Smoke and Mirrors

J.T. Miller;  Derek Stepan;The Rangers have been winning with smoke and mirrors. I hate to say that. But they’re not getting enough contributions from key players.

Let’s start with the center tandem of Derek Stepan and Mika Zibanejad. Each are without a goal over their last 15 games. Both haven’t exactly produced enough. Stepan has six assists while Zibanejad has five helpers during that span. That’s their top two centers. At some point, they have to start finishing. Zibanejad has looked better the past few games. Maybe he’ll finally catch a break this weekend.

It’s more concerning that Stepan has not performed consistently. While he is a streaky player, he’s being counted on more than last year. Even with Kevin Hayes’ and J.T. Miller’s improvement along with top sniper Michael Grabner giving the team better offensive balance, they still need Stepan to produce. His 42 points are still tied for third in team scoring with Hayes, who missed five games.

While it’s true Stepan is more of a set up man as proven by his 30 assists which are second behind Mats Zuccarello’s 31, he still must remember to think shot. A very unselfish two-way player, he’s relied on by coach Alain Vigneault to match top lines, play power play and penalty kill. With that comes large responsibility. He’s definitely a team leader in the room.

Complicating matters, he gets a bulk of power play time mostly on the top unit. It’s really gone stale. There’s a reason they’ve slumped badly. At 3 for the last 35, it’s definitely not a positive. At least the second unit featuring Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Brady Skjei and Rick Nash were able to generate enough momentum for Miller’s tying goal in the third period after the power play expired. That along with Henrik Lundqvist allowed them to prevail in a shootout over Toronto.

Stepan only has one power play goal but his 10 power play assists are second on the club. Right behind captain Ryan McDonagh’s 11. They play together usually with Zuccarello and Chris Kreider. The fifth player depends on the coaching staff. Jimmy Vesey has been given time in that spot. He’s rewarded them with five of his 14 goals coming on the man-advantage. That puts the rookie in a four-way tie for the team lead with Kreider, Nash and Pirri.

Astonishingly, Zibanejad remains without a power play goal. Hard to believe given his deadly release from the off side. He has that howitzer which the team has lacked. A big right shot, he can one-time pucks from the left circle and make it tough on opponents. But it hasn’t translated. He does have five power play assists with some of those heavy shots resulting in rebound goals. With seven goals in 35 games and none since a two-goal game on 1/17 in a 7-6 loss to Dallas, he must be better. Stepan also last scored twice in that same game.

They aren’t the only forwards slumping. Kreider quietly has just one point (assist) in his last six. That means no goals from the emerging power forward since establishing a new career high 22 in a 4-3 win over Nashville on Feb. 9. He’s only totaled six shots over the last five. Not enough for a player of his caliber.

The always active Grabner is without a point in the last five. He gets chances daily but they haven’t gone in. He was robbed by Frederik Andersen on a shorthanded bid when he shot the puck back into the Toronto netminder. With how well he’s played, figure the streaky speed demon to find the back of the net soon.

Even the always noticeable Zuccarello is just 1-1-2 over the previous six. The difference with the pint sized Norwegian with the giant sized heart is he’s always involved. Nobody plays bigger than the creative 29-year old former Steven McDonald Award winner. He will mix it up with anyone and let them know he’s there. That’s what makes him a fan favorite.

It might be time for Vigneault to try some different combinations. We don’t advise him to do anything with the third and fourth lines. Though I do prefer Pavel Buchnevich over Pirri even though the latter had a good game helping set up Miller’s tying marker. It’s the top six that needs adjusting. Maybe it’s time to split up Kreider and Zuccarello to give Stepan and Zibanejad a different look. Stepan has always played well with Kreider. Why not reunite the USA duo?

Zibanejad can still use the crafty Zuccarello but maybe it should be with Nash. Vesey has good chemistry with Stepan. But he plays the left side like Kreider. They could try Zuccarello on the right side and have Kreider play with Zibanejad and Nash. Nash, Stepan and Kreider have played together before. It all depends on Vigneault.

I don’t see how he can keep the top two lines the same. They aren’t getting it done. While they’re creating chances, there isn’t enough finish. Vesey and Nash are very active during their shifts while Stepan’s been more on the perimeter. Zibanejad hasn’t clicked with Kreider and Zuccarello. They could always flip the lines and put the dynamic duo back with Stepan while having Nash and Vesey work with Zibanejad.

The problem as I see it is there’s no room for Buchnevich. A skilled young forward who can both score and set up equally. He had great chemistry with Zibanejad at the start of the season. But when he missed two months with the back issue, it screwed things up. Don’t forget Zibanejad missed approximately the same with the broken leg. Initially, Vigneault reunited them for the Dallas game and they both were factors. Soon after, they were broken up.

As the roster got healthier, the coach had to make a tough choice between Vesey and Buchnevich. Neither belong on the fourth line. He’s still been fair to each in rewarding them with power play time. But when one is buried, they aren’t getting ideal ice-time at even strength.

Factor in that Vigneault manages the shifts the new fourth line gets. A cohesive pair in Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, who work well together. With Pirri in place of Buchnevich, they had another effective night. It becomes about finding consistency for that line to be rewarded in third periods.

Sometimes, the coach will shorten up. He trusts Fast enough to use him in a defensive role. He’s earned it. He still doesn’t fully trust Lindberg, who is the team’s second best face-off man behind Zibanejad. Lindberg has blown a few assignments. But so have Stepan, Zibanejad and Hayes. No one is perfect.

It’s great that the team is winning. They are getting contributions from more sources due to improved depth. That includes key addition Nick Holden to the blue line. He receives over 20 minutes a night, ranking just behind anchor McDonagh.

Rookie Brady Skjei has been splendid in the second half. His skating is superb and uncanny ability to jump into the rush makes him an offensive threat. While he still gets pushed off the puck occasionally, his speed is a weapon allowing the Rangers to get out of the zone in transition. He has really matured and looks like he could have a higher ceiling than the captain. A high compliment.

Vigneault has managed Dan Girardi better. He is now below 19 minutes on average. Last year, he received over 20. Too much when he was playing hurt. His ice-time has decreased by at least a minute since ’14-15. Marc Staal also is below 20 coming in at around 19. Skjei’s emergence along with Holden have helped Vigneault limit the ice-time of the two old warriors on the back end.

Kevin Klein’s minutes have decreased. He’s used more on the third pair with Skjei, who has seen a spike in his ice-time. It might be time to move Skjei up and see if he’s ready for prime time. But the coach prefers the traditional left/right combo for each pair. Though Holden has worked with Staal most of the year.

Adam Clendening has been serviceable when he’s gotten in. But they don’t trust him. If they did, he’d still get power play shifts. He is a bit of an adventure in his end. So, that explains why he’s not in the top six. But he’s been solid when given the chance.

The biggest difference right now is Lundqvist. He’s on fire going 10-2-1 in his last 14 games with a 1.91 goals-against-average, .939 save percentage and a shutout. In February, he’s 7-1-1 with a 2.35 GAA and .943 save percentage. Without our franchise goalie returning to form, the team wouldn’t be winning consistently.

At some point, the key cogs are going to have to step up. Sooner rather than later.

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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