The effort is there for younger Blueshirts

Sometimes, things don’t always go according to plan. For the 2017-18 New York Rangers, that’s been the case. More was expected out of the revamped roster GM Jeff Gorton put together. However, the lack of center depth and a strong blueline has put them on the outside of the wildcard in a mediocre Metro Division.

Injuries to key players contributed to their inconsistent play. But they weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire. With Chris Kreider indicating he’s ready to go, the team is taking their time with him. He’s skating as is Pavel Buchnevich. That’s two-thirds of the top line which had performed well with Mika Zibanejad. It could be weeks before Kreider returns while Buchnevich could be a little closer. However, Kevin Shattenkirk remains out along with Marc Staal. Jimmy Vesey returned two games ago and notched the winner in a gutsy win at Winnipeg.

Given the state of the present situation, Gorton and Team President Glen Sather were right in holding a joint press conference exactly a week ago to announce that they would look towards the future instead. Indeed, the Blueshirts are gonna rebuild. When they were blown out of MSG by a very good Bruins team 6-1 which was a game I left following the sixth goal, the amount of dissatisfaction from loyal paying customers was heard. Boos rained down along with a few “Fire AV!” chants in my section.

It’s hard to pin it all on the coach who’s had a whirlwind of success both here and Vancouver where he guided teams to the Stanley Cup Finals. He hasn’t been known as a very patient guy with young players. So, now he’s put in a unique situation with plenty of reinforcements from Hartford comprising the back end. After reeling off two consecutive wins over Calgary and Winnipeg following the announcement, the Rangers fell short in the third game falling to Minnesota.

A four-minute stretch in the first period doomed them. They made some costly mistakes leading to three Wild goals. The third a giveaway by Brady Skjei that Marcus Foligno one-timed past Henrik Lundqvist for a 3-0 deficit. Skjei has been playing major minutes with Ryan McDonagh sidelined. The target of interested suitors, the captain could be moved by next week’s Feb. 26 trade deadline. If he is, it will be for a very good package. Both Boston and Tampa are very interested. But it should be on Gorton’s terms. Particularly with McDonagh having another year remaining on his deal before hitting the open market in 2019. He doesn’t have to trade the valuable top defenseman unless the timing is right. There’s also the summer and even next year’s deadline if it comes down to that.

Skjei logged over 26 minutes on Tuesday but his misplay was enough to lose the game. He hasn’t blossomed into that top pair defenseman yet. He’s only in his second year. It takes time. This isn’t a perfect situation. Especially when he doesn’t know daily who he’ll be paired with. Right now, Brendan Smith is in the minors after clearing waivers trying to find his game. Nick Holden remains for now but could be on the move.

Indeed, it’s a bunch of unknowns that comprise most of the Rangers defense. From Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, John Gilmour and Ryan Sproul, all are part of the six-man rotation under Vigneault. Gilmour and Pionk have impressed thus far with their speed and skating which has aided the transition along with breakouts. Gilmour was the forgotten man in the 2017 training camp. After nearly making the roster in 2016, he struggled last year in Hartford. But here he is finally up scoring his first career NHL goal on an assist from Pionk. His first NHL point as well. It’s nice to see what they can do.

DeAngelo remains a work in progress. On his third organization, he certainly has the speed and ability to move the puck effectively and contribute offensively. It’s about finding that consistency defensively. He’s had a few tough games. However, he has picked up assists in two of his last three contests. Since being recalled, DeAngelo has four helpers with 25 shots and a minus-six rating in 11 games. Unlike the first part of the season in October, he’s receiving more ice-time. This will give the organization a better idea of what the 22-year old former Lightning ’14 first round pick is capable of.

When Steven Kampfer went down for four to six weeks, it gave Sproul an opportunity. The former Red Wings ’11 second round pick had only played in 28 NHL games prior to Tuesday. He totaled a goal and six helpers in those 28 for Detroit. Having put up a decent showing with the Wolf Pack that includes nine goals and nine assists, he was given the chance over Ryan Graves. While I disagree with not recalling Graves, he hasn’t had as good a third pro year with the Pack. He’s 4-7-11 with 60 penalty minutes and a minus-12 rating. After starting out with promise his first two seasons in the AHL, it remains to be seen if the former ’13 fourth round pick has a future on Broadway. He has been passed on the depth chart by DeAngelo, Pionk and Gilmour. That Sproul is up over him is indicative of how the organization feels.

Even though they’re going with younger players both out of necessity and soon due to trades in less than two weeks, the Rangers have to be pleased with the effort the kids have given them. It’s true that some rookie mistakes have put them behind in each game. But they dug deep to rally back twice against two good Western opponents. That bodes well. When you bring up prospects, they are hungry to prove they belong. We’ve seen it with Vinni Lettieri, who is always noticeable during shifts. He is a shoot first forward who has been rewarded with power play time. He needs to stop hitting posts and hit pay dirt. That would boost his confidence and prove he should be part of the solution over the long term.

It can’t be easy for the veterans who are so used to the team having better results and being considered a contender. Henrik Lundqvist continues to start a lot of games. He’s given up goals on the first shot more than anyone. But hasn’t allowed it to become a negative. While the franchise netminder isn’t going anywhere, the same can’t be said for Rick Nash. He’s open to some Canadian teams (Leafs) if that’s what it comes down to. The Bruins are interested and the Predators and Stars seem to be top contenders. Nash has continued to perform well raising his value. A team first guy who likes it here, there’s a chance he could re-sign. But that will largely depend on the organizational plans this summer.

Michael Grabner leads the club with 23 goals. He definitely has increased his value as a reliable five-on-five threat who is dangerous shorthanded and superb defensively at the end of games. His seven empty net goals are proof. Twenty-two of the 23 markers have come at even strength. He has been terrific in two seasons totaling 50 goals. The most for a Ranger over that span. If he does go, he’ll definitely be missed. The unique defensive awareness, speed and transition he brings are reasons to want to keep him. Who knows about what he decides on July 1.

It remains up in the air if McDonagh will go. It’ll depend on the type of package being offered. As noted above, Gorton holds all the cards. Do what’s best for the team. Keeping McDonagh around for now isn’t a drawback. Not when he can help the younger D develop. Despite criticism, he’s been a leader and is always accountable. Replacing a player who can play any situation and match up against opponents’ best scoring lines isn’t easy. Let’s cross that bridge when they get there.

They’ll visit Brooklyn later tonight against a inconsistent Islanders team who loves playing them. The humiliation at MSG should still be fresh in their minds. As uncompetitive a game as they’ve played with the Bruins one right up there. This is a chance for redemption. The Isles are facing the pressure with GM Garth Snow coming under fire along with coach Doug Weight. We’ll see if some of those newer faces can change the end result.

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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