I wasn’t too sure about the hiring of Head Coach David Quinn last May. Yes, he was a fresh face with a wonderful hockey mind. And yes, he had a reputation as a great communicator. But could the former head coach of (my beloved) Boston University Terriers make a quick transition to the NHL? Could he deal with personalities that were already making millions–guys who were older than 25? Could he get the whole team to buy in to his system—a system where the players would be gritty and “in your face”?
Last night, in the Rangers 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, we got a hint of the answer. The Rangers played badly in their game against Nashville on Thursday and, despite the close score of the game, the team was forced to play the Preds game, and failed. Last night was different. Quinn wanted more grit and hitting, tweaked the lineup, and he got what he wanted from the Rangers skaters. He sat the underperforming Vlad Namestnikov for the night and replaced him with Cody McLeod. Although McLeod did not perform well in his one fight of the night, at least he was available to stick up for a teammate if he had to. And, had it not been for the Sabres human vacuum cleaner in net, Carter Hutton, the Bleushirts would have defeated Buffalo.
McLeod looked fine on the fourth line with Brett Howden and Vinni Lettieri. Howden, who got the Rangers’ only goal in the game last night, looked even better in his role. The young center has been incredible on face offs in the last two games, and the puck just seems to find him when he is on the ice. Lettieri is a hard working linemate and the two have just clicked.
Quinn has rewarded Howden by putting him into the game in critical situations, taking ice time away from veteran Kevin Hayes. He has also given more playing time to Filip Chytil, who was on the ice for 17:18 last night (it would have been more but Chtyil took a hit to the head that kept him in the locker room for the required period).
And that is what has most impressed me about Quinn thus far. He has been thinking the game through—from start to finish. Whether it was putting Chytil out there late in the game to give the team a chance to win (but not take face offs—which he still needs to work on) or sitting Hayes, who has not been playing well, or even calling the time out and himself setting out the play he wants the players to execute, he has the players attention and commitment, and he has a plan.
But Quinn is still just getting his sea legs—seeing what he has and what clicks. And, of course, you cannot draw conclusions on whether hiring him will be a success on just two games. But hints of very good things are certainly there, despite the fact that the team is 0-2. The team record is less important right now than the direction of the Rangers’ play, which is positive. Today should be a test against Carolina. With less than 24 hours rest (after a more than 1000-mile plane ride late last night), and backup Alexandar Georgiev in net, it will be another test for the Rangers and Quinn. If we look at it that way, instead of just whether the Rangers win or not on any individual night, it is easy to get excited about the future.