Rangers midseason grades: The top-six forwardsJanuary 3, 2014, by
The Rangers have struggled to score consistently all season. Successful teams get the bulk of their scoring from their top six forwards, but no Ranger forward has covered himself in glory this season. Before going on to look at the individual grades at the halfway mark consider this: Mats Zuccarello is leading this team in scoring – a team designed to win the Cup – and is 71st in scoring in the league at time of writing.
Offensively this team will live or die on Rick Nash’s production. As of Wednesday night, 156(!) players had scored more goals than Rick Nash (7 goals, 16 points in 24 games). While his injuries are unfortunate, the peripheral play, extended droughts, and lack of dominance from a player with Nash’s skill and size are a concern. Nash is making $7.8 million and is the team’s most gifted forward, but rarely has he come close to earning his salary or leading the Rangers offense. A team with limited skill need more from their sole elite forward, Nash needs a strong second half if the Rangers are going to have success.
Currently amid an extended goal scoring drought, Richards is a difficult player to grade. At times his play five on five has been painful to watch. Meanwhile he has looked dangerous on the powerplay and yet, he only has 8 points with the extra man to show for it. Richards is second on the team in scoring and is one of the few players on the team that gets pucks on net at every opportunity. Many of his goals have been bad angle shots or deflections and it’s because Richards has tried to be opportunistic. With 27 points and 9 goals so far, Richards is a player in decline but is still an important part of the Rangers this year.
Kreider has come on significantly this season and has cast aside many concerns about his long term future. While Kreider leads the Rangers – from a team perspective – with an underwhelming 10 goals (on pace for 22), it is his physical play, work ethic, and speed that has excited fans. Kreider has been one of the Rangers more physical forwards, yet the fact Alain Vigneault almost never utilises the young power forward in overtime situations suggests he still lacks the full trust of the new Rangers coach. Kreider is young, and has plenty of room for improvement, which will hopefully earn the coaches trust in the extra session
Despite four powerplay goals so far, it is the less heralded forward trio of Derick Brassard-Benoit Pouliot-Mats Zuccarello that are more effective with the extra man – an indictment for the likes of Nash, Stepan, and even Kreider. On course for close to 50 points this season, it will be a solid rookie campaign for Kreider. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of his season is how Kreider handled his time in the AHL and used it as motivation to succeed this season.
Stepan is an incredibly important part of the Rangers present, and future. That is what makes his season so far a disappointment. Not since his rookie year has Stepan been so streaky. Stepan has also only scored seven goals so far, which is bad enough until you realise four of those (including a hat trick against Carolina) came in a five day spell early in November.
Stepan has been especially frustrating because he hasn’t utilised his impressive shot nearly enough, which is taking away his effectiveness as the team’s top center. The Rangers need more consistency from the Olympic bound Stepan if they are to contend in the near future. Despite his up and down year Stepan’s projected season of 50 points would still be among the team leaders.
There’s a common theme amongst the Rangers top six forwards this season: Like Stepan and Nash, Callahan – when healthy – hasn’t performed to the level both expected from him and that of which he is capable. Callahan has been somewhat error prone when he has played, not as effective as he usually is on the forecheck, and with seven goals on the year he hasn’t found the net enough either. Captain Callahan’s last goal was way back on the 16th November and his increasing penchant for injury is a concern.
Callahan is a great Ranger and a great captain, but he’s no good to the Rangers when he’s not on the ice. Given the likely salary Callahan may seek – and could find in free agency – there’s a legitimate (but small) chance Callahan may wear another jersey in the future. Hard to grade given his in and out of the line-up season, Callahan is still an effective player in so many ways.
Save the best for last? At one point early in the season Zuccarello was invisible. For the past six weeks he has been anything but. By far the Rangers most consistent forward for the majority of this up and down season, Zuccarello has been dangerous at both even strength and on special teams. His vision, increasing finishing ability, and lead-by-example, relentless work rate have all but ensured Zuccarello a nice new deal in the summer.
Zuccarello handled his healthy scratch against the Flyers early in the season the right way: He leads the Rangers offensively and has made himself irreplaceable. That said, consider that Zuccarello leads the team in scoring and is on pace for a solid 56 points. In 2009 Scott Gomez was chased out of town for his mediocre 58 points. Still, Zuccarello has been a blessing for the Rangers this season.
The Rangers have simply not delivered offensively this season (although the ‘unit’ have had injury concerns to deal with). The offensive numbers and our grades of the presumptive top six reflect this. With 41 games left on the season, there’s plenty of time for the key guys to get up to speed and if the Rangers are to have any kind of success this year they’ll need to do just that.