CHICAGO — The temptation was there for Glen Sather to make the big-splash, bold-headline, unconditional-loyalty hire, to name Mark Messier the Rangers’ next head coach, to give his friend and partner in Stanley Cup glory the job Messier finally wanted, years after turning it down.
Sather went as far as interviewing the six-time Cup-winning Hall of Famer, who has worked as the Ranger general manager’s special assistant since August 2009, for the team’s vacant head coaching position this week.
But eventually Sather’s head prevailed over his heart; he offered veteran coach Alain Vigneault the job, Vigneault accepted, and in so doing, Sather wisely secured the most qualified candidate for this team and the guy best equipped to achieve the goal of this win-now group — the holy grail, Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Hiring Vigneault is no small splash. It is, in fact, a cannonball into the coaching pool.
While Messier is the Captain, the legendary leader of the Rangers’ 1994 Cup team who can do no wrong on Broadway, and still commands high respect in the current locker room, he has never coached at the NHL or AHL level.
Vigneault, on the other hand, won consistently with the Canucks the past seven seasons while also owning a reputation for being respected by both his players and the media. That is no small compliment, especially considering that the only two NHL cities in which he’s coached are two of the largest hockey markets in North America — Vancouver and Montreal.
Vigneault’s hiring concludes this coaching search with a steadiness and prudence that appropriately aims to cancel out the frantic, sudden nature of John Tortorella’s firing on May 29 that thrust the team into limbo just one year after advancing to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
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It remains to be seen if Messier will remain with the Rangers organization after being snubbed of the head coaching job.
The Rangers’ players made themselves heard loud and clear that Tortorella’s act was no longer acceptable, and Sather surprisingly acted almost immediately on that unrest, led by team MVP Henrik Lundqvist’s unsettling, spoken uncertainty about signing a contract extension when he spoke on breakup day.
Hiring Vigneault reflects a studied and realistic approach, better for the team in the short- and long-term. That is opposed to bringing in Messier, which had the potential to inject unprecedented life and energy into the Garden, but carried the risk that such sentiment would be fleeting.
Sure, the Rangers left other coaches on the market, namely ex-Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. But they were competing with the Dallas Stars for Vigneault and had to commit before it was too late. Plus, the man who will become the 35th head coach in franchise history has other, under-the-radar strengths that could boost the Rangers.
The team will be going on longer road trips beginning next season, for example, since the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement will force every team to visit all other 29 arenas every year. Coaching Vancouver, Vigneault managed a comparable travel-heavy schedule and the frequent change of time zones, and he worked on giving his players the proper rest to handle the grind.
Adding Vigneault, of course, does not cure all of the Rangers’ issues, but it is an encouraging start.
Meanwhile, an interesting subplot here will be Messier’s reaction to being snubbed. He interviewed in La Quinta, Calif., this past week and then left to give away the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award in Chicago, only to find out the next day he wouldn’t get the job.
Whether the Captain stays on board after being denied the opportunity remains to be seen. But this much is certain: the Rangers’ ship will sail on, with or without him — undoubtedly a difficult decision for the ever-loyal Sather, but the correct on