Rangers must learn from loss how to become a more complete team

AP Photo via Getty Images

They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” One close look at the one above illustrates the difference between a battle tested team of Hurricanes and a disjointed one like the younger Rangers that lacked experience.

As it turned out, the attention to detail of the more complete Hurricanes was too much for the Rangers to overcome in a disappointing three game sweep of the Preliminary Round. They were outplayed, outclassed and outworked by a better team.

There’s no reason to be upset over what happened. In many ways, this was a good season for the Blueshirts, who provided us with a lot of excitement. Due in large part to MVP candidate Artemi Panarin and leading goalscorer Mika Zibanejad, they provided fans with some great moments with none better than the five goal game from Zibanejad to stun the Caps at MSG. He also won an intense playoff caliber rivalry game at Nassau Coliseum to beat the Islanders thanks to the never say die attitude of Panarin.

But it also was the unique promise of younger players such as Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Igor Shesterkin that provided a starved fan base with a glimpse into the future.

Both Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko should be a big part of it going forward. Each needs to work hard to improve to the point where they become top six forwards. That’s a must with Kakko needing to work on his skating and strength to get through the grind of 82 games and have something left for the playoffs.

As for Chytil, what is he? He’s definitely got some skill with the uncanny ability to score on the rush. However, consistency remains an issue. He must take the next step in his development. Face-offs and defensive awareness remain areas of concern. Is he a center or would he be better suited on the wing?

These are big questions coach David Quinn and the organization must address. Next year, Kakko must be in the top six playing with Panarin. Whether it’s Ryan Strome on a one-year, $5 million contract or Chytil remains to be seen. They have big decisions on restricted free agents Strome, DeAngelo and Alex Georgiev, whose status is linked to what they decide with Henrik Lundqvist.

Speaking of DeAngelo, don’t forget the season he had. I know the three games were a nightmare for him. However, it was revealed by New York Post columnist Larry Brooks that he worked through a hamstring issue. That might help explain some of the lost battles and giveaways that led to goals against. He has to realize a long-term contract is unrealistic due to the current flat cap of $81.5 million. Now if he were to again bet on himself for say an average cap hit of $5 million over two or three years, then re-sign him.

With Nils Lundkvist opting to return to Sweden for one more year of development, you don’t replace the production or key minutes DeAngelo provided. Especially on the power play where he excelled on the top unit with Zibanejad, Panarin, Chris Kreider and Strome. That kind of dual threat of vision and shooting capability is a weapon.

When you have a more well rounded defenseman in Fox, who’s already on the top pair due to his ability to be responsible at five-on-five and the power play where his role should increase, there’s a lot to like. Especially assuming he stays teamed with Ryan Lindgren, who was alright in his first postseason action. Even if it was due to a strange scenario, I like what I saw from Lindgren, who’s easy to overlook due to providing the nuts and bolts as a steady physical, stay at home defenseman.

Having a veteran presence such as Jacob Trouba will help. He saved his best for the lopsided series. He was more consistent and stronger against the Canes even though Sebastian Aho victimized him and turned DeAngelo inside out to end the Rangers 2019-20 season. Trouba will need a better partner than great team guy Brendan Smith, who always leaves everything out there. He just can’t be counted on to play those kind of minutes versus top scoring lines. He brings grit and physicality to the team. It should be in a secondary role.

Maybe it’s time to find out about Libor Hajek, who wasn’t even close to ready following the unrealistic expectations of the Rangers entering last year. His skating is good enough, but defense and winning board battles aren’t strong suits. They were banking on him to become a top four defenseman after accepting former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s offer that included Brett Howden, former Blueshirt Vladislav Namestnikov and a first round pick that became Lundkvist, who will be a key to the Ryan McDonagh/JT Miller trade. They also netted prospect Karl Henriksson in the second round of 2019. A smallish center we don’t know about.

At this point, I’m not even sure Hajek is a regular. His possession metrics were abysmal. I might not be a huge proponent of Corsica/Fenwick, but it serves its purpose. Some of the Rangers stats were mind numbing. I’ll just leave it at that.

What we do know is K’Andre Miller will have his first pro season. The 20-year old left defenseman is highly thought of by the organization and some scouts. There’s no rush when it comes to development. Especially defensemen. Let him get valuable time in Hartford. Realistically, I don’t expect to see him until sometime during 2021-22. Ditto for Lundkvist. Matthew Robertson is further away.

Where does that leave the Rangers? The state of the defense will likely be the same barring a trade or buyout of veteran presence Marc Staal. Something I don’t advocate considering the lack of quality depth. Staal can play out the last year of his contract and possibly career. One that should be remembered for all the battles he had during the Lundqvist Era when the team appeared in three Final Four’s along with a Stanley Cup Final. It’s too bad they never won.

Whatever they decide to do with Lundqvist will be a huge headline. Even if the Post has already jumped the gun to sell papers, we don’t know what will happen. Brooks acts like it’s a certainty that Lundqvist played his final game on Monday. Maybe he did. We must wait and see what management thinks is best.

