Rangers might need to shake things up

When the final buzzer sounded last night in Music City, Nashville fans saluted their team for doing a great job protecting a one-goal lead in defeating the punchless Rangers 2-1.

Why not? The Predators blocked 22 shots and stifled the Rangers in a tight checking third period to get a much needed win at Bridgestone Arena.

They did it by winning most of the 50/50 battles and making it difficult for the Blueshirts to get clean looks on Juuse Saros. He made 34 saves on 35 shots. But didn’t have to make any spectacular ones.

What exactly does that say? Shots favored the Rangers 35-18. Total attempts were 73-45. They had the puck more. It didn’t matter because this is the gang that can’t shoot straight. They had 16 shots miss completely. Plus 22 get rejected by the scrappy Preds, who took a page from the old Black and Blueshirts.

It wasn’t easy on the eyes. Not with the overrated power play (top unit only) taking the collar in five chances including a critical four-minute five-on-four that started with 6:19 left in the third period. Even with poor backup Jaro Halak lifted for a six-on-four with 3:01 to go, they never could find a way to tie the game.

To their credit, the Predators took away almost all the passing lanes. That’s how predictable the power play has become. They aren’t scoring enough on it. Of course, Gerard Gallant rode his big unit. They got the whole first half and produced not a single shot.

He couldn’t wait to change again for the little used second unit that includes two-goal Alexis Lafreniere and three-goal Kaapo Kakko. Two former high picks who are wasting away thanks to how the coach runs things.

Win at all costs is hurting this team. If you don’t agree, maybe you didn’t notice Adam Fox catching his breath on the bench as time was winding down. He was exhausted. Fox played 28:17 including 7:42 on the power play. He also received 3:24 of penalty kill time. Not one other defenseman reached 20 minutes.

If the plan is to run his best players into the ground, then Gallant is an expert. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck all played over 21 minutes. That’s how the coach uses them when there are power plays.

He doesn’t trust Lafreniere, Kakko and lone goalscorer Filip Chytil enough to play them more minutes. Nobody received more than Chytil’s 13:28. He was the best forward scoring his fourth goal from Fox and Kakko to make it 2-1 with 8:04 left in the second.

Maybe it’s time for Chytil to be used as a second line player. He plays the right way. Able to utilize his size and speed to get the puck in on the cycle with Lafreniere and Kakko, it’s the elder statesman at 23 who continues to evolve. In 10 games, he has seven points. That included career point number 100 last night. A nice finish off a great pass from Fox.

It’s a bit frustrating that his younger line mates don’t shoot the puck enough. Despite showing improvement, Kakko continues to hang onto pucks and skate around. He still looks pass too much. Lafreniere isn’t shooting at all. He looks like he’s lost confidence. He doesn’t resemble a former top pick.

Is it the system? Or is it how he’s used. This was a consensus first overall pick who dominated the QMJHL and then won MVP for Canada putting up 10 points in the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championships. In 151 career games, Lafreniere doesn’t have a single power play goal. How is that possible? A look at who’s ahead of him is part of the explanation.

However, would it hurt Gallant to use Lafreniere like a real top pick? How stubborn can he be? It’s not like the power play is lighting it up. All they do is look for the perfect play. That’s what happens when you have Panarin out there. All we hear from the broadcast is how wonderful he is. Explain his minus-9 rating. When the top scorer has over half his production on the power play, it doesn’t say much for his play at five-on-five.

Most fans would agree that you’re not bumping Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider or Fox off PP1 for Lafreniere. But what about Trocheck? He plays his role well. This isn’t a criticism. But how many more shots do we need to see the new number 16 send wide or off the goalpost? It’s my opinion that Chytil is more than capable of replacing him on the top unit and scoring on those wide open looks. He hits the net.

The idea of moving Trocheck to the second unit would help provide more balance. He is good on face-offs and strong on the boards. It doesn’t make sense for PP2 to continue to get the leftovers. They don’t receive enough time to make a difference. That can’t be helping the confidence of Kakko or Lafreniere.

Can anyone explain why Jacob Trouba remains on the point of the second power play? He doesn’t belong there. That’s not the only problem. When Zac Jones doesn’t play, Gallant is very limited in options to man the points. Though he could try K’Andre Miller, who has more offensive skills. Defense is another issue.

Miller was caught up ice on the first goal that was scored by Juuso Parssinen. A Finn who made his NHL debut on Saturday night and was used by Nashville coach John Hynes the way a high pick should be used. The difference being he was taken in the seventh round. He led all Predators forwards in ice time (17:49) while playing center and blowing past a defenseless Lafreniere for the game’s first goal.

Why is it so hard for the Rangers to do that with their young players? It’s almost like that run to the Conference Finals has blinded the organization. They got lucky. They beat a third string goalie and a rusty Tristan Jarry. If Sidney Crosby doesn’t go down for a game, they lose the first round to AHL goalie Louis Domingue. They didn’t play well in that series. Neither did Igor Shesterkin. Credit the team for having enough resolve to take advantage and come back.

