Hartnett: Rangers Coach David Quinn Making Questionable Lineup Decisions


The Rangers have a David Quinn problem. Let’s make this absolutely clear. This is not a call to warm up the second-year coach’s hot seat. Right now, Quinn is not under pressure – nor should he be.

Quinn is just beginning to establish and implement his philosophies. He deserves time, leeway and opportunities to experiment. No NHL coach is going to have all the answers with a shade over a season’s experience under their belt.

The issue that is difficult to understand is Quinn’s curious lineups and questionable deployments. Youth should be the priority as the Rangers will need to accelerate a cast of promising youngsters to pair with prime-aged stars like Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba.

Quinn deservingly received plaudits during his five years at Boston University for his ability to maximize young talents. That reputation is exactly why he’s presiding over the Rangers’ bench. It was a key attribute that separated him from the crowd of coaching candidates during the summer of 2018.

When the Rangers searched for Alain Vigneault’s replacement, a youth-minded and analytics-embracing coach was the priority. On paper, Quinn fit the bill as someone who could help bring the Rangers into the modern era.

So far, some of his lineup decisions are mystifying for a team supposedly keyed on accelerating youth. There’s no reason why a seventh defenseman in Brendan Smith should be deployed as a third line wing.

Yet, Smith was the surprise recipient of crucial, late-game minutes in Thursday’s 5-2 defeat to the rival New Jersey Devils. Oddly, Smith was joined up with Kaapo Kakko and Panarin when the Rangers were chasing a two-goal deficit with under a minute remaining in the third period.

New York Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith skates against the Edmonton Oilers, Oct 12 at MSG.Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After handing the Devils their first win of the season, the Rangers’ box score was telling. Smith was handed 10:14 of even-strength ice time. That’s more than Chris Kreider’s 9:27 and Lias Andersson’s 8:51 respective even-strength minutes. Andersson has been the Rangers’ second-best performing center, but has been limited to a fourth-line role.

Quinn must avoid falling into the same trappings as John Tortorella and Vigneault before him. He appreciates the physical edge brought by Smith and fourth line instigator Micheal Haley, but an overreliance on grit and aggressiveness could be costly.

Haley will turn 34 in March. He skated for 19 regular-season and 11 playoff games for the San Jose Sharks last season. San Jose was eliminated by the eventual 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final.

Smith, a 30-year-old natural defenseman, has struggled to find a role after impressing during the 2017 playoffs. Late last season, he was converted from defenseman to a fourth line wing. After the Rangers shaved talent at the 2019 trade deadline, Smith’s transition to the wing appeared to be out of necessity.

Now, with several high-ceiling youngsters currently on the NHL roster and others waiting for their chance to be recalled from AHL Harford, there’s certainly plenty of better-suited options than Smith and Haley. It’s hard to justify why Smith has been elevated to the third line and why Haley is in the lineup at all. The Rangers would have traded Smith if another team had agreed to share some of the burdensome $4.35 million AAV cap charge for two seasons. Haley, a pugilist with 10 career goals to his name isn’t long for the NHL given his age and limited skill set.

Some coaches tend to have soft spots for tough guys, muckers and grinders – but speed, skill and the ability to make plays in tight areas reigns in the modern NHL. Tortorella and Vigneault grew attached to face-punchers and guys with “jam” to the Rangers’ detriment.

Tortorella opted to scratch a healthy Mats Zuccarello after he recovered from a broken wrist for the final two games of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, preferring the physical presences of Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel over the player who would become the team’s future leading scorer in seasons after. Perhaps, the Rangers could have extended the series to a winner-take-all Game 7 had Zuccarello dressed for Game 6. Adam Henrique’s overtime decider propelled the Devils to a Stanley Cup Final meeting with the Los Angeles Kings.

Vigneault frequently held back the development of J.T. Miller, instead preferring rugged wing Tanner Glass. In his final years guiding the Blueshirts, Vigneault struggled to progress the talents of Miller, Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey.

While Tortorella and Vigneault’s Rangers teams had the highest of ambitions, Quinn isn’t under the same pressure to immediately deliver the ultimate goal. The growth of youngsters should be prioritized over any inclination to reward veterans who possess coach-pleasing intangibles but are unlikely to be part of the long-term plan.

Quinn appears to be a savvy coaching mind. His preference for Smith and Haley may be short-lived. Both players could conceivably be playing somewhere other than Madison Square Garden in a few months’ time. Anything beyond that would be a worrying sign for a team that should be geared toward ensuring a successful youth movement.

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