Still without answers, Gallant’s desperation beginning to show, depth hurting Rangers after loss to well balanced Devils, a closer look into the trust issues with young players

The differences between two bitter Hudson rivals was on full display at MSG on Monday night. For Gerard Gallant, that isn’t a positive development. A good man still searching for answers, he has very few right now.

What transpired was another wasted opportunity for the Manhattan side of the rivalry. Buoyed by two quick goals from Artemi Panarin (finally) and Mika Zibanejad, it looked like the Rangers were out to prove a point at the start against the first place Devils.

Gallant even decided to take a suggestion I’ve made. He moved Filip Chytil up to center the second line, teaming him with the slumping Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. On a good outlet by K’Andre Miller that caught the Devils, it allowed Chytil to move in on a two-on-one and setup Panarin for his first goal in 13 games. That came only 80 seconds in.

Throughout most of the game, it was that newly constructed line which looked good. Chytil was flying. He continues to improve in his fifth season. Proof that if you’re patient with a former first round pick, eventually they’ll get it. In 17 games, Chytil has 11 points including seven assists. Never a big passer, the 23-year old is showing that he’s capable of setting up open teammates.

If only the cynics noticed his improvement. Something that started last Spring when it was the line centered by Chytil with younger pups Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere that provided the spark at five-on-five in the club’s trip to the Conference Finals. I think anyone would admit the returns on both Kakko and Lafreniere have been disappointing so far. But they are 21 and still trying to find their way.

One thing that’s been overlooked is before the old administration run by Jeff Gorton and John Davidson were unceremoniously dumped into the Atlantic by impatient Garden CEO James Dolan, they were responsible for landing Panarin and acquiring Jacob Trouba prior to the start of ’19-20. They spent a whopping $19.6 million on two key additions to take a shortcut into becoming competitive during the rebuild.

In also extending Chris Kreider for $6.5 million that same ’19-20 season when things were looking up with David Quinn behind the Rangers bench, they thought the team was good enough to keep together. After a surprising year where they qualified for the expanded format due to the pandemic, they were dismissed easily in three games by the Hurricanes in what proved to be the last time Henrik Lundqvist ever played.

A big part of that belief were the emergence of future stars Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin. Both grabbed the spotlight during their rookie years to energize the fan base. Even though they were no match for the Canes, there was hope moving forward.

Featuring a core that included Mika Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Trouba, Shesterkin and then second pivot Ryan Strome, there was cause for optimism. With Kakko also part of that roster in what amounted to a challenging rookie season, things looked up.

If there was a gigantic surprise nobody anticipated that summer, it was the second part of the complex 2020 NHL Draft Lottery that really changed things. Having been one of 24 teams to participate in the Stanley Cup Playoff Qualifier, odds were against the Rangers of winning the lottery which featured much hyped Canadian top prospect Alexis Lafreniere.

When the league’s worst teams didn’t win the ultimate prize, that left the door open for eight lucky losers (tennis expression). Even the Maple Leafs, Penguins and Oilers could’ve landed the top pick. Instead, it was the Rangers who won the draft rights to Lafreniere. Never in their history had they ever selected first in the NHL Entry Draft.

Everyone knew that Lafreniere would be the number one pick. How could you argue with all the success he had tearing up the QMJHL and winning MVP of the 2020 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships? Even though he was a left wing, the consensus was to take him number one overall.

Once the Rangers made it official on October 6, 2020, an excited 18-year old teenager said all the right things about joining an Original Six franchise rich in history. If he only knew then.

When it comes to developing its high draft picks, the organization doesn’t have a good track record. Whether it’s taking the wrong player (Brendl, Lundmark, Jessiman, Montoya, McIlrath, Andersson) or being unable to get the most out of them (Korpikoski, Malhotra, Gagner, Middleton) before moving on, the track record isn’t good.

Kreider is a rarity. A first round pick in ’09, he’s been a successful player in the Big Apple. After coming over from winning a national title with Boston College to help the ’11-12 Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final, he’s scored at least 20 goals in seven seasons.

Having twice hit 28, he reached a new level by scoring a career best 52 in ’21-22. A memorable year that saw him surpass Jaromir Jagr for a new single season record 26 power play goals. His 11 game-winning goals were also a new mark for the most by a Ranger in a season.

