Who’s On First?

Who's On First

If you’ve ever seen Abbott and Costello, then you know where the title of this post comes from. The memorable “Who’s On First?” sketch remains one that is still played on the radio airwaves on WFAN in New York by Steve Somers.

Of course, it’s a baseball reference. So, it has nothing to do with hockey. However, when you look at how coach Alain Vigneault manages the Rangers, it definitely applies. As his team gets healthier minus Henrik Lundqvist down the stretch, Vigneault has more options when it comes to the lineup.

With Jesper Fast set to return from a separated shoulder for tomorrow’s home match versus the Panthers, the gritty third-year Swede will do so at the expense of rookie forward Pavel Buchnevich. That is the decision Vigneault came to. Both puzzling and troubling. Not in the sense that the 21-year old Russian can’t be sat. He can. Vigneault is correct that he still needs work defensively to become a more consistent offensive player.

However, it makes you roll your eyes when Tanner Glass is still in the lineup. Nothing against the proud veteran who had a feel good return scoring a goal and assist in a win. But he’s not an everyday player. That’s why he plays on the fourth line and sees limited action. Glass brings a physical element and edge that’s been missing. But he shouldn’t be used daily.

Newell Brown, Raffi Torres, Alain Vigneault, Chris Higgins, Tanner Glass

Alain Vigneault and Tanner Glass in Vancouver with the Canucks. A combo the Rangers still have despite better forward depth. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NESN.

We’ve been here before with Vigneault and his favorite pupil who played for him in Vancouver the year they made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. The ending at home against Boston was cruel. It had little to do with Glass. But rather Vigneault’s star players failing to perform up to expectation. What should’ve been the Canucks’ first championship instead was the Bruins’ sixth.

Since 2010-11, Glass has played for Winnipeg, Pittsburgh before signing a three-year contract with the Rangers in the summer of 2014. One that was met with plenty of opposition. Even I couldn’t understand it. But Vigneault played him in 66 regular season games with Glass scoring a goal with five assists to go with 98 penalty minutes and 213 hits, which ranked second on the team. During the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, he played 19 games and had an assist with 31 PIM.

In his second season, he didn’t make the roster right away. Instead, Glass went down to Hartford after clearing waivers. By December, he was recalled and never went back. He improved his production scoring four times with three assists and 66 PIM. Glass led the team with 213 hits in 57 contests and got into four games in a first round loss to the Pens.

Last off-season, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton made some key additions to address the lack of forward depth by adding Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri while signing college rookie free agent Jimmy Vesey and Buchnevich. Along with a salary dump of popular Blueshirt Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick which became defenseman Brendan Smith, Gorton has done a good job.

The added depth meant Glass went down to Hartford because there was no room for him. He didn’t sulk. Instead, the 33-year old played in 57 games totaling six goals and nine assists with 86 PIM. It was following a humiliation a couple of weeks ago against an improved Montreal in which they pushed the Rangers around at home (why wouldn’t they?) that the organization had seen enough.

Up came Glass. He impressed in his first NHL game of the season by taking on the bigger Luke Witkowski in a fight that last 67 seconds at Tampa. He also delivered a couple of thumping hits and crashed the net causing a scrum. Something that rubbed off on his normally passive teammates, who played with more edge. Even Vesey went back at a Lightning player. It was a welcome change with the Blueshirts posting a 1-0 overtime win with Zibanejad the hero along with Antti Raanta (38 saves).

For an encore, Glass scored his first goal on a rebound by parking himself in front and helping set up Nick Holden’s goal in a 5-2 win at Florida. It was the gritty Glass who perfectly screened James Reimer allowing Holden to score.

When it comes to the player who has been widely discussed on social media, it remains a sore subject for many fans. Why did Vigneault have Glass out in the final minute over Buchnevich down a goal in a frustrating 4-3 loss at Carolina? He did get to a rebound but was stopped. But he’s not an offensive guy. Rather a role player who can inject life with his energy when it’s needed.

In a 4-1 win over Detroit, Glass had six hits in 16 shifts (11:05) while playing on the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Vesey. In a predictable 3-2 home defeat to the Lightning in which they allowed only 16 shots, Glass was on for a goal against with two hits in 10 minutes. In the same game, Buchnevich missed a point blank chance wide hanging his head on the bench. He wasn’t the only one. As usual, Rick Nash generated but frustrated. Zibanejad missed a wide open one-timer on a power play. That was the story.

Vigneault had gone back to a combo that worked earlier with Buchnevich and Nash playing with Zibanejad. While they have created chances, they haven’t finished enough. So, Buchnevich gets victimized while Glass stays in on the fourth line. To be honest, he’s a better fit on that line.

Someone will just have to explain to me how Fast is now on a third line with Kevin Hayes and Grabner while Vesey is mismanaged on the fourth line. Nothing against Fast, who can move up when necessary and give that extra effort in the corners. But if the coach isn’t gonna put his more talented first-year players in a position to succeed, there’s no hope for the future.

It’s the same old song and dance with Vigneault. Everyone knows that Glass is best suited as a 13th forward you can occasionally insert. The Rangers’ best lineup has to have Buchnevich and Vesey in the top nine. But the issue is Grabner has such great chemistry with Hayes and J.T. Miller, it’s hard to move him down. Vesey got a look on that third line with Grabner out but didn’t score.

Some have also wondered why Vesey never comes out while Buchnevich does. Maybe it’s because Vesey is a couple of years older and more mature. The coaching staff trusts him more. But not enough to elevate to the third line with Miller replacing Buchnevich on the second unit. It’s mystifying.

The concern is this. Are we about to see Vigneault again not utilize his lineup the right way in the playoffs? The way he miscast rental Eric Staal and stuck him on the wing with Hayes in a combo that never worked while not trying Staal on the point of the power play. Staal’s recovered just fine with the Wild tied for the team lead in goals (23) with his 53 points ranking second. Interesting, the 53 points would put him first on the Rangers. Three ahead of Miller, who’s 50 are a career best. So are Chris Kreider’s 26 goals and 48 points. Hayes has a career high 47 points.

What happens when Dan Girardi is finally healthy along with Kevin Klein? Obviously, Steven Kampfer comes out. A player who has impressed enough to make chart darling Adam Clendening the odd man out. But what about the D pairings? Girardi is higher on the depth chart than Klein, who’s looked broken all year from debilitating injuries.

Vigneault can’t be serious keeping Marc Staal paired up with Ryan McDonagh. It’s produced mixed results. The negative being the winning goal they allowed to Brayden Point on Monday. A play in which Staal over committed going for the poke taking him out of the play and McDonagh failing to check Point for a tap in. Staal just doesn’t have the foot speed anymore and is best suited as a third pair guy.

That would mean elevating Brady Skjei or keeping him with Staal. But Skjei is a rookie left D. He’s seen limited action with McDonagh late in games. A pair I’d like to see more of. Holden and Staal were effective in the first half but have fallen on hard times. Holden has worked better with Smith, who stays in the top four regardless. If not, then it’s a fail and poor reflection on the coach.

Maybe have Girardi play with Skjei on the third pair and Klein becomes the extra. Regardless, the Glass issue isn’t going away. No matter who the Rangers draw in the first round, it will be tough. It’s up to Vigneault to make the best decisions that give his team the best chance to be successful.

So, Who’s On First?

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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