Inept offense deserves criticism for Rangers’ poor start

Chris Kreider celebrates with Nash

Where’s The Offense? It’s been missing so far for the Rangers, who face the Devils tonight needing a win to avoid a 1-5-0 start. 

This isn’t the start anyone envisioned. After falling in Columbus 3-1, the Rangers are 1-4-0 entering tonight’s home match against the Hudson rival Devils.

It’s not only the defense which has been inconsistent thus far despite going with eight D. It’s been the lack of offense that hasn’t come close to producing the amount of goals needed to win on a nightly basis. They’ve scored 11 goals in five games for an average of 2.20 goals-per-game, ranking 17th out of 31.

The only dreadful performance was the 8-5 humiliation at Toronto last Saturday on Hockey Night On Canada. A game that saw the very talented Leafs chase Henrik Lundqvist for five goals after one period. Every other game has been close. They couldn’t beat Semyon Varlamov in a disappointing 4-2 season opener at home which set the tone.

The lone win came against the even more inept Canadiens. A 2-0 shutout last Sunday.    Montreal had more shots and plenty of attempts compared to the Rangers. But it didn’t matter due to Lundqvist. A look at the two defeats by identical 3-1 margins to the Blues and Blue Jackets and it’s the same recipe. An offense that isn’t performing up to expectation.

St. Louis backup Carter Hutton again stonewalled them at every turn. Jaden Schwartz scored an empty netter to end the misery. Following a flat start that saw Columbus have a goal wiped out 27 seconds in due to goalie interference on Matt Calvert, they woke up and controlled a majority of the first period on Friday night.

Kevin Hayes became just the fourth Blueshirt forward to score a goal so far, joining Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller. And that’s where the problem lies. Somehow, Chris Kreider has no goals. He had a good game last night coming close but that doesn’t matter. At some point, he along with Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey have to finish.

Alain Vigneault has tried mixing his other three lines in a desperate attempt to get something going. They only got one past Sergei Bobrovsky, who proved why he’s the game’s best goalie. The one line that’s stayed intact is Zibanejad, Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Buchnevich has shown improvement in his second year by coming out with more pucks and assisting on three goals. He does need to put away some of his chances. Mainly Zibanejad, whose four power play goals and five overall easily lead the Rangers.

After Zibanejad, no Ranger has more than one goal. In fact, only three skaters have over three points with Kevin Shattenkirk with four all on the power play. Zuccarello has five with a career best four coming in last week’s wild loss to the Leafs. A game they trailed 5-1 before rallying to tie it but ultimately falling.

A look at their plus/minuses is cringe worthy. Shattenkirk is a team worst minus-six while being bounced around from partner to partner after only four periods together with Ryan McDonagh. Zuccarello is minus-five and even Zibanejad is a minus-four with a bad decision to go for a block on a long Seth Jones shot resulting in it deflecting past a infuriated Lundqvist. The turning point of yesterday’s game.

They have yet to put together a full 60-minute effort. There have been way too many lazy shifts resulting in sloppy turnovers. Not just the defense. But the forwards, who are so rarely critiqued. Hayes blindly threw the puck right to a Blue Jacket which nearly led to the game’s first goal. But a successful challenge negated it due to Calvert making contact with Lundqvist on his deflection.

This has become the norm under Vigneault. Too many players taking shortcuts rather than putting in the work defensively. It’s a offensive system that encourages players to fly the zone and look for odd man breaks. How many times does Lundqvist have to point it out in a somber tone during the postgame?

At some point, it has to sink in. In a improved Metro Division, they’re digging themselves a early hole. Vigneault always emphasizes getting off to fast starts. With the exception of his first year on Broadway in ’13-14 where there was a learning curve for both coach and players, his teams have been successful early. Last year’s roster built enough cushion to make the playoffs safely. In Year Five, Vigneault’s Blueshirts  have never missed the postseason. With the coach getting extended so he wouldn’t be a lame duck, his team needs to pick it up.

Facing a young and more talented Devils team boasting early Calder leader Jesper Bratt, 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier and rookie blueliner Will Butcher, the Rangers face another challenge. If they’re not ready to play, it could be a long night in front of the Garden Faithful. There’s already growing frustration from a fan base confused by Vigneault’s lineups. But it can’t always be the coach.

The players are underperforming. It’s time for that to change. Kreider needs a hit streak. Maybe a goal will get him going. He’s been streaky throughout his career. A slow start last year didn’t prevent him from coming back to lead the Blueshirts with a career high 28 goals. More is expected from the 26-year old power forward. Thirty goals and 60 points should be attainable. He went 28-25-53 in 75 games in ’16-17.

Nash is without a point so far. That can’t continue for the likable 33-year old veteran who’s in a contract year. He battles hard and generates scoring chances. It’s about production.

Ditto for Miller, who hasn’t been consistent either. Despite a goal and two assists, he’s been guilty of some poor puck management. Most effective when he’s playing a straight line game, he must stay away from the passes in the middle of the ice that cause turnovers. Along with Hayes, he’s a key RFA next summer. Being moved around from center to wing doesn’t help. Something that’s irked him under Vigneault per a source last season. The coach must figure out what’s gonna be better for Miller and this club over the long haul.

David Desharnais hasn’t thus far made anyone forget Oscar Lindberg. Vigneault went from hardly using him to having him center the third line on Friday. Desharnais has some speed and skill. It’s about harnessing it. Either he plays in the top nine with a little power play usage or he’s their fourth line center.

Paul Carey has done what’s been asked. Provide energy and win board battles. He’s not going to wow anyone. It’s amazing that some of my peers decide to focus on him rather than the better players not pulling their weight. He or Adam Cracknell become an extra once Jesper Fast returns. They miss his effort and grit. Fast could debut by next week. He says he’s ready. We’ll see what the coaching staff decides.

Without Derek Stepan, it’s up to Hayes and Miller to play bigger roles. Only Zibanejad has delivered on his promise with his team-leading five goals and points. It would be nice if he picked up an assist. But that’s up to his teammates.

It’s never good when Marc Staal has one more point (2) than the captain Ryan McDonagh. He does need a consistent partner. I thought that problem was solved with the addition of Shattenkirk. But they started off poorly and Vigneault’s assistant Lindy Ruff broke it up. At some point, they’ll get another chance.

Staal has been better than expected after a tough preseason. He’s been jumping in offensively and hasn’t been a liability in his end. How long will it continue? They even had Staal on the left with McDonagh on the right for two games. They were surprisingly effective. But Vigneault feels it takes away from McDonagh’s game. Why did he have Nick Holden paired with him last night?

That’s the thing. Holden didn’t even start the first two games. Then he goes from third pair status to top pair. It’s clear that the coach is still sorting through the roster Jeff Gorton provided. Steven Kampfer got in for two due to Brendan Smith starting poorly. Smith returned last night and played with familiar partner Brady Skjei, who’s fighting it so far. Skjei must be better. Particularly defensively.

Vigneault isn’t giving up on young righty Tony DeAngelo. He could slide back in tonight. But needs more ice time. If he plays, he is part of the second power play unit.  One bad game in Toronto shouldn’t prevent the coach from playing him. DeAngelo was far from alone.

As for Lundqvist, he’s looked more like his old self. But if the team can’t score, how will they win games? Ondrej Pavelec is due to start. The Devils are going with Keith Kinkaid in place of starter Cory Schneider. Does the coach have enough trust in his backup to come out with a win?

That remains to be seen along with the disappointing offense. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s getting late early.”

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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