Is it time for Rangers to consider breaking it up

Alex Ovechkin, Dylan McIlrath

Dylan McIlrath can’t stop Alex Ovechkin from going around him and firing home his 27th past Antti Raanta in another disappointing Rangers’ loss to the Caps. AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

It was another roller coaster for the Rangers this weekend. After pulling out a win over the Flyers in the shootout, they were outplayed in a 5-2 defeat to the Eastern heavyweight Capitals. So they concluded a three-game road trip against Metropolitan Division rivals 1-2-0. The one win coming in a skill competition after being unable to protect a one-goal lead after two periods Saturday in Philadelphia.

Frankly, it’s not good enough. Not for a team that had great expectations after falling a period short of consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances. Since winning twice in a row back on Nov. 21 and Nov. 23, the Rangers have been unable to string two straight together. They have become consistently inconsistent. That was never more evident than when they followed up a good first period with a mystifying second in which the more skilled Caps outscored them 2-1 to take a 3-2 lead.

The really galling thing is at any moment, they can implode. For nearly a full 20 minutes, they had the better of play against the league’s best team at least in the regular season. The reemergence of Chris Kreider continued with him getting the first of two goals on a nice redirect from Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello that gave the Blueshirts their only lead. He also sniped against the Flyers on a Rick Nash rebound giving him three goals in two games. A productive weekend for a inconsistent player who’s finally showing signs. Kreider now has nine goals in 43 games. More was expected for the physically gifted forward in Year 3. He’ll turn restricted this summer.

As we noted, the Rangers had control of the first. Then Dan Boyle took a bad penalty which they killed against a dangerous Washington unit featuring Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They forced Braden Holtby into tough saves which he made before exiting due to dehydration before the conclusion of the second. However, a lack of discipline was their undoing. Another bad penalty- this time by Derick Brassard resulted in a passive penalty kill backing in which allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to find Ovechkin, who schooled Dylan McIlrath and beat Antti Raanta for his 27th at 18:01.

Just like that, the game was tied. The momentum was gone. On the next shift, Mike Richards nearly scored off a Ranger turnover. Only Raanta’s goal stick prevented disaster. It was his first start since Dec. 28. It’s still hard to fathom how Richards didn’t finish. He’s getting a second chance with the Caps in a fourth line role under coach Barry Trotz. Does he still have something to contribute positive after battling off-ice demons with substance abuse? That won’t be answered yet.

The real issue for the Rangers is the amount of loyalty coach Alain Vigneault continues to show Dan Girardi and to a lesser extent Marc Staal. Both have been unquestioned leaders who’ve been an integral part of past rosters that made runs in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Each is signed long-term with no-trade clauses and immovable contracts both earned off past performance. Former architect Glen Sather made a choice two years ago when he went with Girardi over Ryan Callahan sending the former captain to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis. He overpaid in draft picks including a conditional with St. Louis helping lead the team to its first Stanley Cup trip since ’94.

It was understandable why Sather chose the defensemen over the blood and guts forward whose role decreased under Vigneault, who preferred speed and skill along with transition. Certainly not Callahan’s strengths. In doing so, the Hall of Fame coach/executive who built a dynasty in Edmonton took huge risks with two core players who play through pain. When they were eliminated by the Lightning in a bitter Game 7 defeat at MSG, it was later revealed that most of the back end played with significant injuries. That included Girardi and Staal, who each required off season surgery. McDonagh had a broken foot. Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein also played hurt with Klein returning after missing the first round.

When it comes down to it, no one would ever question this team’s desire to win. They are a very likable group. One that will do whatever it takes. Unfortunately, the window looks to be closing. Undoubtedly, the Rangers have played a lot of hockey the last four years. They have gone deep in three. One with John Tortorella when they overachieved and the last two with Vigneault, who squeezed as much as he could out of them. As much blame as he shares for his usage this season, he’s also the only coach in franchise history responsible for playoff comebacks from 3-1 down doing it twice in his first two years on the job. Both came in the second round against bitter rivals Pittsburgh and Washington.

From the brilliant play of Henrik Lundqvist out to the leadership of a group featuring McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, St. Louis, Brassard, Nash, Zuccarello, Kreider, Derek Stepan, Dominic Moore and Dan Boyle, who replaced Anton Stralman (that one still hurts), they got it done. With it looking over against the Caps late in Game 5 last year, they could’ve given up. Instead, Stepan set up Kreider and then McDonagh in one of those you had to be there Garden moments. They won Game 6 holding on with Ovechkin guaranteeing a Game 7 win. It looked like he’d be right. Instead, Stepan played the ultimate hero in sudden death. Even when they fell short to Tampa, every Blueshirt did their part. Even if getting shutout twice at home still leaves a bitter taste.

