Hot Blueshirts Topics as they face Islanders before All-Star Break

Without the Wonder Bread Man, the Rangers would be one of the league’s bottom feeders in the Lafreniere Sweepstakes. That’s how much value Artemi Panarin has in Year One on Broadway.

With less than a day away from some time off, the Rangers will once again do battle with their biggest rival, the Islanders later tonight at Madison Square Garden. It’ll be the third game between the teams over nine days. At least it makes up for having no meetings over the first three months.

For the Blueshirts, who lost a crusher to the sizzling Blue Jackets on Oliver Bjorkstrand’s game-winner with 26.5 seconds left in regulation Sunday night, they’ll look to bounce back. As much as that 2-1 defeat hurt, these are the kind of games they can learn from. Ditto for the hard fought 3-2 victory in their return to NYCB Live aka Nassau Coliseum last Thursday. A similar tight checking game won by Chris Kreider with 24.6 seconds remaining.

You can be negative and sound ridiculous as some of NYR Twitter was following the gut punch against Columbus, who improved to 6-1-1 versus the Rangers in the last eight. That includes a perfect 4-0-0 in the last four meetings at 33rd and 8th Avenue. I guess it doesn’t matter if they have Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. They’re still having success under John Tortorella.

Here’s the point. Would you prefer our team get their doors blown off in these big divisional match-ups? At this stage of the season, it’s nice to know that the Rangers are playing important games. They aren’t expected to make the playoffs. Especially with rookie Kaapo Kakko continuing to struggle. Who had both Kakko and Devils top pick Jack Hughes with less than 20 points at nearly Game 50? Exactly.

Not every hyped prospect that goes number one overall or in the top three take the league by storm like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Some young players take more time to develop into dominant stars we are seeing with Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Eichel and David Pastrnak. Even Leon Draisaitl wasn’t what he is today right away. It’s going to take longer for both Hughes and Kakko to develop for their respective Hudson rival teams.

At 23-20-4 with 50 points in 47 games, the Rangers are about where I expected them to be. Out of playoff position, but not out of contention. I predicted them for 85 points before the season. That looks like a good prediction right now. They’re here mostly due to the elite play of Panarin.

As the evidence mounts, they have definitely benefited from the key addition of the Wonder Bread Man. Facing his former team the other day for the second time, Panarin didn’t record a point. His line with Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome, whose lousy change cost the team at least a point, were shutdown by the tenacious checking of the Blue Jackets. In the first meeting at Columbus, Panarin got the winner on Dec. 5. There’s more.

When The Bread Man doesn’t record a point, the Blueshirts are 1-9-1. The lone win came on Nov. 30 over the Devils. A game that wasn’t competitive. In losses, Panarin has 17 points (7-10-17) with a minus-11 rating. Including overtime defeats, he is a goal and three assists. In victories, he’s 18-29-47 with a plus-33 rating. So 47 of his 68 points have come in wins.

Nobody has more even strength points than the Bread Man, who paces the NHL with an incredible 52 (20-32-52). That’s why he should get MVP consideration even if the Rangers don’t qualify for the playoffs. I don’t expect him to win the Hart. That’ll probably go to one of McDavid, MacKinnon or Pastrnak. John Carlson should also get votes. He’s running away with the Norris with an astounding 60 points.

To the original point regarding Panarin. Where would they be without him? Near the bottom of the league. Maybe not quite Red Wing bad. However, they’d be right in the thick of the Lafreniere Sweepstakes. The gallows humor Blueshirt fan might ask, “Would that be so bad?”

It would and wouldn’t. Would because the team lacks enough scoring depth on the wing. Would not because it speaks to just how far away they are despite promising young talent such as Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shestyorkin. They’re still waiting on Vitali Kravtsov, who’s been alright at Hartford since returning. The 2018 first round pick hasn’t proven he’s ready yet. More potential exists in the organization featuring future pros K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Lauri Pajunemi, Morgan Barron and yet another goalie prospect in Hobey Baker candidate Tyler Wall.

From the looks of the prospect pool, the organizational strengths are defense and goaltending. Boasting the depth they have at those positions could make some current Rangers with upcoming free agency expendable. I’m not going to get into the particulars. It’s been repeated all over social media and the blogosphere, which in some cases is unrealistic. See my commentary on that issue here.

