It’s up to the players to fix Rangers mess



A dejected Henrik Lundqvist skates off the ice as the underachieving Rangers suffered another bad loss falling to the Sharks 4-1 at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Newsday

Through 10 games, the Rangers find themselves at a crossroads. Following a dismal 4-1 loss to the Sharks in which there were too many shifts where they were uncompetitive, they find themselves with only two wins.

At a putrid 2-6-2 with just six points, they are who they are. To quote Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says.”

It hasn’t taken long for the fans to turn. The boo birds were out at a angry Garden that sounded like ghosts of nightmares past. Lurking in the shadows are the fundamentally flawed teams of the Dark Ages. A period between ’98 thru ’04 that older fans like myself remember sorely.

When the younger generation full of charts and corsi experts pin the blame only on a few scapegoats, they’re out of their league. They don’t know what misery really is. But to people around 40 and older, we know it too well.

For over a decade since Henrik Lundqvist took the NHL by storm following the lockout, Ranger fans have been spoiled. Even without winning a Stanley Cup, the franchise has been one of the most successful making the postseason 11 out of 12 years and the last seven running.

Over that span, we’ve seen the team make three Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup appearance. It wasn’t always like that for a franchise who always went after the big names overpaying for past accomplishments. Those teams were god awful to watch in person.

I vividly recall a scoreless tie in a sleep inducing home opener against the Thrashers. The same night Jason Giambi crushed a second home run in a stirring Yankees comeback to stun the Red Sox in the ’03 ALCS. A game Jorge Posada tied in the eighth as we got home and Aaron Boone won the pennant. Thank god for baseball.

Similarly, the Yankees were a great distraction for disenchanted Rangers fans. MSG even provided updates of Game 5 as the team was blowing a late lead to the Pens in a overtime crusher. They don’t do much of that anymore at Dolan’s new MSG. A arena that’s become awful due to the real fans priced out and replaced by uneducated who don’t know when to wait for a whistle. There’s hardly any security upstairs.

The atmosphere has become toxic. More fans are selling off games. Can you blame them? It’s not a good product. Now, you can hear and visibly see a swarm of opposing fans such as the mini Devils army a couple of sections over making more noise than the Garden faithful. This is the norm. More opposing fans show up and take over a dead arena. So much for a home advantage.

Look at how the Rangers play. They are frequently scored on early setting a negative tone. How many times can they give up the first goal on a first or second shot? They’ve been chasing the game all season. In fact, when they allow the first goal, they haven’t won yet. Their only two wins coming against hapless Montreal and Nashville.

With many calling for Alain Vigneault’s head, it’s not only the coach here. The players are responsible for the poor start. Key names who have been part of past success have floundered thus far.

It starts at the top with Henrik Lundqvist. He isn’t always at fault when the team doesn’t support him. However, the disturbing trend of allowing the first goal continues. While at times he’s made miraculous saves when the defense and forwards hang him out to dry, Lundqvist has let in several bad goals which have killed momentum. In a home loss to the Islanders, he allowed a bad angle shot from Mathew Barzal. In a loss to the Pens, there was the Sidney Crosby tying goal from behind the goal line. On Monday, he cost his team twice by letting in a awful second goal and a third on a brutal turnover. He’ll have to improve on a 3.12 goals-against-average and .900 save percentage or it truly will be a long season.

Captain Ryan McDonagh is expected to lead this team as the anchor of the blueline. Instead, he’s struggled mightily turning over the puck with poor coverage leading to goals against. Three assists and a minus-three rating in the first 10 contests aren’t up to par. He’s also been miscast on the power play. McDonagh isn’t a good fit on the second unit. It would be beneficial if he was used sparingly while focusing more on even strength and penalty kill. Brady Skjei can replace him. He has better offensive instincts.

Mats Zuccarello is easily the team’s most popular player supplanting classic fan favorite Lundqvist. The pint sized Norwegian plays with heart and hustle going to the dirty areas while being a productive offensive player. He’s led the team in scoring the past two seasons and been a recipient of the Steven McDonald Award three times. Fans appreciate the extra effort from a easy guy to root for who never backs down. Unfortunately, he’s been out of sorts. If you take away a career high four point game in a wild loss at Toronto, he has only three points in the other nine. Hardly enough consistency from the 30-year old emotional leader. His defensive play has suffered, missing a check on a San Jose goal to fall to a team worst minus-11. His inconsistent play last night resulted in Vigneault moving him to the fourth line in the third period while rewarding Pavel Buchnevich, who finally earned extra time.

It goes without saying that in order for the Rangers to succeed, they need more than a combined two goals between Chris Kreider and Rick Nash. While effort is never a question for Nash, who gets high quality scoring chances every game, one goal on 39 shots with a minus-five isn’t gonna cut it. He has one point. A far cry from the glory days when he was considered one of the top scoring big men in the game. This is a former three-time 40-goal scorer. Nobody is expecting the 33-year old to return to All-Star form. But is it asking too much for him to get 25 goals?

As for Kreider, he’s no longer the electrifying rookie out of Boston College who wowed Garden Faithful with a memorable debut during the 2012 run to the Conference Final. The 26-year old power forward is in his sixth year and now viewed as one of the team leaders. It’s time for him to start acting like it. Coming off a good ’16-17 that saw him post career bests in goals (29), points (53), he should be building off that. Instead, he’s stuck on one goal and three assists with 10 penalty minutes including a few unnecessary penalties. When he isn’t producing, Kreider must drive possession and be more visible. They really need 30 goals from him. A slow start following a bad playoff showing has some fans down. That must change.