At least in the second round win against Carolina, the Rangers played better. Shesterkin was Shesterkin. The Rangers beat Antti Raanta, who for the most part held up until the final game. That run was due to key additions Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun. Without those valuable acquisitions, there is no Eastern Conference Final. They came close against the Lightning, but lost to a championship team who had the better players. Experience matters.

The consensus was that losing the way that team did would make them stronger. They’d be hungrier this season. Maybe subtracting all four additions and Ryan Strome hurt more than most thought. Even Kevin Rooney is missed. He was a good fourth line player who was an asset on the penalty kill.

It’s hard to replace what Copp and Vatrano brought. They added the key ingredients to the top two lines. It’s going to continue to be a struggle. Right now, training camp addition Jimmy Vesey is on the top line. He’s working hard. But should he be there? At the moment, it’s anyone’s guess who will play alongside Panarin and Trocheck. Vitaly Kravtsov finally had a good game and then came down with the stomach flu. So, he could be out tonight against the Coyotes for a second straight game.

If Chytil is really going to center Lafreniere and Kakko, they need more shifts together. Not less. Of course, special teams dictate things. It’s that cohesive trio who are the most effective line at even strength. They are able to forecheck, recover pucks and generate opportunities. However, it’s imperative that both Kakko and Lafreniere start finishing. Five combined goals isn’t cutting it. They have excellent chemistry with Chytil, who I would extend after the season.

The checking line wasn’t as effective with Ryan Reaves back. Sure. He had six hits with the last one on Tanner Jeannot causing a fight. Give Jeannot credit. He handled himself well against one of the game’s toughest customers. In terms of forecheck establishment, there was little with Reaves back. Barclay Goodrow between Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier is better. But Gauthier had to move up to the second line.

There weren’t enough bodies in front of Saros. He didn’t have to sweat. He made the saves. His teammates took care of the rest. That is an indictment of how the Rangers play. They don’t get dirty enough. Even in a physical game where the Preds took liberties, they still left something to be desired. Where was Kreider? You couldn’t find him. They also missed him a couple of times on one of those mindless power plays.

Ryan Lindgren got wasted by Jeremy Lauzon. The much bigger Lauzon took up for Ryan Johansen. Lindgren is too small to go up against that behemoth. It was foolish to and he paid for it. Lindgren had to go for repairs before returning in the second period. The Rangers need him on the ice. Not in the penalty box.

Vesey had the misfortune of getting pelted by a Zibanejad slap shot behind the Nashville net. It was one of the missiles that went wide. He somehow didn’t miss a shift. Hockey player. Credit former teammate Ryan McDonagh for calling attention to it and asking for assistance.

There’s nothing wrong with playing a close to the vest physical game against a struggling opponent. In such contests, mistakes are glaring. On the winner scored by Mark Jankowski, Miller was completely out of position to watch him put in a Roman Josi feed for what proved to be the winner.

Miller is frequently out of position, gets caught up ice and hasn’t distinguished himself. Four assists and a minus-5 in 16 games isn’t up to par. The way he’s played lately, he deserves to sit. I’d dress Jones in his place and play him with Jacob Trouba, who looked more like himself last night despite being sacked with a minus-2 due to his partner.

There’s nothing wrong with scratching Miller and letting him watch a game from the press box. If that means Libor Hajek stays in and plays again with Braden Schneider, fine. He has been okay so far. Does the coach have the guts to sit Miller? We know how the organization feels about him. It’s total PR. They talk as if he’s the second coming of Brian Leetch. He’s a third-year player who’s clearly struggling.

There’s no reason for Jones to be the odd man out. He’s a good enough skater and adds value to the second power play. They should be willing to play him. You have to let kids make mistakes. That’s another issue with how things are run. There’s not a lot of trust. Kids get punished. The Kreider demotion was an eye opener because it was a rarity under Gallant.

I could care less what the possession and corsi numbers are at five-on-five. If you can’t score, then you’re not good enough. They aren’t the Devils. They depend too much on their top guys due to the coach. He throws all his eggs in one basket.

In order for them to get out of mediocrity which is exactly what 7-6-3 in the first 16 games is, things must change. Gallant must be willing to play his young players more. He can’t keep burning out the established players. They’re not even a quarter through. There needs to be more trust.

It isn’t like they can call in reinforcements. This is the roster. That’s how poor an off-season Chris Drury had. He didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. We knew Copp, Vatrano and Strome were gone. Could he have been more patient and kept Motte? I believe so. He signed late with Ottawa. He has seven points while playing a third line role with Shane Pinto. A young player who can score goals in this league.

Isn’t it about time the Rangers find out if their young guys are capable of more? If not, then the rebuild was a lie.


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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1 Response to Rangers might need to shake things up

  1. Pingback: Fox’s star shines brightly in Rangers win over Coyotes on Broadway | Battle Of Hudson

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