When the message is off tangent

Alexis Lafreniere will need to play more down the stretch regardless of where the Rangers are in the division playoff race. AP Photo by New York Rangers via Getty Images

Entering Tuesday’s return match against Washington, who hung on for a 5-4 win on Sunday afternoon, there are twenty-two games remaining for the Rangers to decide who they are. At this point, we don’t know.

Oh sure. They tease you to death with mesmerizing performances in blowout wins over the Flyers. Then fall flat in consecutive losses to that same strange opponent and mount a furious rally in a bizarre final period before losing 5-4 to the Capitals. In doing so, they dropped two more one-goal games to fall to 3-12 in such instances. The brownie points don’t count in my book. All those defeats mounting for a mediocre team that finds itself at NHL .500 with a 15-15-4 mark through 34 games.

What are they? On some nights, the Rangers have proven fully capable of competing with the upper echelon in the confusing East Division. They’re three up and two down versus those first place Caps, who visit Madison Square Garden later tonight to conclude a two-game series. They’ve taken three of six against the Flyers, who they blew out twice by a combined 17-3 football score. The pair of Mika Zibanejad natural hat trick, six-point games that allowed the number one center to snap out of it. Also big games from Ryan Strome and Adam Fox, who took home First Star of the Week honors for his 11 points (1-10-11). Fox is a rising star who will receive some Norris votes.

Here’s the frustrating aspect. As well as they’ve played in some wins, there are still too many instances where they lose in crushing fashion. The Flyers rematch on Saturday was one of those. A game they didn’t play well enough in due to not matching their upset rival’s intensity. It showed in the lack of shots and over passing. It also was on display when they completely fell apart in a dizzying second period that saw the Caps outscore them 3-0 following an even first period where nothing happened. Then there was the wild and wacky third that saw Tom Wilson make it 4-0 before Colin Blackwell scored twice to spark a last ditch effort that fell short. T.J. Oshie’s redirect that made it 5-2 proved too much to overcome despite goals from Alexis Lafreniere and Chris “PPG” Kreider.

Speaking of Lafreniere, he received a shade over eight minutes of ice time on Sunday with head coach David Quinn finally back behind the bench. This followed even less time versus the Flyers under Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch, who had the top pick in single digits three different times. So, this isn’t just a Quinn thing. It’s organizational. Here’s what the coach offered to reporters including Vince Mercogliano of USA Today.

He and I talked actually before the last Philly game, and you can just see he’s frustrated. This is a hard league. I know we’ve all talked about how it’s a hard league to step into in these circumstances. It’s hard enough when you get a one-week training camp, you don’t have any exhibition games and you have to hit the ground running. It’s just a really strange year, and it’s a hard year for rookies. You can see that he’s getting frustrated, and to me, it’s the mental aspect of what he’s going through right now. We’ve just got to help him through it.”

A lot of what Quinn said is right. This isn’t a normal season. Especially for a teenager who went number one overall in a hyped 2020 NHL Draft. Only three draft picks are playing. Tim Stutzle of the Senators has fared well so far in a more defined role for the true rebuilding Ottawa. Jamie Drysdale has debuted with the Ducks scoring his first NHL goal and adding an assist while getting ideal shifts on the back end of Anaheim, who are one of the worst teams. It’s much easier for Drysdale and Stutzle than Lafreniere, who can hardly get any power play time due to who’s ahead of him. That isn’t his fault.

It’s the way the Rangers are constructed. They can continue to insist they’re a rebuilding team. But how can they be when they doled out all that money on Artemi Panarin and then overpaid Jacob Trouba? With decisions looming on key restricted free agent Pavel Buchnevich and potential 2022 UFA’s Zibanejad and Strome, it’s hard to gauge what they are. Kreider was re-signed last year prior to the Trade Deadline. He decided to forego free agency and take a home discount. He didn’t have to. If they’d subtracted him, nobody could’ve filled his role as the power forward who scores goals in the trenches while screening goalies.

Let’s not forget that the organization had zero idea they’d luck into the top pick due to a flawed two part lottery system. By getting swept by Carolina in as uncompetitive a three-game Play In Series as possible, they actually wound up winners by landing Lafreniere with the first pick last October. However, he hasn’t found it easy. With no AHL options due to a different set of rules for junior hockey players who played in the QMJHL, he’s played in all 34 games with mixed results. There are some shifts where you notice him like the four-game point streak he put together. Then there are times you don’t know he’s out there. That’s if he’s playing.

At only 19, the first-year left wing from the Province of Quebec is still adjusting to life in the NHL. With five goals and five assists, Lafreniere hasn’t quite lit the world on fire. However, all 10 of his points have at even strength including the memorable overtime winner in an exciting road win at Buffalo. That was before the Sabres went into the tank literally. He did score on a rebound of a Julien Gauthier shot to make things interesting the other day. Then Kreider scored his team-leading ninth power play goal. He leads the team with 17. A good number for a streaky scorer. Especially given the leadership he provides.