Mika Zibanejad got off to a great start scoring five goals in the first four games as the team’s new top center. He finally erased a five game goal drought yesterday going top shelf for the club’s only goal on another empty night. He only has one assist and is minus-eight with most of his production on the power play. Five of his seven points have come on it. He found chemistry with Nash and Buchnevich in the third with all three involved on his goal. Better consistency is needed from the talented 24-year old center.

It would help if Vigneault settled on four lines and rolled them along with three defensive pairs. After last night’s disturbing loss, the Rangers made some roster moves.

Aside from sending down Tony “Don’t Call Me Anthony” DeAngelo, they recalled Boo Nieves from Hartford. He was 2-1-3. This is his chance to stick. He’ll get to center the fourth line. We’ll see if the 23-year old formerly University of Michigan product is ready. The move was one I predicted.

The organization also placed Adam Cracknell on waivers. He only lasted four games before Vigneault opted for the odd 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment that had some talking to themselves. Well, not me because I have come to expect the unexpected. What about Paul Carey? 😳 Has anyone found Michael Grabner? 😱

For now, first round pick Filip Chytil is safe from this mess. He’s developing well with the Wolf Pack. In four games, he has four points including a goal and two helpers over a week ago. That’s where he should stay. It’s not like he’ll get consistent minutes with the big club.

DeAngelo has a assist and minus-four in eight contests. Some games, he took regular shifts even seeing time with McDonagh. But in others, he was used sparingly mostly on the power play. With options, it made sense to send him to Hartford where he’ll get consistent minutes and confidence back. While there’s been the predictable fallout from his demotion due to the fact he was the NHL player GM Jeff Gorton acquired for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in a deal that also resulted in them selecting Lias Andersson seventh overall in the recent NHL Draft, keep in mind DeAngelo is just 21. It’s about keeping perspective. Uncommon in Ranger land. That was a salary dump with the future in mind. Not a results oriented trade.

Kevin Shattenkirk was brought in as a offensive defenseman who could upgrade the power play. When it produces, he’s usually in the middle of it. Thus far, he’s scored a power play goal and added three power play assists totaling four power play points. Overall, he’s 2-5-7 with a minus-six rating. He didn’t work out initially with McDonagh on the top pair partially due to the captain’s regression. Shattenkirk isn’t the best defensively either. He’s been beaten for a few goals one on one. But has formed a solid tandem with veteran Marc Staal, who has been the team’s best defenseman. That isn’t expected to continue.

It also speaks volumes about the rest of the D corps that also features Skjei, who isn’t off to the best start either. More is expected from the talented 23-year old in his second year. It would be nice if he got more ice time than Nick Holden. Seriously. If Skjei is going to fulfill his potential, he has to be trusted more by the coaching staff that includes Lindy Ruff. I disagree with how he’s been used. But he also has had a few hiccups. Play him.

After a inauspicious start, Brendan Smith finds himself on the top pair with his former Wisconsin teammate. He has finally rounded into form. But he can still be exploited due to footspeed. He must pick his spots better when stepping up. The more aggressive he is defensively, the better. He loves to play physical and can win those board battles.

The one line Vigneault has put together recently that’s had good cohesion is Kevin Hayes centering Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Fast. The trio has solid chemistry using their skating and compete level to generate a consistent forecheck. Something that’s been lacking. In the win over Nashville, they combined for five points with each scoring a goal. That included Vesey, who’s been snake bit so far with just one goal. He has a goal and assist but has come back a stronger player than his rookie year. Using his strong skating and bigger body, he’s finished checks and been solid overall. That’s why Vigneault trusts him on the penalty kill. He will need to produce more. But the same can be echoed for almost anyone. The hard work should result in more goals.

After a slow start, Hayes is finally skating. Using his tools, he’s scored off a couple of brilliant rushes while doing a better job defensively. That must continue with the team counting on him to play a top six role.

J.T. Miller leads the team in scoring with eight points (2-6-8). He’s done it despite being moved around from center back to wing. There’s no question he’s more effective on the wing where he can forecheck more and create turnovers. Playing alongside Kreider and revelation David Desharnais (2-3-5), Miller’s found his game. He also plays power play. He still is guilty of lazy passes in the middle that can cause transition the opposite way. If he can fix that and become more consistent offensively, you could be looking at the Rangers’ new leading scorer.

What to make of how Buchnevich has been used? At times, he can dominate offensively. But the reality is he has one goal. The four assists is good production considering his average TOI (14:44). Don’t forget he gets the bulk of it on the top power play unit which ironically is where four of his five points have come from. Last night being the first point at five on five on a primary assist on Zibanejad’s sixth. The talent is unquestioned. But he still needs work defensively. That must be earned.

Given all their struggles, what’s going to change? Well, for starters Ondrej Pavelec will get his second start. Lundqvist didn’t practice today after getting banged up by Joonas Donskoi on his goal in the third period Monday. He can use a break. It’ll be Pavelec when the Coyotes visit MSG Thursday. It looks like they’ll still be in search of their first win. They trail the Islanders 5-3 late in the third.

If that’s indeed the case, there’ll be a ton of pressure on the Blueshirts to win. They don’t want to become the Coyotes’ first victim. It’ll be an emotional return for Stepan, who was a big part of the team’s past success. He’ll get a video tribute and some love from appreciative fans along with a stick tap. You know he would love nothing better than to score against his former team and lead Arizona to victory. The Rangers better watch out for Clayton Keller. If they don’t, it won’t be pretty.

The only solution to fixing this mess is for the Rangers’ best players to perform like it. They haven’t come close. That doesn’t all fall on the coach. It’s time to place the blame where it belongs. No short term fix will change it.

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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