Although he’s not finishing at the same rate, Kreider has been one of the most consistent players this season. With two assists in the frustrating loss to the Devils, he’s up to 10 goals and nine assists in 23 games. That production is why he’ll stay on the top line with sidekick Zibanejad, whose 11 goals and seven power play tallies lead the team. His 24 points are second behind both Fox and Panarin, who each lead with 25.

Following a good finish to his second year in which he scored 19 even strength goals and added nine points during the postseason as part of the Kid Line, it’s been a struggle so far for Lafreniere. He did recently end an 11-game drought by tallying against Edmonton over the weekend.

However, the 21-year old former top pick feels lost in the shuffle. Lafreniere has been moved around by Gallant. He’s had stints both on the first and second line playing on the off wing. Then, been moved back to his natural position on the left side where he currently is.

He works well with Chytil, who will remain between Panarin and Kakko for a second straight game when the Rangers face Ottawa later Wednesday night. At the moment, he’ll play either with Vincent Trocheck (GTD) or Ryan Carpenter with Vitaly Kravtsov out of purgatory. Another story altogether on how mindless the organization is when it comes to handling prospects.

With three goals and seven assists for 10 points, Lafreniere has to contribute more. The issue is how he’s been handled. Being shuffled all over the place doesn’t allow for consistency or chemistry. A look across the Hudson at how Lindy Ruff has handled the Devils revival is completely different. That’s why they have 19 wins including Monday’s first meeting at what sounded like a Devils home game.

You gotta give MSG credit. They sold-out a long time ago. So, the mocking of “Ig-or,” on a night he didn’t have it is what they get. They cater to a different crowd. Not the traditional fan who’s been there since the beginning. They didn’t even sellout versus the Devils, whose fans bought up a lot of seats to be louder in support of their first good team in years. Who could blame them?

If they want Lafreniere to improve, then the coaching staff had to figure out a way for him to play with better players and receive consistent ice time. He still remains on the little used second unit which has a miscast Trouba on the point.

When Sammy Blais is taking a power play shift, that’s a problem. He of no goals and four assists. A fourth line player who Gallant likes even though he hardly shows it. Ditto for Julien Gauthier, who barely sniffs the ice in the third period despite deserving to.

The bottom line is Lafreniere remains behind both Kreider and Panarin, who still hasn’t recovered from losing center Ryan Strome. He might lead the team in scoring, but his play at five-on-five has been subpar. He hasn’t had much chemistry with Trocheck, who’s a 200-foot player that’ll work in the corners and is a shoot first center unlike Strome, who deferred to the Bread Man.

At least for now, Trocheck has switched places with Chytil. Did GM Chris Drury really give him that contract to be a checking center? You know the answer. This isn’t on Trocheck, whose late power play goal on a rebound at least made things interesting before Yegor Sharangovich scored into an empty net. He plays the game honestly and is a good team player who can be used in any situation. He also is better on face-offs than Strome.

It’s hard for the Blueshirts to be successful when their franchise netminder has a stinker like the game on Monday night. He allowed bad goals to Tomas Tatar, Sharangovich and Jack Hughes even though it was a breakaway. He got beat five-hole.

Shesterkin called his performance crappy. I can’t use the exact word he said. But his frustration was obvious. He even broke a stick yesterday in practice after giving up a goal. A sign that his confidence level isn’t high.

Perhaps that explains why Jaroslav Halak will get the nod tonight in net. Having not won a game yet, it’s important for the likable 37-year old veteran to get off the schneid. He’ll want to erase the last start where he gave up two questionable goals in a Turkey Eve defeat to the lowly Ducks.

As much as the goaltending hasn’t been as consistent although prior to the third period meltdown versus Edmonton, Shesterkin was trending up- it has a lot to do with how the team plays in front of the goalies. They have lapses where they stop playing their game. It happened again on Monday. The pair of goals from Panarin and Zibanejad were followed up by Tatar and Sharangovich tying the game.

Then, they were badly outplayed in a lopsided second period by a Devils team that’s extremely fast and aggressive in both the neutral zone and on the forecheck. They forced a lot of turnovers including the one from Trouba behind his net that led to Sharangovich tying it in the first.

Shesterkin made a lot of saves in the second. However, a Dawson Mercer lob pass came perfectly to Hughes, who was behind Lindgren and Fox. He made his move and beat Shesterkin through the wickets. Mike McLeod would add a goal on a rebound that Shesterkin didn’t track. That was enough for the Devils to win.