When you have a young core that features a game changer in Panarin, who is paid handsomely, it changes the expectations. For all the emphasis on the youth movement that includes steady D tandem Fox and Ryan Lindgren, plus K’Andre Miller, there still are more experienced players the Rangers are relying on. So, while they handle Lafreniere cautiously due to where he is in his development, the reliance on top two centers Zibanejad and Strome is a significant gap from Filip Chytil. A young player who showed promise at the start prior to his injury, the 21-year old former first round pick has yet to prove he can supplant Strome, who has superb chemistry with Panarin. When his sidekick was out, he proved he could still produce by working well with Kreider.

With Buchnevich taking a leap up with 31 points over 33 games, he’s increased his value this summer. A year away from unrestricted status, he can either be traded or re-sign for a nice raise. With the team still waiting for Kakko to start finishing more consistently and Vitaly Kravtsov on deck for his anticipated NHL debut, it’ll be interesting to see how the team handles this final stretch. While they’ve gotten good production from Buchnevich, Kreider, Panarin, Strome and Zibanejad, they’re still looking for improvement from Kakko and Lafreniere. Their progression is the key to the future. One that is more vital than any present success.

When it’s hard for the coaching staff to find enough power play time for the kids, it doesn’t bode well for their development. How many other teams lean so heavily on a top unit that remains puzzling? No matter how many power play goals they score, the five man top unit of Fox, Kreider, Panarin, Strome and Zibanejad have been consistently inconsistent. There are moments where they connect and others that are mind-numbing due to the reluctance to shoot the puck. The little used second unit that sometimes has either Kakko or Lafreniere on gets the remaining scraps. It isn’t a recipe for success. When they do start a man-advantage, there aren’t enough reps which hurt chemistry.

Even though the forward depth has improved thanks to key additions Blackwell and Kevin Rooney, there are too many instances where a young player finds themselves in a reduced role. How do you explain Julien Gauthier? He has created offense off his size and speed when he’s in the lineup. However, Gauthier has taken bad penalties that found him scratched despite his contributions. Then there are games like Sunday where he doesn’t receive enough ice time in a back-to-back where some of the core were sluggish. That included Panarin, who had a second straight poor game without a point. Even Fox had a tough day. A rarity.

Then there’s the decision to start Keith Kinkaid over Igor Shestyorkin. If it was only due to his one successful outing in a 3-1 win on 3/20, it wasn’t the right choice. However, if it’s because they didn’t want to use Shestyorkin for a third straight start after coming off his groin strain, that’s more understandable. Especially with the amount of shots he faced against the Flyers. There’s a recent injury history with the starting goalie that isn’t too comfortable. If he’s going to take the reigns, they need him to be healthy moving forward. That’s a requirement for any good starter in the league. That Kinkaid had a tough game allowing five goals on 22 shots didn’t help matters. On Sunday, Quinn felt more comfortable starting his third string goalie on the depth chart due to Alex Georgiev’s struggles.

This is his third year behind the bench. Quinn said before the game that he wants to use his best players. But then chose Kinkaid for a game they needed to win. You can’t have it both ways. That also applies to the situation with Lafreniere, who did score a goal despite having his role reduced. He might not be as good overall as Kakko is in his second year. But Lafreniere has two more points than the 2019 second pick who blew a one-on-one with Ilya Samsonov by refusing to shoot the puck. Instead, he opted for a fancy deke that an aggressive Samsonov poke checked away. It’s those scoring opportunities that Kakko must start burying with regularity. The Rangers didn’t draft him for his Corsica possession statistics or defensive play.

It’s also perplexing that Quinn didn’t feel Kravtsov was ready to help the team. He hasn’t had enough discussions with the first round pick due to having COVID-19. However, it’s not like the 21-year old Russian prospect hasn’t been practicing. He can speak to him on the phone, through text or Zoom. Something he did to communicate with other players. If for some reason Kravtsov doesn’t debut this week, it could be to make sure they get enough games in for other players due to the Expansion Draft. While it is a tacky reason, it’s understandable. Does playing Phil Di Giuseppe really matter at this point?

Brendan Lemieux was traded to LA due to a numbers game. That was understandable. He will get an opportunity for more of a role with the Kings, who are trying to chase down both the Blues and Coyotes for the fourth and final spot in the West Division. Quinn also referenced Brett Howden, who is ready to return to the lineup following COVID protocol. The organization also wants to take a look at Morgan Barron. A ’17 sixth round pick out of Cornell who’s played well in the AHL. In a dozen games with Hartford, he has seven goals and three assists. Considered a two-way center, Barron definitely deserves to play. That way they can better determine what he is.

With well respected veteran Brendan Smith up after the season, he could be a trade candidate. He’s done a solid job filling in on the blue line. Even with a mix up on the Flyers’ winning goal on Saturday between him and Libor Hajek, it’s hard to critique him. The effort is always there. It’s a positive development that the Rangers have now seen Hajek enough to decide his future. One that probably will be elsewhere. If they do move Smith by the April 12 Trade Deadline, they can play Tarmo Reunanen in more games. He recorded an assist in his one game.

Over the next month, the Rangers will face many tough decisions. Whatever is going on in the standings, they must choose the future. It’s a lot wiser than a hope and a prayer.

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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