In a move that should’ve been made sooner, the Islanders announced yesterday that they’ve postponed games through November 30. Leave it to the NHL to wait too long.
With the Islanders finally getting some time off due to the COVID-19 outbreak that’s hit their team, that means no game for the Rangers tonight. So, no rematch with the crosstown rival on Sunday. Disappointing for fans because there’s nothing better than a home and home series with your bitter nemesis. What better way to conclude Thanksgiving Weekend. Boo.
Instead, The Garden is empty. No hockey will be played this weekend at 33rd and 8th. The Rangers get extra time off to prepare for their first game against the Flyers on Wednesday, December 1. A new month to see if they can keep up the momentum. That’s four days off until they host another hated rival at MSG.
Obviously, the way they’ve been going, who wants the team to have a layoff? Not when things are going well. They’ve established an identity under coach Gerard Gallant. A harder team to play against with four lines and more grit and toughness, the Blueshirts won 13 of their first 20 games. At 13-4-3, the good start is exactly what the doctor ordered.
With extra days off, there’s nothing they can do except work on some things in practice like face-offs. An area they need to improve if they want to be successful over the long haul. At the moment, they rank 31st out of 32 teams in face-off percentage (45.3).
That won’t be good enough to get where they want to go next year. So much of puck possession is controlling the face-off. We’ve seen opponents possess the puck more which leads to more offensive zone time. Something Gallant would prefer to see less of. Ditto for losing key defensive zone draws that can lead to goals against such as the one Boston executed on Friday.
The concern is that top center Mika Zibanejad has gotten worse. His face-off percentage has dipped under 50 percent the last three seasons. At least he was over 49 percent for both ’18-19 and ’19-20. His ’21 season saw the win percentage drop to 46.3. Whether you want to attribute that to COVID issues which slowed him down the first two months, go ahead. Currently at 48.1, he needs to be better. They’re counting on him.
Ryan Strome is even worse. Admittedly, he’s had some struggles in the face-off dot. Right now, the key second line pivot is a pitiful 41.6. He’s won 92 and lost 129. That won’t get it done. You can’t have your top two centers that the team depends on be so unreliable. The good news is there’s only one way to go but up for Strome, who’s been getting it done offensively.
Filip Chytil is in his fourth year. The third line center has had some better recent showings on face-offs. In fact, he was the Rangers’ best against the second ranked Bruins, winning six of ten. He also won five in two other games. Overall, the 22-year old is 42.3 percent (55-and-75). Last season, he finished at a career high 42.8. Prior to that, he was under 40 percent. He’s still learning. I’m still not sure he’s best suited at center.
By adding veteran Barclay Goodrow in the off-season, Team President and GM Chris Drury got a quality depth player who’s versatile enough to play center and take draws. While he’s seen some time at the wing, Gallant recently shifted him back to the middle. Goodrow is anchoring the fourth line. Thus far, he’s gone 81-and-96 (45.8). He’s fared better there before. We’ll see what Gallant decides.
Interestingly, former Devil Kevin Rooney has the best face-off win percentage. He’s at 50.7 percent having gone 71 up and 69 down. He’s also contributed offensively with five goals. One of former GM Jeff Gorton’s best signings, Rooney continues to excel in a fourth line/penalty killing role. A solid player, he’s someone Drury should consider re-signing. Given how much salary they have committed to ’22-23, that remains to be seen. Especially with Strome in limbo.
The one potential problem for the team is at center. Having signed Zibanejad for an average of $8.5 million long-term and Adam Fox at $9.5 million AAV, it could be tough to keep Strome. If he is gone after the season, what’s their plan? Even though he’s made strides, Chytil has four points so far. Not enough production to believe he can replace Strome. Both Goodrow and Rooney are support players best suited for the bottom six.
Unless puck possession magnet Kaapo Kakko can move to center which is extremely hard due to all the extra responsibility, the center issue isn’t going away. Ditto for face-offs. An area that’s plagued this team for what feels like an eternity. In reality, it’s only been the past few seasons. They must do a better job. It isn’t only the center’s responsibility. The wingers have to help out. It’s a T-E-A-M EFFORT.
The Rangers are good enough to compete with fringe teams that’ll be on the bubble. In a best-of-seven series, they’ll be hard-pressed to have true success against a Florida, Carolina, Tampa Bay or Toronto. All are stronger at center and win face-offs. They are good examples of puck possession teams who can create offense.
Let’s say they do reach the postseason. What defines success? Is it making the playoffs and winning a round? That would be a good step for a team that has enough proven vets to get there. What if they lose a hard fought seven game series? Is that considered a good season?
At the moment, that’s a tough question to answer. It won’t be provided until much later in the season. As good a start as they’ve had, it hasn’t been perfect. They are in good early position thanks to Igor Shesterkin, who’s bailed out the team in several wins. They’ll need more offense from Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. Goal production.
Twenty games doesn’t make a season. It has been very enjoyable to see them win consistently. We know the schedule will become harder. It always does as the year moves on. Let’s see where they are by February. That’s a good measuring stick. It could determine what moves Drury makes at the trade deadline.
For now, we’ll enjoy the hockey being played. Unfortunately, we have to patiently wait for Wednesday, Dec. 1 to come. Hopefully, they’ll provide fans with Chanukah gelt and Christmas presents.