It’s interesting to note that aside from the performance of Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Strome, Chris Kreider and Fast, it’s been the heavily critiqued defense that’s been responsible for a lot of the team’s offense. In fact, despite their youth aside from grizzled vet Marc Staal, that blueline leads the NHL in scoring with 133 points (38-95-133). That includes 37 points (12-25-37) from Tony DeAngelo, 26 (6-20-26) from Fox, 23 (7-16-23) from $8 million man Jacob Trouba and 21 (7-14-21) from Brady Skjei.

For all the constant complaints over what the defense can’t do under overly criticized assistant coach Lindy Ruff, that sure is a lot of production. Maybe the cynics are wrong. Oh. The D isn’t perfect. We’ve seen Skjei have some brutal nights and even Trouba get victimized. But who else should we have high expectations for? Staal continues to play solid physical defense yet is a frequent target among biased chart bloggers, who don’t watch each shift.

If you want to point out that the back end can use a little more size and physical edge like Lindgren provides, you’re correct. The problem is neither Lundkvist or Miller are those type of style players. Former prospect and current Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves is. Oops.

The focus needs to be more on the lack of scoring depth to help Panarin and Zibanejad, who’s over a point-per-game with 37 in 34 games. As good as he’s been, Strome only has 12 goals despite playing mostly with Panarin. By now, he should have 20. After Kreider, whose 17 points in the last 18 games, moved him up to 16-15-31 in a contract year, it dramatically falls off.

Pavel Buchnevich has been a huge disappointment. While the 18 assists and 25 points aren’t bad, the top right wing has only seven goals in 47 games. That’s unacceptable. So are some of his defensive issues due to not always being willing to pay the price. He’s not a small guy. Mats Zuccarello played way harder despite his smaller frame. By now, Buchnevich should have figured it out. If his production doesn’t improve, look for the Rangers to listen to offers and try to free up the $3.5 million cap hit which expires after next season.

With 22 points (8-14-22) including two shorthanded goals and a plus-15 rating in 46 contests, Fast has done all David Quinn has asked for. While the well respected hardworking Swede will never be a big scorer, he’s a perfect complementary forward due to his two-way capability and high work ethic. Look for the Rangers to re-sign him. He won’t be as costly as the other key free agents.

Until he figures it out, Kakko remains a work in progress. With just seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 43 games with a club worst minus-17, the teenager is still learning in his first NHL season. He hasn’t earned a spot in the top six. For now, he should remain with Chytil and either Brett Howden or Brendan Lemieux on the third line. While I still believe a stint with Hartford could give a confidence boost to the second overall pick, it appears Rangers brass is fearful of taking that risk due to how young Kakko is. He has Type 1 diabetes and also suffers from Celiac Disease. They probably would prefer to manage him up close without the Hartford distraction.

If you combined the totals of the NYR right wings including Brendan Smith and Micheal Haley, it’s pretty bad. Not one right wing is a consistent scoring threat. The only way for that to change is to see dramatic improvement from Kakko and Buchnevich. They definitely need better production to become a playoff team again. That also includes Kravtsov.

If they subtract key performers like Kreider or Strome, they have to replace that production. The same applies to DeAngelo if he becomes too expensive this summer. They better get a good young scoring forward back.

AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

If they decide to trade Georgiev, who will be in net again versus the Islanders later tonight, he can’t net only a draft pick or unproven prospect. It has to be a young forward that’ll help the roster. They can’t just give away the wins leader who seems to get the bulk of the tough assignments over Henrik Lundqvist.

Speaking of Lundqvist, he will not play again barring the Islanders finally getting to Georgiev. He hasn’t played much this month. Does he really want to be in this complicated situation for one more year due to his love of the Big Apple? It’s his call. There’s nothing that can be done unless he changes his mind. Blame Sather.

At some point, you’re not going to see three goalies on the NHL roster. Expect the Rangers to designate Shestyorkin to Hartford so he can stay sharp. He was selected as an AHL All-Star. He deserves to get that cool experience with forgotten D prospect Joey Keane. He’s handled his three starts and everything else thrown his way extremely well. He seems very mature and looks to have a bright future in NYC.

In terms of this third installment on Tuesday at MSG, my family will be attending. I sure wish I was. I can’t contain my excitement. The idea of potentially beating the Islanders three times in just keep a week is crazy. This is a team that’s given us fits. Don’t believe me? Go look at Lundqvist’s record since he signed his big contract extension. Sean McCaffrey (NYCTheMic) has you covered. Maybe I’ll put something up about it later.

We’ll see if Alexandar The Great can keep it going against what should be a desperate Islanders.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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