If you ask New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes what’s different from last season now that new head coach David Quinn is in charge, he’d tell you there’s a “different energy” around the team.
“It’s very positive, hard working energy,” Hayes told Pro Hockey Talk recently.
The new energy includes plenty of communication from the coach. Quinn is vocal and open with his players. They may have only been with him for a month, but already players know where they stand with him. That’s an important detail, and one that can help a roster like the Rangers’ develop into what general manager Jeff Gorton imagines.
The rivalry between Boston College and Boston University is well-documented in the college hockey world. So when asked if he would be able to play for a coach with BU ties, Chris Kreider jokingly responded, “Begrudgingly. They brought in a BC assistant coach (Greg Brown), so it evens out.”
Kreider has been with the Rangers since the 2013 NHL season, John Tortorella’s final year in New York. One season later, and under head coach Alain Vigneault, they reached the Stanley Cup Final. That was followed up by a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Final, where they would fall in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s trended downward since then for the Rangers, and the decision last February by Gorton to look toward the future signaled a new era for the team and the end of Vigneault’s time in New York. Over that time Kreider has watched the identity of the team disappear and understands that there’s a first step that can be taken in order for a turnarond to begin.
“We need to fall in love with hard work as a group,” he said. “I think that needs to become our identity. We’re not going to get outworked on pucks; we’re not going to get outworked at any point in a game at any position on the ice. Practice habits have to be improved upon I think our details have to be there. I think we gotta lean on each other and trust each other that everyone’s gonna do the job to the best of their abilities.”
If you’re going to be outworked or not give full effort, then you’re not going to see the ice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known the coach for over a decade, either through hometown ties (Hayes) or you played for him before arriving in New York and even invited him to your wedding (Kevin Shattenkirk). Effort is non-negotiable to Quinn. Hayes was benched during the game against Buffalo and Shattenkirk’s recovery from knee surgery saw him take a seat in the press box last Thursday against San Jose. Not easy decisions, but ones that align with the coach’s vision for how he needs to help the Rangers succeed.
After going through the experience is playing for Quinn, knowing his coaching style and how he connects with people, his former players have the utmost confidence his jump from the NCAA to the NHL will be a successful one.
“You know, it’s not easy to make a transition, by any means, from college to professional level,” said Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who played for Quinn at BU during the 2014-15 season. “But I think more than anything you have to be a good person, and have people skills, and I think probably his biggest asset is how well he’s able to relate to players, relate to people. I think he’ll do a great job building relationships to players away from the ice, and in turn I think that’s how they’ll gain his trust and they’ll believe in him.”
Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller played one season at BU under Quinn and found him to be a player’s coach, one who finds the right buttons to push to maximize talent. He credited the coach with a successful freshman season that saw him lead the Terriers in goals (21) and points (45).
Shattenkirk, who played for Quinn at BU and with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, is a product of the impact Quinn can have on a player.
“I was always the skilled player who came in and in his mind will probably say didn’t want to work and didn’t want to defend,” said Shattenirk. “He did so much for me as a player in college and really turned me from a raw talent into a well-rounded player to be able to succeed at the next level… He was so driven in developing players and coaching players that it meant a lot to me.”
Asking around about Quinn and “good communicator” comes up often from those that have been around him. Kreider described his initial talks with his new coach as “kind of disarming” in regards to how approachable he is. This first season is going set a foundation for what the franchise is hoping are many successful years ahead.
Quinn takes over the Rangers in a transition year. Gorton’s eye is on the future, and no one will mistake them for Cup contenders this year. But they still have Henrik Lundqvist playing at an elite level and just under $19 million in cap space (before a potential rise in the cap ceiling) to play with next summer.
As soon as next season, if Quinn’s influence ends up being a positive one, a return to being a perennial playoff team is not out of the question. Reaching that point requires achieving small steps along the way — steps that can be taken this year with a new voice behind the bench. The desire to get back to that point and prove the doubters wrong are what fuel this Rangers team.
“When people don’t expect you to do well it’s obviously a little chip on your shoulder,” said Hayes. “We still have Hank in net. He’s a Hall of Fame goalie… I think if you buy into the system and you work as hard as you can when you’re on the ice, it’s a pretty good way to create wins.”
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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.