The New York Rangers are officially in an early-season crisis, with just three points earned from their first seven games. While many are pointing to a similar start in 2013-2014 as reason to keep calm, there’s enough statistical precedent to be concerned.
When a team finds itself in a downward spiral like this, there is never just one singular problem, but a combination of factors. In addition to the intangibles (lack of confidence, bad luck) the Rangers have not managed their personnel well to this point. There are curious lineup choices across the board, exacerbated by the nightly shuffling of players in and out of, and up and down the lineup.
This is common practice among most NHL coaches, especially early in the year. During his time with the Rangers, Alain Vigneault has preferred to use the first six weeks of a season to experiment before settling (for the most part) on his top three lines and defense pairs around Christmas. This season however, the Rangers are not handling the coach’s experimentation well and its led to a slow start that has already put their playoff chances in jeopardy.
While I don’t expect Vigneault (or any coach) to handle a professional hockey team like a kid playing a video game, the bench boss would be wise to at least commit to the following:
- A top six of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes
- A top defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk
Regarding the forwards: keep the KZB line together, forever. It was the only line that was consistently good through the first six games of the season, and has now displayed real, meaningful chemistry over the course of multiple seasons. Secondly, give Kevin Hayes a fighting chance to be a true #2 center between the team’s two best all-around forwards. Stop trying to use Rick Nash as a super-utility third line player and please stop elevating David Desharnais to a top six role.
Regarding the defense: treat Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk like the elite defensemen they are. Yes, the Rangers have some deficiencies on defense (what else is new?), but moving Shattenkirk down to the third pair to try and cover up for Marc Staal is extremely wasteful of Shattenkirk’s ability. McDonagh and Shattenkirk are veterans who should be trusted to play big minutes in all situations. The way to hide your weaker defensemen is to play them less. Pretty much every team in the NHL does this, and there’s a good reason for it.
Lastly on McDonagh and Shattenkirk: they need more than a game and a half together to develop chemistry. They’ve both earned more than enough rope during their careers to make some mistakes, and neither should be subject to a quick hook from the coach. Let them play together for at least 8-10 games and if it really doesn’t work, then move on.
None of what I wrote above guarantees that the Rangers will turn this around, but it seems like a better plan than just plugging names into the Alain Vigneault line generator, right?"A Plea for Stability",