A fan’s perspective on the disappointing Rangers so far

I’ll be honest. I haven’t felt like writing lately about this team. They are far more boring due to the predictability of Gerard Gallant.

Maybe it’s not all his fault either. Maybe it’s the way the roster is constructed. Maybe it’s time to look at the lousy off-season Chris Drury had. Anointed a ‘genius’ by other pundits, I’m starting to see things a bit differently.

Would you have given a 37-year old Jaroslav Halak a full no-movement clause and signed the declining backup goalie for $1.5 million this year? The results haven’t been up to par so far. In six starts, he’s yet to win a game and hasn’t exactly been consistent. Either he straightens out or it’s a huge fail by Drury, whose only other option is journeyman Louis Domingue.

In adding depth forwards Ryan Carpenter and Jimmy Vesey along with re-signing Julien Gauthier, that made Ryan Reaves expendable. Once Gauthier reestablished himself after coming back up from Hartford, the writing was on the wall for a great team guy in Reaves. He did the right thing requesting a trade.

Drury was lucky the Wild were interested. They assumed the rest of the $1.75 million tab for a player who became the odd man out under Gallant. The same coach who wanted him here and played him a lot last year. By extending him before he even played a game, Drury took an expensive risk. Paying a fourth liner that kind of money could’ve come back to bite him.

It nearly did. But due to Reaves’ past relationship with former Penguins teammate and current Wild GM Bill Guerin, Drury was able to accommodate Reaves’ trade request through his agent. He wanted to play. That’s exactly what he did yesterday on Black Friday. Reaves played over 12 minutes for Minnesota. Not bad for a guy who unfortunately became a victim of the numbers.

As much as I liked Reaves for what he brought to last year’s team due to his commitment, character, hard work and leadership, I knew this would likely be his fate. I called it a while ago. I’m glad he got the chance to play for the Rangers and make a positive impact both on and off the ice. Best of luck to a good man with his new team.

Of the additions Drury made, only Vesey has really made a difference. A likeable guy who’s mostly been used in a checking role recently with the Devils across the Hudson River, he’s gotten the opportunity to play in the top six on Broadway. While he’s played an honest game and done well by chipping in with seven points, there’s no way he should be on either the first or second line. Or does his two goals satisfy Gallant to justify playing Vesey with mostly Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider?

It all stems from a lack of trust in former high picks Kaapo Kakko and the lost Alexis Lafreniere, who looks nothing like the player he was supposed to be when they lucked into the top pick three summers ago. While there’s been noticeable improvement from Kakko, who seems to get quality scoring chances every game only to be foiled on most, it’s hard to believe he only has scored four goals. At some point, they have to start going in.

As for Lafreniere, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Gallant has no idea how to use the 2020 first overall pick. He’s tried playing him on the off wing with both Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck. The latter experiment where he found some chemistry with the exasperating Artemi Panarin (0 goals in 11 straight) started positively, but ended poorly.

Since then, the 21-year old Lafreniere has found himself reunited with both Kakko and Filip Chytil on the First Round Pick Line. In Year Three, after a promising showing in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lafreniere remains stuck on two goals through 21 games. Not enough production for what either is a much overhyped Canadian prospect or another mismanaged young player by an organization known for stunting the growth of most prospects. I think by now, you know which camp I’m in.

Lafreniere’s natural position is left wing. Once the Rangers won the two part Draft Lottery following their ouster from the 2020 Preliminary Round, it put them in an unenviable position of having both Kreider and Panarin ahead of Lafreniere on the depth chart. With Kreider scoring a career high 52 goals including a franchise single season record 26 on the power play in ’21-22, there was no way Lafreniere would start on either of the top two lines at left wing. He’s been screwed around with. Despite that, he has remained positive due to how grounded he is.

With Panarin struggling to produce consistently at five-on-five like he has in years past, it’s complicated matters. Why else would Gallant have him on a new first line alongside Zibanejad with Kreider now shifted over to the off wing. It hasn’t come easy for Panarin with Trocheck, who’s more meat and potatoes unlike former second pivot Ryan Strome.

