Same old, same old for Gallant and bland Rangers

There will be a hockey game in a bit played at the old Staples Center in Hollywood. The Rangers face the Kings in an interesting match-up where Luc Robitaille starred along with Gretzky, who made hockey happening in California.

Without the Great One, there’s no expansion in San Jose or Anaheim where the latter were born thanks to Disney’s hit The Mighty Ducks. Gretzky helped the NHL become more popular in non-traditional markets. At one point, the league had 21 teams. Now, they’ve increased to 32 with Seattle being added last year a few years after Vegas.

It’s fun to talk about how hockey changed in the 90’s. Who ever would’ve thought the sport would become such a hot ticket in Colorado or Nashville? At least Winnipeg got a new franchise after losing the original Jets to the unstable Arizona where Gary Bettman continues to cling to some hope that hockey can succeed in the Desert.

While it’s nice to revisit the sport’s popularity due to expansion, it isn’t as fun to talk about the current Rangers playing in Manhattan. Why is that?

Coming off a great ’21-22 that saw the team have tremendous success both in the regular season and postseason where they were able to rally past both division rivals in the Pens and Hurricanes to reach the Eastern Conference Final, one would think differently about this season. But they’d be proven wrong due to the stubborn nature of Gerard Gallant.

A good coach who fit in well during Year One, he managed to push every right button. He gets plenty of credit for turning around a franchise that hadn’t seen the playoffs since former coach Alain Vigneault left Broadway in ruins for David Quinn to try to fix. He did as good as he could in his first gig. Now, he’s trying his luck in San Jose.

Ironically, Quinn got his first win for the Sharks in overtime at MSG on an Erik Karlsson goal. Who knew it would be the start of a career revival for the two-time Norris winner? Good for him. The Sharks play hard under Quinn. Of course, they do. They’re not too good.

The Rangers just visited the Shark Tank over the weekend. They dominated most of the action by doubling up the Sharks in shots and scoring chances. However, for over two periods, the game remained scoreless. It dragged due to the Rangers’ ineptitude at five-on-five. They aren’t too exciting.

It took a rare goal for the deserving Julien Gauthier to break a scoreless tie with just over six minutes remaining. The second for a hard-working player who gives maximum effort every shift. Since his recall from Hartford, he’s done enough to stay up. What does that mean for Ryan Carpenter and Ryan Reaves, who remains a healthy scratch tonight?

Complicating matters, you have Gallant who’s so reliant on his top guns that there’s zero creativity. Even though Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko play together with Filip Chytil on a key third line that was instrumental during last Spring’s run, they barely see any real power play time. They also aren’t leaned on like top performers Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and Adam Fox.

The problem is Gallant insists on Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow playing in the top six. That isn’t working. Vesey made the roster on a PTO. He’s better suited in a supporting role. He wasn’t even used that way under early Jack Adams candidate Lindy Ruff for the Devils last season. Vesey is a strong penalty killer having cashed in once shorthanded. But playing first line had really infuriated the fan base.

Goodrow is a guy you can plug. However, he’s best utilized in a checking role. Why he isn’t centering the fourth line? He does have four goals and plays the game honestly. He brings that edge too. An effective penalty killer who also can get underneath the skin of opponents, Goody isn’t afraid to mix it up. With how vanilla the roster is, that’s a good thing.

There also is the issue of Vitaly Kravtsov. A player who can’t seem to stay healthy, he finally picked up his first point on an assist during a win. Then, he had the toothache issue that kept him out of the lineup. However, Gallant admitted that the rookie is ready to return and has been for a couple of games. Instead of getting another look at him with Panarin and Trocheck, the all too predictable coach has decided to stick with the same lineup that only got two pucks by James Reimer on 43 shots.

For a coach who had indicated that he likes Kravtsov and wants to see what he can do, it sounds like double-talk. Either he wants to play him and will or he’s full of it. Right now, it feels like the latter. It’s not like this team is scoring a lot at even strength. They still have the same weakness as last year.

The difference is Team President and GM Chris Drury won’t be able to add an Andrew Copp or Frank Vatrano to bolster the offense. There’s not enough room for Patrick Kane, who isn’t a realistic option for a team up against the cap.

With Lafreniere remaining stuck on two goals and strong possession fourth-year man Kakko stuck on three goals despite showing some improvement, how can anyone be excited about this team? If the key stars and overused top unit doesn’t produce, there remains a lack of scoring depth. Especially with the former 2019 second pick and 2020 top pick unable to provide consistent offense.

As for the blue line, if Fox isn’t scoring goals or picking up assists, no one is. He’s the MVP of the team so far over Igor Shesterkin. Where would they be without him? He plays a ton of minutes for Gallant, who leans on his former Norris winner at five-on-five, power play and penalty kill. Jacob Trouba is mostly used at even strength and on the penalty kill with a small role on the second power play when it actually sees the ice. Trouba is rounding into form after some injuries. That’s a plus.

Ryan Lindgren remains a warrior. K’Andre Miller has been a big disappointment so far. He’s made too many mistakes and hasn’t taken the leap forward many pundits expected. Braden Schneider has picked it up after a slow start. Thus far, Gallant has worked in both rookie Zac Jones and Libor Hajek to play with Schneider on the third pair. That’s fine. But Jones is the better skater who can contribute on the second power play.

Shesterkin has been better lately. It’s hard to match what he achieved last year. That was a historic season. But he’s starting to make the big saves we’re accustomed to seeing from him. His numbers should continue to improve. It would be nice to see the Rangers provide better support for Jaro Halak. He’s been better than his statistics.

If they want to become the team they’re supposed to be, it’s up to Gallant to trust his younger players. It’s also up to those aforementioned players to start producing. If it doesn’t improve, it’s hard to see the team having too much success next Spring. They should get there. But they’ll need much more balance to go far.


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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