For all intent and purposes, tonight is Game 30 of a 82-game schedule for the Rangers who are visiting Edmonton on the night Glen Sather is honored for past achievements with the Oilers. While it’s all about the former Edmonton architect who built a dynasty around Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Alain Vigneault is also coaching his 1,000th NHL game.
Since taking over for John Tortorella, Vigneault has had great success guiding the team to its first Stanley Cup appearance since ’94, winning a President’s Trophy and coming within a period of consecutive Finals. The more laid back 54-year old has a excellent resume twice reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Once with Vancouver and once with New York. Both were heart breaking losses. The Canucks falling in seven losing Game 7 at home to the Bruins in ugly fashion. The Rangers losing in five to Los Angeles who were overtime Kings.
In Year 3 of a five-year contract that pays him $10 million total, Vigneault has the Blueshirts in solid position. Following a hot start where Henrik Lundqvist carried them to a 14-3-1 mark, they’ve fallen back down to 18-8-3 with their 39 points placing them second in the Metro Division behind the Capitals. Despite losing six of eight (2-5-1) entering Friday’s match at Edmonton, they remain one of the league’s best with their 39 points fourth most trailing first overall Dallas (44), Eastern leader Montreal (41) and Washington (40). The Islanders, Kings and Red Wings all have 37.
For the Rangers, there’s cause for concern. Since Derek Stepan went down to broken ribs, the offense has stagnated. He sustained the injury on a Matt Beleskey hit at Boston which drew the ire of tough rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath who responded by pounding the Bruins forward. They’re 2-3-1 since Stepan’s injury. In the two wins over Carolina and Ottawa, they scored four times in each. The win over the Sens was more impressive due to the team playing one of its best overall games. When they were consistently winning, it was in spite of getting badly outplayed.
There were too many instances where opponents were out-possessing them at even strength creating lopsided shots and chances against. Puck management has been an issue. Vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have struggled with consistency. However, they aren’t alone. Even Ryan McDonagh and Keith Yandle have turned pucks over. Dan Boyle has been hit or miss although he deserves credit for improvement since returning to the lineup. The club is without Kevin Klein (abdominal strain) who’s been their best defenseman since last season. He has seen time with McDonagh, Staal and Yandle. McIlrath has impressed since being paired with Yandle. They rarely give up much and are significant pluses in shot differential. What does that mean for McIlrath once Klein comes back?
While most of the focus has been on the play of the blueline, there’s another potential issue plaguing the team. The play of Chris Kreider has been puzzling. In his third full season under Vigneault, the 24-year old power forward hasn’t played like one. A player with size, strength and game breaking speed, Kreider has struggled mightily. In 29 games thus far, he has a disappointing four goals and eight assists totaling a dozen points. He has just one goal and one helper over the last 11 contests.
It isn’t a question of commitment. As has been reiterated by those who cover him, he has one of the highest work ethics. A gym rat, Kreider is one of the most physically gifted forwards in the league. With him recently admitting that he’s been “terrible,” the problem is more mental. A great skater who’s a puck possession magnet, he gets chances nightly. But as his 6.7 shooting percentage attests, he hasn’t been finishing. He has four goals on 60 shots with many other attempts missing its target. Normally, he’s around 11 percent.
In his rookie year of ’13-14, Kreider scored 17 goals on 136 shots (12.5 percent). He had 21 on 180 (11.7) last season. There’s reason to believe he’ll start burying a few and snap out of it. It’s more about consistency. There have been too many shifts where number 20 hasn’t been noticeable. He shows flashes with his speed creating opportunities. But the hands haven’t been there.
