.
Chris Kreider. Kreider's injury -- he has started skating again after leaving the lineup because of blood clots -- is one of the reasons this season has gone off the rails for the Rangers. (Along with those to Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich.) Any number of teams would love to have a 26-year-old power forward signed through 2020, but the Rangers going 3-8-5 since Kreider's injury isn't a coincidence. He's a piece for the future.
Marc Staal. Pop the champagne, because Staal has been something slightly better than terrible this season when healthy. But his contract is just atrocious, given the return: $5.7 million against the cap through 2021, with a full no-move clause. Since 2014, Staal has a 46.12 Corsi percentage and a Corsi plus-minus of minus-660. Look, it's going to be hard to purge this bloated, awful deal, but we're living in a world where David Clarkson's contract has been traded twice, so anything's possible.
Henrik Lundqvist. Here's the brutal truth: The Rangers would be much, much better off without Lundqvist. He still has good hockey left in him, and he cares, which means he's antithetical to a rebuild. Heck, there's a chance that -- despite the letter and their trade-deadline purge -- the Rangers could still make the playoffs if Hank has two good weeks.
He turns 36 next month, and has an $8.5 million cap hit through 2021, but still has a window of effectiveness that could bring a return via trade. And here's the further brutal truth: The two best destinations for Lundqvist are the two places the Rangers would never trade him. That would be the Philadelphia Flyers, flush with picks and prospects and looking for a stop-gap until Carter Hart is ready; and the New York Islanders, who seem determined to make Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss work like they're Gretchen in "Mean Girls" dropping "fetch" into a casual conversation.
Alas, all of this is academic because Lundqvist has a full no-move clause, loves living in New York and loves playing for the Rangers. "I want to play for one organization. This one. I love it here. I want to be here and battle through the ups and downs, the good and the bad. It's important to me," he said earlier this month. Oh well.
Alain Vigneault. Gorton didn't make any clear decision about his coach this week. "I don't want the speculation out there, we have 25-30 games to go. AV is our coach, we have a lot of faith in AV and what he's done and we will leave it at that," he said.
I think Vigneault is a good coach -- and would quickly find a new home if fired -- who has lost his way in a bad situation. The Rangers have been woefully unprepared too many times this season. He hasn't adapted to the realities of his personnel. At the same time, it's a team humbled by a perfect storm of injuries and underwhelming seasons, which are a bit out of his control.
He has two years left on his deal, at $4 million per season. Management is fond of him. This is, perhaps, the greatest mystery of the Rangers' sudden rebuild: Can Vigneault reclaim the room during a youth movement, or is he ill-suited for a period of reloading? While the latter might seem the obvious answer, the fact that he's still here might indicate it's not the conclusion Sather and Gorton have reached.
The truth is this season was always meant to be a transition year for the Rangers, as was signaled by their refusal to replace Derek Stepan at center after trading him. They have grade-A center prospects in Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil on the way. But this declaration from management is an indication that it's just starting this roster flip to the next iteration of the team.
We've seen declarations like this before from teams. Just not usually in early February in a letter to fans.
What a weird moment in this franchise's history of weird moments.
Hockey in Africa
This is a really lovely commercial from Alibaba, created for the Winter Olympics, that hits on one of our favorite themes: Hockey where you least expect it:
That sound you heard was every NHL goalie booking a flight to Kenya to play in front of those mini-nets.
Getting defensive about Klingberg
In our NHL Awards Watch update this week, there was predictable backlash against Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg getting the top spot over Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman -- the midseason favorite -- as well as the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty and P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators. Predictable in the sense that a 25-year-old European defenseman who is leading the league in points for his position couldn't possibly also be one of its most well-rounded players, right?
Wrong. The metrics are in his favor as an all-around defenseman when compared with Hedman. Klingberg's defensive game has blossomed under Stars coach Ken Hitchcock and assistant Rick Wilson, who have stressed not just defensive fundamentals but a physicality in his game that has made a difference.
"He's got this pushback this year," Stars center Tyler Seguin said of Klingberg. "He's found a way to always be sneaking out of [hits], but this year he's found a pushback."
It's something Hitchcock and Wilson have preached since they arrived this past April. "I think that's something that the new coaches brought in. That we have to stick up for ourselves and each other," Klingberg said.
That means getting in the mugs of opponents when they take liberties. Maybe a shove or a stick poke. Something to let them know Klingberg won't be their tackling dummy. Even if that doesn't involve actually dropping the gloves.
"I'm not going to be a fighter. I'm not ever probably going to win a fight, if I fight. But I'll stick up for myself, prove that I can't be a player who can be pushed around," he said.
Has he ever fought?
"Not without gloves. But with gloves, in Sweden, I have," he said.
Klingberg told ESPN that he's getting used to the adjustment from respected defenseman to Norris candidate. As previously stated, it's not easy shaking the "all-offense, no-defense" stereotype for a European player. Nicklas Lidstrom wasn't a Norris finalist until his seventh year in the NHL. Erik Karlsson won his first Norris at 21 but finished only 12 votes ahead of Nashville's Shea Weber despite what was, at the time, the fourth-best offensive season by a defenseman in the past 15 years.
Klingberg knows what Karlsson has gone through as a pro, having watched him as a young player in Sweden.
"I had Erik Karlsson playing there when I was in juniors. Got to watch him play a lot of junior games," Klingberg said. "That helped me out, for sure, because I had just switched to defense and he was that offensive player in the juniors that everyone wanted to be like."
How fast was Karlsson back then?
"Oh, he was fast," Klingberg said. "Always really fast. Always skilled."
Karlsson has been a Norris finalist for the past three years but could miss the cut this time. (Mostly because the Ottawa Senators have been terrible -- Karlsson has bounced back to have a great season by any standard.) Klingberg, however, could be in line to become the third Swede ever to win the award.
