Hartnett: Quinn’s Decision To Bench Kakko Part Of Puzzling Trend

By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

It’s no secret that David Quinn favors a tough-love approach when sending messages to his youthful roster. The 53-year-old Rangers head coach has consistently benched young players with the goal of creating an atmosphere of accountability.

Sometimes, this technique is an effective way for a young player to learn a valuable lesson, but Quinn made a miscalculation late in Thursday’s 4-3 road defeat to the Calgary Flames.

Quinn glued star rookie Kaapo Kakko to the bench after the 18-year-old was whistled for holding at 12:08 of the final frame. After Kakko served the two-minute minor, he did not see the ice for the remainder of the contest.

Instead, Quinn inserted Greg McKegg in Kakko’s place, and the decision backfired at a time when the Rangers needed their most offensively skilled players on the ice. The line of Brett Howden, Filip Chytil and Kakko dominated shift after shift, and Kakko had already picked up a goal and assist.

New York Rangers coach David QuinnWalter Tychnowicz/USA TODAY Images

McKegg’s strength isn’t goalscoring. The 27-year-old forward has recorded one goal through 27 games this season. Never mind that. Kakko was playing his best hockey in at least nine games.

There’s a risk that Quinn runs by not placing his trust in the natural abilities of the young talents at his disposal. If the Blueshirts’ up-and-comers are constantly disciplined with benchings and shaved minutes for every mistake, there’s going to be a point when they start to question their own abilities and perhaps even abandon the tendencies that got them to this level.

Tough love can sometimes go too far. Former Rangers head coach John Tortorella forced all of his players to fit his defense-first prototype. Occasionally, the process was as counterproductive as pushing a square peg through a round hole.

An offensive powerhouse in Marian Gaborik wasn’t able to fully unleash his offensive gifts for the majority of his 4½ years on Broadway. The sour relationship ended when Tortorella’s leanings became obsessive and Gaborik was relegated to fourth-line duty. After Tortorella was fired following the Rangers’ 2013 Eastern Conference semifinal exit to the Boston Bruins, Gaborik tweeted: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Everything happens for a reason...

— Marian Gaborik (@MGaborik12) May 29, 2013

Quinn’s predecessor, Alain Vigneault, was hesitant to fully trust a young J.T. Miller due to the forward’s defensive shortcomings. Tortorella had a soft spot for grinders like Stu Bickel and Arron Asham. Vigneault was unflinching in his belief in the qualities brought by hard-nosed wing Tanner Glass.

Nowadays, Quinn is favoring limited offensive journeymen such as McKegg and Micheal Haley, while continuing to persist with natural defenseman Brendan Smith in the role of bottom-six wing. It seems Quinn suffers from the same blind spot as his predecessors when it comes to overvaluing grit, jam and battle level.

When Tortorella and Vigneault called the Garden home, the Rangers aimed for the Stanley Cup. Whether you agreed with their lineup decisions or not, their preference of playing veterans over youth was based on a win-now organizational direction.

What’s becoming alarming in Quinn’s situation is that he was brought here because of a track record of developing youth. There’s no excuse for benching Kakko and promoting McKegg when your team is trailing and in need of goalscoring punch at crunch time.

This Rangers team is nowhere near Stanley Cup ready. Quinn isn’t under the same sort of pressure that Tortorella and Vigneault faced when guiding rosters built for championship contention. It’s puzzling why he continues to fall into this trap again and again.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.