It took a lot of games to reach this point. Since a poor start, the Rangers picked themselves up and played their way back into playoff contention. Even without Mika Zibanejad for a period, they did well enough to make one believe the season could be a good one when you consider how much parity there is.
However, the most recent stretch in which they’ve failed to win a game in regulation since Dec. 19 has changed my mind. When the 18 skaters Alain Vigneault puts out there along with tinkered lineups due to what he’s been given to work with give less than their best effort on a consistent basis, it begs the question what the organization is doing.
Henrik Lundqvist has played his best hockey since winning the Vezina under the better defensive oriented ‘11-12 roster coached by former taskmaster John Tortorella. At 35, he’s given everything while facing a heavier workload with backup Ondrej Pavelec not playing as much. When he has, he’s also been under siege. Until a 7-2 drubbing in which the poor backup was chased by the arch rival Islanders for five goals in a Mathew Barzal Calder showcase, Pavelec had played extremely well over the previous five starts.
When you are allowing between 37 to 38 shots since the second week of November, you’re asking a lot of your netminders. They’ve more than made up for inconsistent defense and awful coverage that have put both Lundqvist and Pavelec as the last line of defense. How many breakaways and odd man rushes can they ask them to stop? It’s ridiculous.
Embarrassing was how we’d describe their performance or lack there of against the blood rival Islanders, who humiliated them at angry MSG where deserved boos rained down. This wasn’t Pavelec’s fault that Barzal’s line with Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle skated circles around them combining for a jaw dropping 13 points while matched against Vigneault’s top line of J.T. Miller, Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello. Barzal did whatever he wanted putting up two goals and three assists for his second five-point game to take the lead in rookie scoring over Brock Boeser. Eberle had four helpers and Beauvillier added two goals and two assists.
It wasn’t only the forwards who couldn’t be bothered to cover. But the struggling pair of Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both were minus-four and badly victimized. Skjei has been a disappointment in his second year. At times, he shows the potential with bursts of speed shifting from defense to offense. During others, he gets undressed like partner Shattenkirk, who wasn’t brought in for his defense. His offense has been underwhelming since mid-November. No wonder the power play has gone from one of the league’s best to a middling puzzling unit that at last check was ranked a disappointing 18th.
Puzzling are these Blueshirts. Rick Nash with only nine goals and none in way too long entering Sunday’s match at Pittsburgh. Even Zuccarello with eight who leads the team with 32 points, hasn’t been consistent enough. We’ll excuse Zibanejad, whose 14 markers and 25 points are good considering the chunk of time he missed due to a concussion. The minus-11 not withstanding.
Since Chris Kreider went down with a blood clot in which he had part of his rib removed that should keep him out the remainder of the season, the offense has struggled big time. It’s only been six games with yet another lopsided defeat- this time 5-2 to the Pens that made it three consecutive losses since struggling to beat the Coyotes in a shootout. Minus the imposing Kreider, who adds the size and net front presence to his dynamic speed and skill that aids the Rangers transition, they’re finding it tough to generate a consistent forecheck at five-on-five. Seemingly outshot every game with the world class Pens recording a jaw dropping 47 with four of the first 46 beating a poor Lundqvist, the team has no answer.
At one point, they led the game 2-1 after a period of action on goals from Michael Grabner (team best 19th) and Brendan Smith. Following the first period, shots were dead even at 13 apiece. The problem isn’t always the starts even though they usually fall behind early before recovering. Pittsburgh struck first.
The bigger issue is the lack of sustainability. A dismal second period followed with the Pens scoring twice while outshooting the Rangers 18-7. It was every bit as bad as Saturday’s atrocity against the Islanders. They took two early penalties to give Pittsburgh momentum. Even though they didn’t score on them, they took control with Dominik Simon getting his first career NHL goal and Phil Kessel sniping his 20th as Rangers just stood around. A common theme throughout the first 44 games.
Think about this. After playing the Pens to a stand-off in shots at 13-13, the Rangers were outshot 34-15 the rest of the match. Not coincidentally, the Pens outscored them 4-zip including Sidney Crosby being given too much room by four stationary players in white to beat Lundqvist with a good shot stickside. The four all on one side. Another issue plaguing this team. Adding further insult, Carl Hagelin scored the empty netter as soon as former teammate Lundqvist was pulled for his first goal in 18 games. It was also his first two-point game of the season.
How bad is it? Not only have they dropped three straight in regulation. They’ve been outscored 14-5 including 13-5 over a lost weekend. Astonishingly, they’re still clinging onto the second wildcard stuck on 49 points. The Pens are up to 51 having won four in a row to move into the first wildcard. Even in a overrated division where teams continue to alternate wins and losses, the stumbling Blueshirts are still in playoff position. One ahead of the Isles with the suddenly slumping Hurricanes at 48 and confusing Flyers also at 48.
One could argue that with both the Blue Jackets and Devils coming back to the pack, it’s right there for the Rangers. But if you’re watching these games, they’re not close. The 2-1 loss at Vegas last week wasn’t that competitive. While entertaining, it was a matter of time before the Golden Knights found the one goal they needed to win in a game they controlled most of before a late Rangers push.
