As they start the second part of their schedule with the Bruins visiting MSG later, the Rangers find themselves at a crossroads. After going 15-3-2 thru their first 20 games, they’re 6-11-3 since. Even by earning three out of four points against the Stars and Caps in better performances, they’re no longer a playoff lock.
Tied in points (49) with the Islanders for second in the Metro despite holding the tiebreaker in regulation/overtime wins (21) and one less game played (41), the Rangers are only two up on both wildcards, Boston and New Jersey. Each have 47 points. The playoff picture is tightening up. The Lightning and Senators have 46. The Penguins have 45. Both the Flyers and Hurricanes have 43.
Since defeating the Panthers on 11/21 and Predators on 11/23, the Rangers have not won consecutive games. Instead, they’ve struggled with consistency. Their best players haven’t been. From the goal out to a defense that’s fallen off dramatically, this isn’t the same team that went to a Stanley Cup Final and within a period of a return trip the first two seasons under Alain Vigneault. A coach who’s shown too much loyalty to Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
It’s understandable why Vigneault would stick with core guys who have given their blood and guts to the cause. Without either, the team doesn’t become elite making the Final Four in three of the past four years. That underlying fact can’t be disputed. It’s understood that Girardi and Staal have been reliable top and second pair defensemen during this span. It’s easy to forget that each played big roles in stifling tough competition that featured Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. No matter what you believe in, they were part of the solution.
Unfortunately, time hasn’t been kind to either. The decline for each has been rapid. It’s also worth pointing out that both Girardi and Staal were coming off injuries. The same can be echoed for anchor Ryan McDonagh, whose play has also slipped even though he’s an All-Star for the first time in his career. Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein also played hurt with the latter just returning from a oblique strain. Only Dan Boyle has remained relatively healthy. From that standpoint, it isn’t surprising that his play has improved with him becoming a fixture on the top power play unit.
The dilemma facing Vigneault is that his loyalty could be getting in the way. Since Girardi returned from a crack in his right kneecap, he has played in all five games along with Klein. He continues to be on the first pair with McDonagh despite their shortcomings. He’s played over 20 minutes in three of the five and for the season averages the second most ice-time (20:21) behind McDonagh (22:54). In the 4-3 loss to the Caps, he was responsible for Ovechkin’s power play goal which was a nightmare to end the first period. He also got caught pinching on Justin Williams’ second period tally with partner McDonagh beaten.
Unfortunately, simple plays like clearing the zone have become an issue for Girardi and Staal, who at times handles the puck like a grenade. Staal is three years younger than Girardi and will turn 29 in two days. Girardi doesn’t turn 32 until April 29 when hopefully, there will be meaningful hockey played at The Garden. Staal gets the fourth most ice-time averaging 19:34 which trails Klein, who’s at 19:53. Boyle is fifth (19:14). Astonishingly, Yandle is sixth at 19:09 which makes no sense given his skill set. He leads all Ranger blueliners in assists (20) and points (22).
Part of the problem is Vigneault prefers to have his lefties paired with a right-handed defenseman. So, rather than try Yandle with McDonagh and load up the first pair, he is set in his ways. That means Girardi stays with McDonagh while Klein works with Yandle leaving Staal to play with Boyle.
That leaves Dylan McIlrath out of the equation. The 23-year old rookie who demonstrated that he’s fully capable of being in the top six worked best with Yandle on the third pair. In fact, their play together was more effective at 5-on-5 than either of the other two pairings. If you want to argue that they faced lesser quality of competition as compared with McDonagh and Girardi or Staal, Klein or Boyle, go right ahead.
What can’t be disputed is that McIlrath’s size, strength and toughness are a characteristic the defense has lacked since Dion Phaneuf ended Mike Sauer’s career. It took some time for the former 2010 first round pick to develop. After overcoming injuries, he improved dramatically under Hartford assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom. A player who knows a thing or two about playing the game with the same purpose McIlrath brings. Too often, the Rangers’ D are pushed off the puck by attacking forecheckers or turnover prone with the latter causing them to lose possession.
Even more puzzling is Vigneault’s insistence that Girardi and Staal are ‘better overall defensemen’ than McIlrath. Maybe off their resumes, the answer is a resounding yes. However, we’re dealing with reality. Each has regressed. It happens when heart and soul types wear down. The same thing is happening in Tampa Bay with former captain Ryan Callahan. Ditto in Hollywood with Kings captain Dustin Brown. The common denominator is all four players have big contracts that pay them top dollar. It’s a lot easier to play a forward less time on a different line than a defenseman who makes what Girardi ($5.5 million) and Staal ($5.7 million) earn on average. Both have no-move clauses. Girardi’s expires this year and becomes a modified no-trade between 2017-19. Staal has a NMC thru 2017 with a modified NT between 2018-20.
Basically, former GM Glen Sather put Jeff Gorton in a difficult position. At some point, the new Rangers GM must try to dump one or both of the contracts. Finding a taker for either player won’t be easy. How many teams can use experienced veteran defensemen? Unless it’s Buffalo, Edmonton or even Columbus with old pal John Tortorella who just got himself a potential stud in Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, the Rangers will have to include a young forward (Kreider, Hayes, Lindberg?) or more draft picks which they don’t have.
Even worse, Yandle might become available before the Feb. 29 deadline. If the report from Sportsnet’s Damien Cox on Hockey Night In Canada is accurate that he isn’t likely to negotiate an extension, then the Rangers must think long and hard about what to do. A player Sather overpaid for last deadline with top prospect Anthony Duclair, a 2016 lottery protected first and 2015 second round pick along with John Moore, who was an expendable part. Ironically, he now plays in New Jersey and is helping them challenge for a playoff spot.
So, when will we see Vigneault change? Outside of healthy scratching Hayes for two games and Lindberg, who will sit out tonight with Chris Kreider back after missing two games. Lindberg is out despite registering a goal Saturday giving him points in two straight. Can anyone explain why Jesper Fast remains on the third line and Lindberg gets a seat in the press box? Because he likes the fourth line. To be honest, Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg have been good lately.
Vets get more leniency from the coach. If Girardi still has swelling in his knee, why does he get so many minutes? Shouldn’t Vigneault be micromanaging him? He can sub Klein in to work with McDonagh. He was out for Nicklas Backstrom’s tying goal with 5.7 seconds left after coming on for Girardi. What about sitting Staal? I get that he’s a team leader. But it’s okay to rest him. He’s played in all 41. Anyone can see that he’s fighting it. Is Vigneault that reluctant to use Yandle on the second pair and play two righties together even if it means getting McIlrath back in?
With every point so crucial, I don’t see it changing much. That means the coach is going to lean heavily on his guys. It doesn’t matter if we disagree.