"I know that they're talking about it, so I take pride in that. It shows that I've done something good this year. But I don't try to read too much into it," he said.
Jersey Foul of the week
The answer is very much no. These are awesome, and hark back to those halcyon days when men wore their Sunday best to the rink. Or, failing that, their logo-festooned novelty suits.
Bergeron is a god
Since Dec. 18, the Bruins are 17-1-3. Tuukka Rask is ensconced in the Vezina Trophy race with a .933 even-strength save percentage. Patrice Bergeron is getting hyped as the first Hart and Selke dual winner since Sergei Fedorov in 1994, despite being 22 points off the NHL scoring lead. Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said Bergeron was "the best player in the league for the season up to now."
Bergeron is also a member of one of the most dominant lines we've witnessed in recent memory. As of Thursday night (and via Corsica), Bergeron's troika with David Pastrnak and Mr. Congeniality Brad Marchand has generated 22 goals-for in 339 minutes at 5-on-5 and surrendered just ... four goals.
That's it. Four.
Going back to 2009, among lines that played more than 300 minutes together at even strength, there are only three units even in the conversation with this Bruins trio, as far as offensive and defensive effectiveness:
Oh, and this one other line: Tyler Seguin with Marchand and Bergeron in 2012-13, which played 431:38 together, scored 26 goals and gave up just four. (Keep in mind that this was the lockout season.)
As of now, that 2013 Bergeron line is a shade more impressive then the 2018 edition, with a Corsi percentage of 62.66 and a goals percentage of 86.67 vs. the current line's 60.22 and 84.62. But given the way the Bruins are rolling, perhaps those numbers will grow.
So, moral of the story: Patrice Bergeron is really, really, really good -- especially when paired with Brad Marchand.
The Bruins are scary.
ESPN on Ice
Highly recommend this week's podcast. Along with the usual fun and merriment, Emily Kaplan and I sit down for a rare interview with Sunny Mehta, the poker ace who became the first director of analytics for the Devils. Really insightful stuff from him. Stream it here and grab it on iTunes here. If you dig it, please subscribe and review.
Department of Player Excuses
Dear NHL players,
The Department of Player Safety doesn't always get it right. Heck, most of the time, it seems to err on the side of giving shorter suspensions than a player's actions warrant. But let's make a deal, OK? If you're suspended by the NHL for an illegal play, don't be an idiot about it.
Did Filip Forsberg deserve three games for his hit on Jimmy Vesey of the Rangers? Eh, maybe two games, but now we're splitting hairs. Once again, a player's relatively clean reputation when it comes to supplemental discipline was used by his defenders like a cross to a vampire to repel a suspension (see also: Cogliano, Andrew). But Forsberg earned this one.
How did Forsberg react? "It's obviously unfortunate (Vesey) got hurt, but there are a lot of clean hits that get players hurt, too," Forsberg told a Swedish reporter, via The Tennessean.
I mean, c'mon, man. I'm not usually a fan of real-world examples creeping into sports critique, but this is like stabbing a guy in the stomach and then telling the cop, "Hey, there are a lot of non-knife ways for people to get stabbing pains in their stomach, like bad Thai food." He was hurt because you illegally checked him in the head. Full stop.
Then there's Alex Burrows, who was banned for 10 games for attacking Taylor Hall of the Devils. During the sequence, he hacked Hall with this stick, punched him in the head while standing next to him, dragged him to the ice in a headlock and delivered a few more punches. After the linesmen wrapped up the players on the ice, Burrows raised his leg in the air and dropped his knee into the back of Hall's head. Twice.
How did Burrows react? By telling the NHL that the only way he could pull his arm out from the scrum on the ice -- which, again, he caused by bulldogging Hall down -- was to drop his knee on his opponent's head twice, like Ric Flair setting up the figure-four. Said the NHL: "We do not agree with his interpretation, nor would we excuse repeated knees to an opponent's head for that reason."
This isn't to say that players shouldn't speak up against Player Safety decisions, because keeping the process honest is a two-way street. This is just to say that ... you know, be smarter about it.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are in a 3-6-1 tailspin, which has left coach John Tortorella preaching from the gospel of Nick Foles for help. "Well, I'll tell you, I listened to the quarterback, Foles, and it's a subject that we're right in, right now the way he talked," Tortorella said. "You cannot learn, you can't grow, until you go through some struggles, and go through some of this stuff here. And that's the definition of [resilience] -- how you come out on the other end." [Dispatch]
Looking back at the cold-blooded whupping that was the first Winter Olympic hockey tournament. [SB Nation]
How and where to watch the women's Olympic hockey tournament. [Ice Garden]
An interview with Rob Lowe's stunt double in "Youngblood." Details include: "I was a little bit darker-skinned than Rob. I have olive skin and tan easily, and it was summer, so they wanted me to stay out of the sun. They'd put a little bit of makeup on me." [Puck Junk]
The 12 GMs under pressure to make noise at the trade deadline. Wait, only 12? [Down Goes Brown]
Team USA on meeting each other for the first time, and the late Jim Johansson. [WaPo]
Finally, Ken Hitchcock said that goalie coach Jeff Reese convinced him to start Ben Bishop on Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, thanks to some fancy stats. Bishop made 37 saves on 39 shots.
Lehtonen was scheduled to start tonight's game, but Hitch says that analytics presented by goalie coach Jeff Reese convinced him to start Bishop. pic.twitter.com/FTuLXaAEC9- Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) February 9, 2018
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
The P.K. Subban and Shea Weber trade and its weird "Pelican Brief" twist. [The Athletic]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
How Team USA and Team Canada would fare as NHL teams. Hey, anything that makes Ben Scrivens a No. 1 goalie, we're in favor of it.