If there is one thing lacking from the rebuild, it’s the depth issue. Especially up front. The Rangers largely depended on their top two lines for offense. That included key two-way forward Jesper Fast, who is unrestricted this Fall. Considering how badly he was missed and the lack of depth, it would be wise for the team to bring back the gritty right wing, who can slide up and down the lineup while being a penalty killing fixture. Would he take three to four years at around $3 million per season to stay? It shouldn’t cost a lot.

How they manage the cap situation will determine what happens. We know Fast is better suited on the third line where he can improve secondary scoring. He’s a responsible forward, who always hustles. A second line of Panarin, Chytil and Kakko can create a more dependable third line assuming Strome and Fast stay put. Maybe we even get to see former first round pick Vitali Kravtsov round out that line. A player they must find out about. He should’ve played in the elimination game over little used Julien Gauthier.

That was poor management from David Quinn, who will have more pressure on him in Year Three to deliver a legit playoff team that is better equipped. That’s not by barely trusting the fourth line. An area of concern. The really good teams are four lines deep and have enough sandpaper to not be so predictable. As much as puck possession is part of it, you do need your gritty types who are willing to get the jersey dirty and win those one on one puck battles.

Brendan Lemieux must build on what he provided in Game Three. A hard-nosed, edgy game that was effective on Tuesday night. He got over 14 minutes because Quinn trusted him. He earned it by drawing a penalty and having the best scoring chances on James Reimer with the Canes netminder robbing Chytil with a miraculous diving stick save late in the second period. Along with Sami Vatanen selling out to block a potential goal into a open net, that was the turning point.

The Canes were willing to do the little things that win at this time of year. They won most of the board battles and protected the house better for both Petr Mrazek and Reimer even though the latter was utterly brilliant in making 38 saves to finish off the Blueshirts.

What the Rangers can’t do is go into the 2020-21 season with the same bottom six. Especially the fourth line which wasn’t a factor on most nights. While Greg McKegg was serviceable and brought a strong work ethic, he’s better suited as an extra forward that you can plug in. Will they bring him back in that role? He certainly plays the game hard enough.

Howden remains a mystery. Sure. He gives an honest effort most nights and is better on draws than Chytil. But he doesn’t have much scoring touch. He can be a checking center who kills penalties. But is that all? That was the best the organization could do for McDonagh and Miller? It doesn’t reflect well for a organization who never gave Ryan Graves a chance or realized Brady Skjei isn’t a top pair defenseman. He looked much better on the Canes as a second pair guy.

Maybe Lundkvist can eventually change that deal. At least Miller had his best year in Vancouver. McDonagh remains a key cog in the Lightning top four if they’re to finally fulfill expectations.

What should the fourth line look like? Aside from Howden, who can be counted on to take more face-offs in the future, Lemieux on one side can provide the physical element as an effective agitator. However, he must become more consistent. That means drawing more reaction penalties and taking less undisciplined ones that drive the coach nuts. It also means less defensive lapses that lead to riding the pine, and finishing enough to be counted on. He is capable of hitting double digits in goals while playing penalty kill.

Solving the depth issue along with the East/West style they play that is more successful in the regular season than postseason, are areas that must be fixed. That means some tough personnel decisions. If it means making a trade to acquire a Jordan Staal or Jean-Gabriel Pageau type, so be it. They don’t exactly win enough face-offs or check effectively. How many times did they lose battles and fail to clear pucks out? An issue that’s plagued this team for a while.

The Rangers can use some more size and grit to the unique blend of skill they possess. If they can properly develop Kakko and Chytil into top six players, that would go a long way to improving the offense. It can’t always be Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider. They did manage to turn Pavel Buchnevich into a harder player to play against. He isn’t as shy about going to the hard areas anymore. That includes taking a hit to make a play. He still must become more consistent if he’s to become a capable scorer in the top six.

Do we see Lauri Pajunemi soon or is that on hold due to the pandemic causing a later start to next season? Morgan Barron is signed. A 2017 sixth round pick who spent three years at Cornell University, they have to find out what he is. The 21-year old can play both center and left wing. He is listed at 6-3, 217 pounds. We’ll have to be patient.

In terms of the goalie decision, that won’t affect prospect Tyler Wall from beginning his first professional year with the Wolf Pack. He’ll share duties with Adam Huska. So, if they do decide to move Georgiev for futures, Wall could become the next backup goalie behind Shesterkin. But it probably doesn’t make sense because goalies take time to develop.

That’s the case for keeping Georgiev and moving on from a proud man in Lundqvist. It’ll be emotional if this was really it. He backed up Shesterkin in Game Three after making his franchise record 128th and 129th consecutive playoff starts.

There’s a lot more to cover this off-season. I’ll get into it knowing there won’t be any Rangers hockey until December. Hard to believe. See you soon.

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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