Alain Vigneault seems like a pretty savvy coach. He’s attentive to how he deploys his forwards by zone, he’s open-minded to an analytical approach, and he watches his forwards’ minutes diligently. That last part could end up being a strength for the Rangers as they head into their fourth playoff series of the season.
During the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, one of the 16 teams had their top minute-eating forward average less than 20 minutes per game, and that was the Rangers. Specifically, that’s Martin St. Louis, and his total sneaks just under the 19 minute mark at 18:59.
Giving your top players rest - particularly when they’re on the older side, as St. Louis, Rick Nash and Brad Richards are - allows them to maintain the type of pop that separates them from average players. More rested players think clearer, and just as important in playoffs, rested players are able to better evade contact which can keep them healthy. I’d be comfortable wagering that the vast majority of injuries happen in the second half of shifts.
In 2011-12, Rick Nash averaged 19:05 per night with Columbus. In 2012-13 he was dealt to the Rangers, where he played under John Tortorella, and his ice rose to just under 20 minutes per game. When Alain Vignealt took over the Rangers, Nash saw his ice fall all the way 17:01. Over those three years he’s averaged 3.7 shots per game, followed by 4.0, then 4.0. Same production, less wear-and-tear.
He’s maintained those low minutes throughout playoffs (17:02, actually), which could very well be part of the reason his best post-season hockey came in round three. As others slow down, he’s maintaining.
This is a trend with Vigneault. In Vancouver, here were his top three forwards minutes during the 2012-13 season:
Henrik Sedin: 19:20
Daniel Sedin: 19:01
Ryan Kesler: 18:57
When he left and Tortorella took over:
Ryan Kesler: 21:48
Henrik Sedin: 20:40
Daniel Sedin: 20:36
All three players are on the wrong side of career arcs, and all three saw significant drop-offs in production this season. More minutes isn’t doing them any favors.
What this also allows Vigneault and the Rangers to do is move those minutes down the lineup. It takes a deep roster to be able to do this, but when you have one as the Rangers do, you’re able to keep your low-line players more engaged.
Getting a couple minutes of ice a period is brutal. Your legs get cold, you become disengaged, and you can’t find a rhythm. Dominic Moore, the man who scored the deciding goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final (the only goal, actually), is 11th in time-on-ice on the Rangers amongst forwards in the post-season...with 12:33 a night. That’s a pretty reasonable amount of ice time, certainly enough to keep you in the game mentally and physically.
The Kings and Darryl Sutter are good at spreading ice time around as well - Anze Kopitar has averaged 20:18 a night, but behind him it starts to look an awful lot like the Rangers distribution.
That theme is both a credit to the roster architects and the coaching staffs; it’s no coincidence two teams that spread their forwards’ ice time throughout their rosters are in the Final. It’s how you maximize the performance of your forwards at both the top, and bottom of the depth chart.