Trocheck finds himself between Vesey and Barclay Goodrow on a checking line when they host Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers this afternoon. Exactly what they paid Trocheck to do by also giving him seven years and the usual NMC the first three seasons before it becomes a moderated no-trade clause for the rest of the contract.

If Panarin can’t find chemistry on the top line playing with the Rangers’ best players, where to put the $11.6 million man with the immovable contract that doesn’t expire until 2026. If not with Trocheck, perhaps Gallant should consider trying the play-making Panarin with Chytil. An improving player whose 10 points (4-6-10) in 15 games have all come at even strength. His skill, speed and shoot first mentality might work. But they’d probably need a defensively responsibile forward to round it out. Either Vesey or Goodrow. The latter could take draws.

I’m a proponent of giving Kakko another look on the top line. He certainly creates plenty of chances due to his strong puck possession. He’s had breakaways too, but doesn’t shoot enough. He prefers to make one too many moves which opposing goalies seem ready for. He’s still a better option than Vesey, who’s better suited for a checking role like he was in New Jersey. Isn’t it about time they give Kakko an extended look to find out already?

With Gallant steadfast in his refusal to bench Sammy “No Goal” Blais (yet another Drury mistake) and reinsert Vitaly Kravtsov despite indicating otherwise, it feels like the end is near for another high draft pick. I guess they would rather play a bunch of grinders with little skill than find out if Kravtsov can handle the workload. How he’s not part of the equation since being declared healthy from the mysterious stomach bug/toothache is mind-boggling. So much for having a clean slate.

The Rangers aren’t a good offensive team. They rely too much on the established stars. It can’t always be the same five or six guys scoring the goals. That doesn’t work over an 82-game season. Especially if you have Stanley Cup aspirations.

They did clear enough room to add a significant player at next year’s trade deadline. Knowing what we know so far, would you go all in on a rental like Patrick Kane, who’ll cost them young players, prospects and picks? It seems like something this franchise has done before. One Cup in 82 years. Will they ever learn from their past mistakes?

I believe there needs to be better scoring balance. That means not relying on the same top unit which can’t always get it done. It also means Adam Fox getting help from a lackluster blue line where both K’Andre Miller and new captain Jacob Trouba have struggled. Aside from Fox’s six goals, Braden Schneider (2) plus rookie Zac Jones and Libor Hajek have four goals combined. They need a lot more from Trouba and Miller. Ryan Lindgren isn’t paid for offense. He supplies the nuts and bolts.

Igor Shesterkin has accounted for all 10 wins this team has. His play has gotten significantly better this month. He will face the McDavid/Draisaitl Oilers machine today. The rating Vezina winner enters with a 10-2-3 mark with a 2.38 GAA and .917 save percentage. Respectable numbers that should improve. If the offense continues to be inconsistent, they’ll need Shesterkin at his best. We know what he’s capable of. He’ll be asked to carry the team much like last year.

In certain aspects, it feels like when Henrik Lundqvist had to do similar with lesser rosters. He never had a player like Panarin, who could produce at such a high clip. Nor a dominant defenseman in the mold of Fox. The most valuable Blueshirt up to the quarter mark. Fox has been so good that I have him ahead of Erik Karlsson for the Norris. He has to do everything. Where would they be without him?

In order for them to have more success, it’s imperative for the younger players to have clearly defined roles that have them contributing the secondary offense needed. You can only ask Fox, Zibanejad, Panarin, Kreider and even Trocheck to do so much. Both Panarin and Zibanejad can be better at five-on-five. They should be.

Whether he realizes it or not, Turk isn’t getting many goals from grinders such as Vesey, Gauthier, Carpenter or 12th forward Blais. Goodrow can chip in due to having a bit of skill to go with his grit. He’ll remain a key player that can be plugged anywhere. Similar to last season.

That means getting more out of Kakko and Lafreniere. One has more confidence while the other is clearly working through it. They do continue to work well with Chytil like they had during last year’s dream run to the Conference Finals. One that might’ve been fool’s gold due to injuries to opposing netminders and Sidney Crosby. They also benefitted from having Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and depth players Tyler Motte and Justin Braun playing key roles.

The growth of the team depends on the kids. Just like I said at the beginning of the season. They will determine what kind of year it is.


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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