Alain Vigneault came to the New York Rangers last summer with ideas for how to create a culture change off the ice and a new and improved team on the ice, using the slogan "Clean Slate." He had all of training camp and nine road games in October to work on creating the team he wanted before he stepped up behind the home bench at Madison Square Garden.
Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube had to make his changes on the fly after he was named as Peter Laviolette's replacement three games into the regular season. After nine seasons as an assistant in Philadelphia, Berube had ideas too, but he knew for them to work he'd have to incorporate them slowly and carefully to try to get his struggling, fragile team back on a path to success.
Vigneault and Berube will be behind the benches at Madison Square Garden in New York on Wednesday for NBCSN's Rivalry Night showdown (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) with their teams heading in the right direction and directly toward a collision in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The paths they took were different, but only one point separates the Rangers, second in the Metropolitan Division, from the third-place Flyers as they head into the finale of their four-game regular-season series (Philadelphia owns a 2-1-0 advantage).
Vigneault has clearly had a gradual impact on the Rangers after a sluggish start to the season. Berube has been front and center in the Flyers' resurgence after Philadelphia opened the season with one win in its first eight games and nine points after 15 (4-10-1).
Who has had a bigger impact? Let's dive right in to try to figure out the answer:
The Flyers were bleeding, but Berube wasn't hired Oct. 7 to be just a Band-Aid. Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren turned to Berube, the team's longtime assistant coach, to change the style and the approach not just for this season, but ideally for years to come.
Philadelphia was an up-tempo, run-and-gun team under Laviolette, but that style ran its course after the 2011-12 season. The Flyers didn't make the playoffs last season, when they were ninth in goals-for (2.75 per game) but 23rd in goals-against (2.90 per game). They slept through training camp and were outscored 9-3 in their first three games, all regulation losses.
Berube's focus is more on the defensive end. His job was to turn the Flyers into more of a defensive-oriented team, with the hope they could find a way to turn their strong defense into puck possession and scoring chances.
The players bought in right away, but it took until mid-November before Berube's system started to produce consistently positive results.
The Flyers were 4-10-1 and had a minus-20 goal differential through Nov. 7; they are 34-16-6 since with a plus-26 goal differential.
A big reason for the Flyers’ success is the resurgence of Claude Giroux, who had seven points, all assists, through the first 15 games, but is now fifth in the NHL in scoring with 74 points, including 24 goals, in 71 games. However, it can be argued Giroux has had such a massive turnaround this season because of the way the entire team has bought into Berube's defense-first ways.
"There's a reason why it's a team game; you need all 20 guys on the team to show up every night if you want to get some wins," Giroux said. "We have done a good job lately. Everyone is contributing. All four lines are rolling, playing good. When we have everybody going, that's when we play our best."
The players, though, didn't have much of a choice but to buy in and believe in Berube. If they didn't, they wouldn't play. That's Berube's style too.
He's honest, brutally at times, and has no problems telling a player exactly where he stands. Berube's players respect him even more for that.
"He's very honest, and that helps a lot," Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. "Every time I have a conversation with me he's honest with me. He'll say, 'You played like crap,' or 'You played good.' There's no in between. That's how he gained respect; he's honest with everyone and he doesn't change with different players."
If you asked Rangers fans in October what they thought of their new coach, they'd have told you Vigneault was public enemy No. 1 and should have been fired before he got to coach his first game at MSG. They wanted John Tortorella back. They thought they were sold a bill of goods on Vigneault.
Their reaction was obviously swift and emotional, but the Rangers absolutely were scuffling, especially on the defensive end, to the point that they gave up 20 goals over three road games against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues from Oct. 8-12. They opened the season with nine straight road games and went 3-6-0.
But the ghastly goals-against average had as much to do with Henrik Lundqvist's struggles as it did with the Rangers trying to buy into Vigneault's system. Clearly, he didn't forget how to do his job. He's the same coach who took the Vancouver Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011; the same coach who led the Canucks to the Presidents' Trophy in back-to-back seasons (2010-12).
Hindsight is always 20/20, but what's obvious now should have been talked about earlier in the season -- the Rangers needed time to adjust to Vigneault, who is basically the polar opposite of Tortorella in his demeanor and coaching style.
"Anytime there is a coaching change or management change, it's always going to be a feeling-out process," Rangers forward Derek Dorsett said. "We're playing the way he [Vigneault] wants us to play. If we keep doing that, we'll be fine."
The Rangers improved after the nine-game road trip, got above .500 by the midway point (20-19-2), and then went 12-5-1 and allowed 2.12 goals per game in 17 games from Jan. 3 until the NHL went on break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The Rangers slumped earlier this month, but picked it right back up and have won four in a row and five of their past six games, including a 4-3 come-from-behind, overtime victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday.
Lundqvist has gotten much better and is again playing the way he did for years under Tom Renney and Tortorella. The defense as a whole got tighter and more disciplined in front of him as the Rangers adopted a swarming, pressuring, quick-transition style.
It helped that Vigneault found four lines that worked and has been rolling them with minimal changes, something that rarely happened under Tortorella. Until recently, their power play was among the best in the NHL; it was among the worst under Tortorella.
"We got to know him, and he got to know us," Rangers center Derick Brassard said. "I guess we just bought in to the way he wanted us to play. We play well as a team. If you do that for the rest of the season, we're going to have some success."
Verdict: The Flyers were fragile when Berube replaced Laviolette. Outside expectations had shrunk as their self-esteem did, but all that has changed under Berube as the Flyers have become one of the more complete teams in the Eastern Conference, even with a slow defense.
Vigneault's impact in New York has been gradual and important, but the Rangers weren't a fragile team when he was hired over the summer. They felt they needed a change from Tortorella, but they were virtually the same team that reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season. With Lundqvist, a deep defense and some firepower up front, expectations were for the Rangers to be a playoff team, which they should be.
The Flyers, though, clearly needed Berube's honesty and defense-first mentality to help them change the fortunes of their season. He gets the edge.