Despite several trips to the penalty box in an undisciplined third, the Devils killed off most of the penalties. It wasn’t until Trocheck got to a rebound of a Fox shot that Kreider kicked it towards him that they finally scored on the power play. A five-on-four that’s struggled. It’s now ranked 18th in the league. That’s despite Gallant leaning heavily on the five-man unit of Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and Trocheck.

Although he was shaky early allowing a bad Trouba rebound for an easy Zibanejad put away to fall behind by two, Vitek Vanecek steadied during Monday’s game. He made 30 consecutive saves including a few key ones to keep the Rangers at bay. That allowed his team to come back and grab the lead. He was better than Shesterkin, who not long ago won the Vezina with a historic season.

It isn’t coming as easy these days. It’s hard to point at Shesterkin. It’s been a collective effort. That’s why the Rangers are a mediocre 10-9-4 entering tonight. They’re out of the playoffs at the moment. But the calendar is still November until tomorrow. Way too early to go off the rails.

There are a lot of things that you can’t like. From the inconsistency shift to shift, to the lack of scoring depth. As ESPN analyst Ray Ferraro alluded to in his response to a tweet I sent, they no longer have Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano or Strome to help provide balance. Tyler Motte as well. As I’ve maintained from Day One, it’s up to the kids now.

With the defense having issues due to Trouba clearly not at 100 percent and Miller being up and down, it makes it difficult to win consistently. Trouba has been playing through an upper-body injury. You can see that he’s a step slower and not finishing as many checks. He still does, but not at the same regularity. The mistakes have been glaring.

Some critics made a huge deal out of Leon Draisaitl knocking his stick out following Edmonton tying Saturday’s game. They blew a three-goal lead and it was late in the third period. Trouba couldn’t exactly go back at Draisaitl in that spot. The same for any teammate. Look how they won it. On a bad Lafreniere penalty for knocking the helmet off which Draisaitl cashed in on with just over two minutes remaining.

Are the Rangers softer than last year? Absolutely. They were even when Ryan Reaves was still a member up until recently. They aren’t as hard to play against. You’ll have to ask Gallant why. He makes the lineups. There aren’t many answers these days. But finally an admission that they’re all accountable for the losing.

At not even 25 games in, some have thrown in the towel. Far too early for that. It isn’t like the Pens or Hurricanes are pulling away. The Rangers have now played five divisional games. They’re 1-4-0. The only win against the now morbid Flyers. Obviously, they’ll have to turn it around when they start facing division rivals more. They’ve yet to see Carolina, Pittsburgh or Washington.

If they can get a win against a defense optional Ottawa team that likes to play a fast pace, then there’s another game with them on Friday back home. The lowly Blackhawks then follow on Saturday. Then the middling Blues next Monday. That’s a chance to get better. All four games are winnable. It’ll depend on how they play.

There’s a lot of work to be done. From Shesterkin getting back to the elite level to the team functioning as one. Also the coach having enough trust in the roster. That means not shortening the bench by five skaters in the third period. While I understood the rationale, it means he again is over-playing Fox, who probably should come with a piano on his back from carrying the defense by Christmas.

Unlike that, Ruff used all 18 of his skaters. He seems to have full trust in the players. He recently became just the fifth coach to win 800 games. The players love him. That was also the game Hughes recorded his first career hat trick. A 5-1 home win over the Caps. On Monday, Ruff played all 18 skaters at least 10 minutes including emergency call-up Alex Holtz. A former high pick who clearly isn’t ready.

The Devils definitely are benefitting from their former top picks both growing into young stars. Hughes is leading them with 12 goals and 26 points. Nico Hischier is right behind both Hughes and Jesper Bratt (8-18-26) with 10 goals and 25 points. Both Hischier and Bratt are 24 while Hughes is 21. They are all over a point-per-game.

Ruff has found a role for rookie Fabian Zetterlund. He picked up a helper in the win. Up to 12 points, that’s good production for the 23-year old former third round pick in 2017. That’s better than either Lafreniere (3-7-10) or Kakko (4-4-8).

They’re still trying to figure it out. Is that due to being overhyped or not having clearly defined roles? Maybe it’s both along with the weight of expectation. Each play hard. But sometimes, you don’t notice them during shifts. Not being cast consistently in the top six or on the top unit doesn’t help. They’re essentially blocked by more established higher salaried players.