More notably, the edge has been lacking. A player who developed a reputation for making goalies’ lives miserable hasn’t played with the same purpose. He still finishes checks with his 61 hits fourth best on the club. Somewhat curiously, J.T. Miller who isn’t handled the same by Vigneault has a identical stat line (4-8-12) with a higher shooting percentage (9.8) and four more hits (65). A more active player who is mistake prone, Miller averages 12:58 per game compared with Kreider’s 15:59. Mystifying is that Miller ranks 17th on the team in ice-time behind checking forwards Dominic Moore (14:34), Jesper Fast (14:15) and face-off ace Jarret Stoll (13:47). Only rookie Oscar Lindberg (12:49), Vigneault pet Emerson Etem (11:33), Viktor Stalberg (11:28) and Tanner Glass (9:35) receive less. Kevin Hayes averages 13:58.
If you’re wondering why the offense has struggled lately, look no further than leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. The pint sized Norwegian with the giant sized heart still leads the team in goals (11) and points (22). But coinciding with Vigneault breaking up the top line, he is without a point in four straight. Zuccarello has four points (2-2-4) over the last 10. After scoring six goals in four straight, Rick Nash is without one in six. Top center Derick Brassard has performed admirably with five points in the last five including a two-goal game in a 4-1 win over Ottawa. His improvement on face-offs (54.0 percent) has been notable. With him, Stoll and Moore winning draws consistently along with Lindberg, who’s over 50 percent in Year 1, a team weakness has become a strength.
While they win more draws than they lose especially with Stepan out, the offense is too reliant on the top line. That’s why Vigneault broke it up. He’s tried Kreider with Lindberg and Nash. Lindberg has been impressive ranking second on the team in goals (10) and fourth in points (17). That’s despite getting less ice-time. He’s shown a willingness to go to high traffic areas and mix it up. What if they had him for last postseason? He sure would’ve been a huge improvement over Glass on the fourth line. It makes you wonder what the organization thought process is sometimes.
It’s now mid-December and Vigneault has yet to figure out what his second line should be. Last season, it was mostly Martin St. Louis with Stepan and Kreider. A unit that was reliable until St. Louis slumped badly with Miller replacing him. Obviously, having Stepan out doesn’t help. It’s forced Vigneault to juggle the lines. How he still hasn’t defined a role for Etem at this point is inexcusable. A 23-year old former Anaheim first round pick in 2010 who they traded Carl Hagelin for. In ’14-15, St. Louis and Hagelin combined for 38 goals and 87 points. It’s hard to replace that type of production along with the leadership and intangibles they provided.
Kreider isn’t the only key forward struggling. In Year 2, Hayes has been up and down. His 15 points are fifth on the club. The 23-year old ‘tweener possesses great skating and puck possession skills. More play maker than finisher, Hayes prefers to be unselfish setting up teammates. Between 10/22 and 11/14, he went 4-5-9 in 10 games while centering the third line. Since, he has only a goal and two helpers over the last 12. A talented player with size, the Rangers need better production from Hayes. Until they get more out of the Boston College duo of Kreider and Hayes, the offense will continue to fizzle.
There needs to be better balance. Whether it’s due to Vigneault emphasizing offense off the rush with the stretch pass or just young players who haven’t hit their stride, something must change. In the loss at Vancouver, they were better overall controlling play while generating more shots and chances. But the lack of finish hurt with the power play unable to get anything.
With Moore centering the third line and Stoll the fourth, it limits offense 5-on-5. Neither is productive enough to warrant the ice-time they’re getting. Granted, each is a key part of the penalty kill. But they’re still getting too many shifts at the expense of younger talent. I can’t think of one good reason Lindberg doesn’t play more. Ditto Miller who even with his brain farts is one of their most effective fore-checkers. You have to let the kids grow.
As for Etem, 10 games isn’t enough of a gauge. Stalberg and Glass are role players who don’t have to play every night. Vigneault needs to find a place for Etem and just let him sink or swim. He’s got more skill than the defensive minded players he trusts. It’s time to find out about him.
Until the coach is willing to make necessary adjustments with the roster that can benefit the team over the long haul, it’s hard to see much improvement with the offense.