Sometimes, time runs out on teams. This appears to be the case in 2015-16. Since their hot start, the Rangers haven’t been the same. We’ve witnessed the steady decline of Girardi, who’s still willing. A heart and soul type who’s given so much to the organization after he signed as a free agent a decade ago, the prideful 31-year old is an honest type that every team needs. The hitting and shot blocking have taken its toll. It’s amazing that he’s still playing with a bad knee and hand. Know this. If his name is called, it’s the coaching staff who still trusts him. That blind faith has resulted in more goals against including him getting beat badly by Marcus Johansson on another power play goal that put the Caps ahead 2-1 in the second with McIlrath off.

When a player struggles, they are usually more noticeable. Unfortunately, it’s for the wrong reason. Following Johansson’s PPG, Girardi got caught out with Yandle for Justin Williams’ tip in 62 seconds later that made it 3-1 Caps. This one was more on the forwards with Stepan, Kreider and Zuccarello unable to clear the zone. Williams tipped in a Taylor Chorney shot pass.

Kreider got one back by getting to a Nash rebound and rifling one home past Holtby cutting it to 3-2 with 2:32 left in the second. At that exact moment, the Caps’ Vezina front runner skated to the bench and saw the team trainer before headed to the locker room. He didn’t return. Backup Philipp Grubauer relieved him. Logic said if the Rangers could test him early, they could tie or maybe even come back and win. But it didn’t play out that way. The Caps protected Grubauer in a well executed third while finishing the game off.

Williams got his second on a nice feed from Kuznetsov that increased to 4-2 at 4:51. This time, Girardi was caught out with Staal. Neither is a good skater which is why they struggle with speed and heavy forecheck pressure. They never got the puck out. It wasn’t entirely their fault. This one was on J.T. Miller, who gave away the puck to Andre Burakovsky. With Staal and Girardi scrambling, Kuznetsov found Williams in front for a tap in. A frustrated Miller slammed his stick against the net. Brassard and Zuccarello didn’t do the job either but they aren’t known for defense.

To their credit, the Caps played smart defensively. Even when they handed the Rangers a power play, it was mostly kept to the outside. While the Caps’ special teams flourished going 2-for-4 on the man-advantage and a perfect 4-for-4 on the penalty kill aided by an a corrected offside that overturned a Boyle power play tally with 54.6 seconds left, it was a total failure for the Rangers. They just don’t kill penalties consistently. They’re way too passive in the box. A no no against a supremely talented opponent. The penalty kill has suffered without Carl Hagelin, who debuted in the Pens’ 5-0 win over the Canes.

It’s worth noting that they were without Klein, who sat out due to a right thumb injury sustained against the Flyers. Even though he and partner McDonagh had tough games Saturday, Klein has been the team’s most consistent defenseman. He’s a smart, steady puck moving right-handed D who can get the puck out without the issues that plague Girardi. Girardi rotated between Staal, McDonagh and Yandle even though McIlrath mostly worked with Yandle. His struggles have forced the coaching staff to mix and match.

Williams completed his second career hat trick in bizarre fashion. His shot was going wide but took a favorable bounce off Brassard into the open net with 1:51 remaining. Those are the breaks you get when you’re going well. To be blunt, it was the first thing Brassard contributed this weekend. In other words, he might want to turn the page and get ready for Vancouver on Tuesday.

The trouble is the issues plaguing this team aren’t going away. Even in a weak Eastern Conference and mediocre division that has them a point behind the Islanders for second, they don’t have the look of a team that can go on a run. There are too many confusing moments where they lose their discipline or blow an assignment. How about that Girardi clear attempt right to Ovechkin for his 598th goal last week on Jan. 9? Or Kevin Hayes’ reverse to no one which forced McIlrath into a penalty which led directly to Johansson’s goal off a brilliant Backstrom feed. Hayes had two solid games following his benching scoring and setting up goals but s a turnover machine in his second year. His play remains mystifying.

There are many things wrong. Outside of maybe Brassard due to the goal production (15), no Blueshirt has outperformed ’14-15. Not even Lundqvist, who finally got a night off after starting 11 straigh. Even Zuccarello following the hot start has been hit or miss. Stepan’s play has picked up with rapid improvement in the faceoff circle. He went 13-and-10 making it four straight games he’s been over .500. In fact, Stepan is 50-and-27 (64.9 percent) during that span. Over an 11-game stretch dating back to Dec. 20 which also was coincidentally a bad loss to the Caps, Stepan is 118-and-83 (58.7 percent). That’s significant for a two-way center who has never been 50.0 percent in any season. Counting tonight, he’s now 245-and-260 making him 48.5 for the season.