The bottom line is the roster GM Jeff Gorton put together isn’t good enough. Forget the fact Kevin Hayes and Ryan McDonagh (back spasms) were out last night. You can’t rely on David Desharnais to be a third line player with rookie Boo Nieves learning as the fourth line center. Hayes has done admirably as the new match-up second line pivot in place of Derek Stepan but his overall production has suffered. With 10 goals and eight assists in 43 games, that’s not enough from a skilled player who’s admitted he must shoot more rather than pass in Year 4. It would be nice if he got rewarded more for his hard work.
J.T. Miller has been underwhelming. Sure. The 27 points rank second on the team trailing only Zuccarello. But just eight goals on 68 shots is pathetic for a player with a good shot capable of much more. Along with puzzling turnovers on the Rangers overpassing syndrome and even some defensive deficiencies showing, what is Miller at this point? Is he worth investing in as a RFA this summer with Hayes? Don’t forget Skjei is due for a raise off his ELC.
There aren’t many Rangers earning their keep. Say for Pavel Buchnevich, whose 11-15-26 in 43 contests is a nice improvement in Year 2. As far as how he’s been handled, I don’t agree with Vigneault. While I understand part of why he goes from using the gifted Russian on the top line to either the third or fourth line, the Miller treatment might not be the best approach with the club’s most talented skater with a language barrier. Whether he’s playing with Kreider and Zibanejad or Desharnais, Nieves or Jimmy Vesey- another young player who isn’t used enough despite a strong work ethic- credit Buchnevich for continuing to play the same way driving possession and generating scoring chances. If there is a area he must improve, it’s hitting the net more. He’s missed on a number of open one-timers and hasn’t thought shot enough. He’s totaled 11 goals on 88 shots with plenty of power play time to do more damage. His passing is top notch as is his skating. He has a Alexei Kovalev quality to him. It’s the subtleties which includes failing to clear the zone. He’s far from alone in this area.
If there’s a legit gripe from the Rangers community, it’s a double standard with a coach who can be stubborn when it comes to young players. Just ask Miller, who’s been moved around like a volleyball from wing to center back to wing along with duties on each line. Is it a recipe for success? At some point, there needs to be line familiarity.
Vigneault prefers checkers Grabner and Jesper Fast, who both give honest efforts on both sides of the puck. He’s rewarded both with increased roles. Grabner continuing to be one of the team’s best signings. His 19 goals this year following 27 last season give him a combined 46 which leads all Rangers over a two-year stretch. Kreider paced them with 28 in ‘16-17 and his 11 gives him 39 before the blood clot was discovered.
Fast has done a great job with seven goals and 10 assists in 35 contests. You can’t argue his contribution with underperforming players such as Nash (9 goals on 135 shots). However, this business with having Fast on the first line with Zibanejad is puzzling. He’s better suited in a secondary role. Move Buchnevich back up with Zibanejad and try Vesey, who has been one of the better performers recently. Nash hasn’t done enough to merit top line status. Zuccarello doesn’t fit either. He’s a minus-nine in the last five games. Let’s see what the kids can do.
The defense remains in limbo. With McDonagh’s game slipping despite not having a adequate partner (Nick Holden), it’s hard for there to be any chemistry. When Marc Staal has rebounded to be your most consistent defenseman, that’s a problem. Staal deserves tons of credit for how he’s played. But it underlines the point that McDonagh, Skjei and especially Shattenkirk haven’t been good enough. Smith has been a huge disappointment following re-upping for four years at over $4 million AAV.
What’s the solution? Call up reinforcements. Tony DeAngelo has been in Hartford all winter since failing to establish himself as a regular. The jury is out on the Stepan deal that also sent Antti Raanta to Arizona with Lias Andersson drafted seventh overall. After his recent showing in Buffalo at the World Junior Championship where he scored six times for runner-up Sweden while showing frustration at losing to Canada by tossing his silver medal to a lucky fan before getting it back, the future is bright. The Rangers need more players who hate losing as much as this kid. Way too critiqued by hypocritical Canadians with Ray Ferraro starting the whole thing. Like Canada enjoyed being second fiddle to Team USA last year. Holy moly!
As long as the organization remains patient with centers Andersson (Frolunda) and 2017 first round pick Filip Chytil (Hartford), they should have a good plan moving forward.
They have some difficult choices ahead with the Feb. 26 trade deadline getting closer by the day. With the current roster allowing almost 40 shots regularly and having not won in regulation since a 4-1 win on 12/19 over Anaheim, it’s hard to justify keeping the team intact. The very thought that they’re listening to offers for prospective unrestricted’s Nash, Grabner, Holden while possibly deciding on future 2019 UFA’s McDonagh and Zuccarello is the right thing to explore. They must find out what they can get. While Nash’s value has to be down, he could still bring back a second or third round pick while needing a scenery change. Grabner has increased his value so much. He’s a great fit under Vigneault with his game breaking speed and defensive acumen perfect for the transition game the vet coach likes. But if they can get a second back for him, you do it. Grabner could always re-sign if Vigneault survives. There’s no guarantee.
As hard as it is to admit with Lundqvist getting older, this isn’t a good team. It’s mediocre at best and has benefited from teams losing. If the Atlantic wasn’t so bad, the decision would be easy. As Mortimer would say from Trading Places, “Sell! Sell!!! Sell!!!!!”
Is it really worth it to hang onto some distant hope that’s there’s still a chance? I don’t think so. We’ve seen enough now to know better. With 38 games left, they can either stand pat and do nothing or make the necessary changes moving forward which can benefit them long-term.
Not only blaming the coach. But the players as well. Who do you think put it together? It’s time for radical change in thinking and philosophy.