Since my last post, the Rangers have played four games winning the first two and losing the last two. That included tonight’s latest fiasco at Staples Center against their kryptonite the LA Kings. A all too predictable and typical incomplete effort in a 4-2 loss in Hollywood.
The script was the same old one we’ve seen in our nightmares like those three games in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Was that only four years ago? It feels like 40 since that first Alain Vigneault coached team made that run taking us on a wild roller coaster ride which left us wanting more. If only the 2015 roster had remembered to score on home ice against the Lightning in Games 5 and 7. Ouch. It still hurts. Maybe because it was at that point that I knew the run was over. I wish I could say the same for management.
When it comes down to it, coming that close with Henrik Lundqvist twice is reason enough for why they kept going for it. Even if some of former architect Glen Sather’s chess moves weren’t the best over the long haul. He overpaid for Martin St. Louis with Ryan Callahan and those draft picks going to Tampa. But without St. Louis, there’s no Stanley Cup Final or dramatic comeback from 3-1 down to finally beat the Pens. Ask Marty’s teammates about his impact. It’s a shame it didn’t result in the franchise’s first Cup since 1994.
The same way it stinks that Slats again went all in for Keith Yandle at the 2015 trade deadline by giving up Anthony Duclair and more high draft picks but didn’t get the end result. I can’t kill the move because at the time, it was the right one. They were a win now team and Yandle nearly helped them get back. It didn’t end well with the disappointing conclusion to eventual champ Pittsburgh in the 2016 first round.
So much has changed in today’s NHL. The more successful you are in the salary cap era, the more challenging it is to keep rosters together. It’s impossible. That’s why what the Blackhawks have accomplished and now the Penguins is pretty remarkable. Throw in the bleeping Kings. A team loathed by both Devils and Rangers fans for the obvious reason.
When you get there, you gotta win. The post lockout Lundqvist Era has been one of the most successful in Rangers history. They’ve made the postseason every year except one and that came down to a stinking shootout. Let’s just say Olli Jokinen will always invoke hatred.
It’s frustrating that at the ripe old age of 35 and soon to be 36 playing some of his finest hockey on a flawed team, Lundqvist is further away than he’s ever been from winning that Cup. A look at the affable Swede following losses during the MSG postgame is always painful and leaving me numb. The man wants to win so badly. Even a .924 save percentage in a unbelievable bounce back season where he’s started so many games and faced so many shots isn’t enough to guarantee anything. If I were Lundqvist after that awful second period in which undisciplined penalties led to three straight Kings power play goals, I would’ve slammed my stick and skated off the ice.
That’s how some of his teammates played. Where was Mika Zibanejad? He was invisible against a hard nosed physical opponent that doesn’t give you much. Zibanejad is the top center and if he is not giving them anything, the first line is a total waste. Pavel Buchnevich tried because he always skates hard but he lost some battles that led to easy LA clears which hurt Rangers power plays. He’s a unique talent who needs to get stronger. Tonight wasn’t one of his better ones. He’s been better lately with a three-game point streak ending. Rick Nash was skating hard but at one point, he went one on four right into the teeth of the Kings who were waiting at their blueline for a easy turnover. Frustrating. It’s hard to kill Nash when he finally got going with a pair of two-goal games this past week. That will boost his value for the upcoming Feb. 26 trade deadline.
How to summarize this team? Annoying. They leave you scratching your head. The lack of consistency and lack of shots along with the lapses in concentration. From game to game to period to period, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. And that is a mediocre team that is like many in the Metro Division and weak Eastern Conference. Outside of the Lightning, Caps and Bruins, no one has impressed me. All the other teams still in it which basically is the rest of the Metro and the Maple Leafs are flawed. Never has there been so much parity. I’m sure Gary Bettman loves it. Those three point games only serve to remind fans how backwards things have become.
The Rangers went from easily handling the Flyers in a rare laugher 5-1 at home to edging the abysmal Sabres 4-3 to start the week with promise. But those are beatable teams who aren’t as good. I could care less if the Flyers continue their Jekyll & Hyde act beating the Devils and surprising the Caps to move into the first wildcard a point ahead of the Rangers, who remain in the second position due to less games played than the Pens. They don’t have consistent goaltending or defense. Neither do the high scoring Islanders.
So, when they left for a four-game road trip that started in Colorado with the trio of California teams afterwards with the stop in Tinsel Town Sunday night, it reaffirmed what I’ve thought for a while. The Avalanche won for the ninth straight time Saturday afternoon by a count of 3-1. They did it with the amazing talent of Nate MacKinnon sniping one past Lundqvist and Erik Johnson tipping one home in front on a blown Rangers coverage and then defended well while making it easy for Jonathan Bernier to win again. The Blueshirts only scored once with Buchnevich converting a power play goal on a nice set piece from Mats Zuccarello. They did nothing five-on-five. Seeing J.T. Miller try a low percentage pass across to nobody with time winding down that resulted in Mikko Rantanen’s empty netter with less than a second left was exasperating. What was he thinking?
