As is always the case when the Rangers are struggling, fans, players and the media alike are all searching for answers to the team’s woes. And though everything from bad puck luck to injuries has been a factor, coach Alain Vigneault hit the nail on the head yesterday when he put much of the blame for the team’s poor start on its underperforming core members.
“If we are going to get some traction and get past that .500 level, we need our top players to consistently play like top players,” Vigneault told Andrew Gross. “Not a period in, a period out. Not a game in, a game out. We need that core group, the leaders of this group, to perform accordingly. And we have not done that on a consistent basis and on a game to game basis. Just look at our lineup, look at our core group and look at our key guys and there’s the answer.”
Vigneault couldn’t be more right in his assessment of the team 28 games into the year. Because as much as fans like to argue about what Michael Del Zotto might fetch in a trade or which youngster should play a handful of minutes a game in place of Taylor Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot, it’s highly unlikely that any such substitution would have a major impact on the team. Maybe J.T. Miller, Dylan McIlrath and Danny Kristo will re-join the Rangers this year and maybe not, but the Blueshirts certainly can’t count on any of the unproven prospects within the organization to arrive and turn the season around. The team has already gotten a surprise shot in the arm from Chris Kreider, and even that hasn’t been enough.
No, for the Rangers to climb back to the contender status they envisioned when the team hired Vigneault, New York’s top players must carry the team. Of those, only Ryan McDonagh has really played at a consistently high level. Lundqvist, usually immune to criticism, has obviously been the most surprising disappointment, although his numbers in November were right in line with his career averages. But Brad Richards’ play has fallen off a cliff since his hot start, Derek Stepan still doesn’t seem like he’s completely up to speed after a camp holdout, Ryan Callahan has been nowhere near as effective as we’re accustomed to, Carl Hagelin has been invisible since his terrific first two weeks, Dan Girardi has been a shell of himself, and the list goes on and on.
There were obviously different variables for Vigneault to deal with in Vancouver, but one thing the Canucks could always count on was the Sedin twins. Both players have hovered around a point a game in all nine seasons since the lockout, a level of consistency completely foreign to the Rangers. Offense that dependable can mask a lot of mistakes, and the biggest issue for the Blueshirts is that they haven’t received that kind of standout performance from their horses on either end of the ice this season.
The team’s most important offensive player, Rick Nash, seems to be finding his groove after missing over a month with a concussion, and he, like many of the other struggling Rangers, certainly has an excuse. But whereas in the past when some key players have struggled Lundqvist and the terrific defense were there to bail them out, this is going to have to be more of a collective effort.
The team certainly doesn’t lack veteran leaders, but it’s on them to start performing. Vigneault has tried every motivational tactic in the book, but at some point, there’s not much more he can do. No fan wants to hear a new coach admit defeat so early in his tenure, but that’s not what Vigneault is doing. The old saying “a coach is only as good as his players” holds true for New York. If the core members of the team revert to their old form, then Vigneault will look like a genius for turning the season around. But if they don’t…