Ask Kravtsov how he’s been handled since Drury decided to give him a do-over. Injuries and a surgery for a toothache haven’t helped. He was ready to return six games ago. But Gallant wanted to keep the same lineup that includes that fourth line he likes. The one that hardly saw the ice the last two games.

This isn’t to suggest that Kravtsov would make the difference. Honestly, who knows at this point. I liked what I saw when he first arrived debuting under Quinn at the conclusion of ’20-21. Is he strong enough to handle the NHL? That remains a question. Kravtsov gets back in later where he’ll play on the same line as Lafreniere. Hopefully, Trocheck is able to go.

If other teams can remain patient with young players and let them grow as we’ve seen in Buffalo with Tage Thompson and Anaheim with Troy Terry, why can’t the Rangers? They’re seeing Chytil continue to improve. He gets another game with Panarin.

They have given Miller a lot of leeway. He never comes out of the lineup. Now, the coaching staff has decided to take one of my suggestions by pairing him with Braden Schneider. Trouba will pair with Zac Jones. An admission finally.

If we look around the league, you’ll notice Jason Robertson lighting it up with Dallas among the league leaders in scoring. How many players are better finishers? He’s 23. A 39th pick by the Stars in 2017. Their patience got rewarded. They also are playing recent ’21 first round pick Wyatt Johnston (6-3-9).

When they visit Ottawa tonight, the Rangers will have to contend with Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle. Tkachuk is the 23-year old do everything captain who paces the Senators in points (25), assists (16), goals (9), penalty minutes (32) and is second in hits (54). Stutzle is second in scoring with 22 points (8-14-22) including 14 at even strength. He went third behind Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield.

The difference is the primary roles Tkachuk and particularly Stutzle play. Flashing back to that 2020 WJC, I was more impressed with the speed and skating of Stutzle than Lafreniere. This isn’t a second guess. Stutzle played for Germany and made them much better. He is a better skater. So far, he’s had a faster start. Of course, it’s easier to play for a team that doesn’t have players ahead of them. That allows for growth.

The Hurricanes have no problem playing Seth Jarvis in the top six. Even though he got off to a bad start in his second year, Rod Brind’Amour has allowed him to find his footing.

You see what Matty Beniers is doing with the Kraken. Two more goals in the game of the month. A wild Seattle 9-8 overtime win at the Kings. The same Kings who have Arthur Kaliyev in a secondary role up to eight goals (6 PPG) and eight assists. He wasn’t good enough to go in the first round of 2019. Oops.

It’s interesting how Kaliyev is used by Todd McLellan. He is on the power play and producing due to that laser of a shot. Neither Kakko or Lafreniere have a power play goal this season. In fact, Lafreniere who is a former number one pick, somehow has zero power play goals over his career. That’s 158 games. What other NHL franchise would that happen under? Kakko has totaled five PPG in 180 games.

If that doesn’t spell epidemic, I don’t know what does. The Rangers are allergic to putting their young players in the best situations to improve. It stunts growth. The Turk way of doing things is hurting them. Being all in on one top unit isn’t beneficial for the future of the team. Especially when they’re not getting it done consistently. At some point, that needs to change.

Can you imagine Hughes here? Would he play over Zibanejad? That is hard to answer. Zibanejad definitely is a first line player who’s now established. That’s because after acquiring him from Ottawa, they gave him every opportunity to succeed. That’s what they haven’t done with Kakko or Lafreniere.

Can it really remain Jimmy Vesey playing first line minutes? He’s a very hard worker who’s performed well. But he shouldn’t be anywhere near the top line. Checking role. Penalty killer. Barclay Goodrow is more effective in that role too. He was miscast on the second line recently. A good player that can be plugged, he shouldn’t be in the top six. These are questions that should be asked.

Gallant is still desperately hoping to solve the scoring problem. By experimenting with Chytil between Panarin and Kakko on the second line, he’s giving two young players another look with the highest paid forward on the roster. If Trocheck can play, Lafreniere and Kravtsov together on a third line could be interesting. Vesey remains with Zibanejad and Kreider. Goodrow back to the checking line with Blais and Gauthier.

Will the Turk find enough trust to do what must be done for this roster to succeed? That remains to be seen.


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.
This entry was posted in NYRangers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.