And that’s the thing that hits home. This is how they play under Vigneault. The East/West style is pretty to watch when it works. But it’s downright ugly when opponents are dialed in and ready for the all too predictable pass, pass, pass. That thought process is why they can’t consistently score goals anymore or win daily. When you face better competition, they figure it out.
Look how much Colorado improved since getting rid of Matt Duchene. MacKinnon is dominating. He’s second in scoring centering a lethal line with Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen. They have a much improved defense led by a healthy Johnson, who is paired with former Sabre Nikita Zadorov. Johnson is having a good year while Zadorov has improved. He hits everyone and has steadied the blueline that’s missing Tyson Barrie. Samuel Girard came over from Nashville in the three team deal for Duchene also involving Kyle Turris. With young forwards such as Alexander Kerfoot, J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost, the Avs are set up well. They’re ahead of schedule in a wildcard with the best division in hockey all in the mix.
Here’s the point I’m driving home. If the Rangers organization are smart and I have no idea what the the thinking is, they’ll do the right thing and sell. Given the current state of the team with Chris Kreider out along with Kevin Shattenkirk, who somehow played with a meniscus tear in his right knee in Year 1, it makes plenty of sense. Kevin Hayes remained out while Marc Staal and Michael Grabner returned last night.
As hard as it is to give up on the season when Lundqvist deserves better, it’s the better for the long term. With them deciding to bring Lias Andersson over to play for Hartford and learn the North American style of pro hockey like Filip Chytil, the future is essential to the franchise. Like the classic Bob Dylan folk song at the end of The Wanderers, “Times, They Are A Changin’.”
When you have veterans such as Brendan Smith continuing to baffle with a combination of inconsistent and undisciplined play like his foolish extra roughing minor for a fight at the Wild conclusion of the first period with Adrian Kempe, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. Smith may have hated the hit he took but his penalty only provided the spark a fired up Kings team needed after a mostly lethargic first that saw Desharnais and Jimmy Vesey put the Rangers up two. They did what they do best scoring three on the power play with traffic in front of Lundqvist, who must’ve felt helpless. It was awful. Then the Kings closed off the middle making life easier on Jonathan Quick.
When your top line no shows and your best players are Vesey, Vinni Lettieri, Paul Carey and Desharnais along with Tony DeAngelo, it’s hard to win. There were far too many passengers in a game Miller said was important. He gave a better effort too but there wasn’t enough want from the guys in the white with red and blue. They didn’t battle hard enough. So, they get another incomplete.
With stops in Anaheim and San Jose this week, it won’t get any easier. Lose those and it should really sink in about what direction they need to go.
There are players who can help other contenders if they choose to go that route. Nash’s contract expires along with leading goalscorer Michael Grabner with the latter being a guy I’d like to keep in the right situation. He’s put together consecutive 20-goal seasons fitting Vigneault’s transition system perfectly. Grabner does so much well. He’s got great defensive instincts and lightning speed and is finishing. He will get more than double his current salary ($1.3 million). If I’m the GM, I inform him about possibly trading him and then ask if he wants to come back July 1. Look no further than the Yankees, who got a unreal return for Aroldis Chapman. He helped the Cubs finally win a World Series and then re-signed with the Yanks.
Nick Holden is also cheap and will be gone this summer. While he maybe miscast on the top pair, he can be more serviceable as a second or third pair D on another team. For all the criticism he takes, he gave the Rangers a good season last year providing offense. He isn’t good defensively and is used too much. But effort is never a question. I wish I could say the same for Smith, who after signing his four-year contract came into camp out of shape and stopped skating following a giveaway that led to a Avalanche breakaway. A hustling Holden forced a miss.
The real dilemma is what to do with Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh. With recent talk on Hockey Night In Canada from Elliotte Friedman mentioning that the Rangers would listen to offers on both key players whose deals expire next year, I’m most curious to see how serious they are about a rebuild.
Do they want to give McDonagh a huge contract when his play has clearly gone down from the high level he was at in 2014? Injuries have played a role. He played on one foot against Tampa in 2015. If they trade him, what kind of package could they get? He certainly would attract a lot of interest. Even if he’s not that shutdown guy anymore, you can’t deny his skating and the passing which has still produced 22 assists. He hasn’t had a top partner. Had Sather not erred letting Anton Stralman go and replacing him with Dan Boyle, that could’ve been a formidable top pair. He chose poorly.
As for Zuccarello, nobody plays with more passion than the pint sized Norwegian with the enormous heart. He’s led them in scoring two years running and leads them again. At a $4.5 million AAV, he’s a bargain. If only he shot more. Zuccarello never backs down from anyone. It’s why he’s such a fan favorite and has won the Steven McDonald Award. He’s loved for his effort and honesty. When he’s bad, he lets you know.
The thing is Zuccarello is going to command a lot on the open market in a year. It could be around $7 million. Yikes. As much as I love him, I think the time is right to make a change. It would be heartbreaking to see him go. The same way I felt about Callahan and more recently, Derek Stepan.
Unfortunately, these are the hard decisions that must be made. The Rangers are at a crossroads. It’s time for a change in philosophy.