”They’re the best team in the NHL right now, and if you get down a couple goals, defensively they’re so sound it’s tough to come back,” Stepan said. ”We have to find a way to try to climb back into it. We go into a third period down 3-2, but we just can’t find a way to get it done.”

What the Rangers must see from Stepan is more production. He tallied assists in two straight for the first time this season. In 35 contests, he has 16 points (8-8-16). Not enough from a proven performer who is in the first year of a new deal that pays him an average of $6.5 million per season. It would help if he had consistent linemates. For way too long, Vigneault has changed it up. Instead, he should continue to take a look at Stepan with Nash and Kreider. Especially with Kreider awakening. He’s a huge player if they’re to turn it around.

At this point, Miller should stay with Brassard and Zuccarello. Despite the turnover, Miller’s development has been a bright spot. He got his ninth goal on the power play on a perfect McDonagh outlet Saturday. A strong two-way forward who plays with purpose, he still needs to correct mistakes like the one he committed on the back breaking fourth Washington goal. But at this point, Miller is a top six forward.

As for Hayes, he’s the biggest mystery. There’s no denying the big man’s talent for carrying the puck and playing keep away. But it’s his decision making that needs improvement. The seven goals and 13 helpers isn’t what he’s capable of. It would be nice to see the unselfish Hayes shoot more. He must be more decisive. He’s still the key to the third line which for the moment is occupied by Oscar Lindberg (11 goals) and Jesper Fast (7 goals).

The lack of a consistent third line has hurt. It was in 2014 that Vigneault leaned on the cohesive trio of Brassard, Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot. Back then, they were a deeper team with Brad Richards anchoring Nash and Hagelin while Stepan worked with Kreider and St. Louis. That team also had puck possession penalty kill ace Brian Boyle on the fourth line with Moore and Derek Dorsett/Daniel Carcillo. A much better balance than the current roster or last year’s. Don’t forget the value of puck possession beast Stralman, who was a perfect complement to Staal on the blue line. Had they kept him, he could’ve replaced Girardi on the top pair. Then they could’ve had Klein with Staal.

That’s why it’s imperative to manage the cap. A sore spot for Garden Faithful. With Girardi and Staal now anchors, it’s put Vigneault in a tough spot. He’s decided to go with his guys. Being loyal to a fault could be his downfall. He’s a coach who puts trust the players he likes. As we’ve seen with Tanner Glass, who also was on the Canucks when they lost to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, Vigneault will stick with hard working character types. To Glass’s credit, he’s been better in his second opportunity fitting in with Moore and Viktor Stalberg on the fourth line.

The question for the organization is at what point do they decide that the roster isn’t good enough to go deep. It’s one they’ll struggle with. They know this group is capable of better results. But it’s not on par with the past two rosters. A lot must happen between now and the Feb. 29 trade deadline on Leap Year. There must be more consistency from everyone including Nash, who remains stuck on 12 goals. That’s 30 less than last year. He must start finishing again. Since a four-game spurt where he scored six goals between 11/21-27, he has only four over his last 22. Mind boggling considering the chances he gets nightly.

”It’s up to us players on the ice to figure it out and do the job,” Nash added. ”Us players have got to do a better job.”

If they can’t figure it out over the next few weeks, then new GM Jeff Gorton faces a tough decision. What does he do with the roster? Does Yandle become available a year after Sather threw the gauntlet at the Coyotes giving away Anthony Duclair along with fancy picks sacrificing the future to win at all costs? Yandle is interesting. Clearly their best offensive defenseman, he leads them with 23 points (2-21-23) from the back end. His eight power play points (1-7-8) rank behind McDonagh (2-7-9) and Boyle (2-7-9), whom Vigneault opts to go with on the top unit. Yandle doesn’t see enough power play shifts due to being on the second unit. He also continues to be on the third pairing and never kills penalties. He’s being underutilized. Why would he want to re-sign here?

At some point, Gorton must decide if it’s worth exploring the trade market for Yandle. He can recoup draft picks and prospects if there’s a team willing to rent him with hopes of negotiating an extension. Another intriguing idea is seeing if anyone’s interested in Boyle. Even at 39, he’s still proven capable of quarterbacking a power play. Nine of his 14 points have come on the man-advantage including two PPG’s. He had a third wiped out by a offside. Would the Sharks consider a reunion in hopes of getting in due to a weak Pacific? They have long range bomber Brent Burns (18 goals). But another right shot for the second unit that they’re familiar with is possible but unlikely. He’s earning $4.5 million and unrestricted this summer. San Jose doesn’t have much room.

For now, there’s no help coming on Broadway. With 37 games left, it’s up to the current personnel to figure it out.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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