Where do you start with the Rangers top six? If you’re grading the offense as a whole, it’s fair to say you would give the team a strong grade – probably A level.
The Rangers boast an elite (at least statistically) powerplay, they sit second in the league in goals per game (3.4/game) and have scored more goals than every team in the league (144 at time of writing). However, when you break it down, has every player played to his own individual ability?
With the hot start Brandon Pirri got off to as a Ranger it was hard to understand how he bounced around the league so much – he looked like a potential top six shooter, albeit one with defensive deficiencies. He certainly looked like a guy that should be potting 20 goals per year and not bouncing around a league desperate for goal scorers. The past month or so however, and it’s a lot easier to see why Pirri hasn’t stuck with any team for a prolonged period.
Pirri hasn’t just blown hot and cold, he’s just disappeared for stretches. He’s been a passenger far too many times despite having some significant tools at his disposal. Pirri has good offensive instincts and he has a great shot but too often recently he hasn’t brought anything to the table.
Pirri’s last goal was December 11th. He’s gone ten games without scoring. Before that he went twelve games without finding the net. He has just 60 shots (at time of writing) on net despite owning a shot that many players would sell their mothers for. When your best hope of sticking in the NHL is your release you better be releasing it more often.
The Rangers have been incredibly up and down the past few weeks. Which version of the Rangers is the real version we can expect to see down the stretch?
There is no way of predicting the end of the Rangers’ season. I truly believe the blueline will look significantly different come February and we do not yet know how the top nine forward set up will shake out when all are healthy.
How will this influence the team’s ability to match up against the Caps, Pens, Habs and yes, the Blue Jackets?
Reading back that first comment – only the Pens scare me. Even the Pens however have their flaws, their warts. There is no perfect team in the East. That’s why Rangers fans should remain optimistic.
Rick Nash may never again score 40 goals in a season, but his play this season should put any debate about his Rangers’ future to bed. So long as Dan Girardi is on the Rangers blue line, and Jeff Gorton doesn’t significantly address the Rangers defense, the Rangers cannot afford to get rid of a genuinely elite two-way player such as Nash.
Nash’s play without the puck and his defensive conscience are essential to the team, as in his absence we’ve seen inconsistent play from the forwards in their own zone. The Rangers are not a good team defensively and this relative ineptitude in their own zone has only enforced Nash’s importance to the cause.
Even before confirmation that he needs to be protected in the expansion draft, Nash’s own impressive play this season should have made him a player the Rangers would have protected anyway. There is simply no replacing Nash. Whether it’s his ability as a goal scorer, as a leader, or as a two-way example to the younger players on the roster. Cap hit and age be damned.
Hopefully the Rangers won’t have considered shopping JT Miller, Kevin Hayes or any of the ‘core’ kids to help address the team’s obvious flaws but one player who has constantly been touted as a trade chip has been Oscar Lindberg. Thanks to the way the Rangers have utilised Lindberg it’s hard to see any kind package involving Lindberg bringing back any meaningful return.
Yes, Alain Vigneault has openly preached patience with Lindberg (and rightly so) as he came back from a significant injury but the fact Vigneault has prioritised Matt Puempel and Josh Jooris is bad roster management. Neither player likely offer the Rangers more upside than Lindberg whether that is as a trade piece or part of the current roster set up. The fact that Vigneault sees Jesper Fast as a top six winger but keeps Lindberg in street clothes is also baffling even though Fast and Lindberg’s respective destinies should not be directly linked. Fast indeed, has certainly deserved to stay in the line-up despite being misused.
The Rangers have been the definition of inconsistency recently, going 4-4-1, as the team noticeably took a step back after its hot start to the season. During that start the Rangers were arguably led not by Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan but by their kids; most notably Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes and JT Miller.
What we’re seeing right now is all three players go through some growing pains, inconsistent form and quite simply stretches of games where the puck doesn’t go in for them. This isn’t time for panic however. Far from it in fact and this despite Hayes being pointless in four, Miller goalless in six and Vesey with one goal since November 13.
The Rangers can probably tolerate one blueliner playing poorly until they finally decide to amend their blueline closer to the trade deadline, a time when cap space is likely to be plentiful and when the typical NYC obsession with acquiring a big name will take over Jeff Gorton. What they cannot afford is to have multiple liabilities on the back end, particularly on a unit that cannot move the puck as it is and on a unit, that is seemingly playing worse in its own zone as the season progresses.
Kevin Klein has truly come back down to earth and is nowhere near the player the Rangers have enjoyed over the past couple of seasons. His form with and without the puck is becoming a serious problem for the Rangers. With his unsustainable level of offense now a memory, Klein is standing out more for his multiple turnovers, poor positional play and general incompetence on the ice. His indecisiveness and hesitation on the puck right in front of Henrik Lundqvist against the ‘Canes – that led to Viktor Stalberg’s goal – was typical of the Klein we’ve seen this season more often than not.
People talk about the Rangers 5-2 come from behind win against the Pens as a statement game. For me, the biggest statement games were the significant Blues and Lightning victories a couple of weeks back – I feel they were more complete games even if the comeback against the Pens was very impressive. For me, the Rangers gave up far too many high quality chances against the Pens on Monday. It wasn’t a quality defensive performance.
Michael Grabner could go pointless for the rest of the season and he’d already represent good value. His goal against the Blue Jackets last week summed him up best. His speed gives teams fits, he’s up on the play so quickly and once he’s away you cannot catch him. The way he settled the puck and finished his breakaway underlined the confidence he’s playing with right now. It was a goalscorers finish.
Oh, and another thing: Michael Grabner, Cy Young winner?
I admit it, I was wrong. I mused over the summer that one of the best options the Rangers had that could help them address the numerous flaws on the roster was to move a stuck in neutral Kevin Hayes. Turns out Jeff Gorton’s faith, some Alain Vigneault tough love and Kevin Hayes’ summer training plan were much better decisions than my trade intentions.
What we are seeing now is patience being rewarded and just why the entire NHL went hard after Hayes when he decided Chicago wasn’t his original six destination of choice. Gorton re-upped Hayes on a two year, $5.2 million dollar deal and he’s being rewarded handsomely for doing so. There’s not many players offering better value (even on a bridge deal) than Hayes. Hayes will still be under team control when his deal expires as he’ll still be an RFA in two summers time – good times.
It’s fair to suggest that Brady Skjei – not Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Chris Kreider or JT Miller – may be the most important draft pick and/or prospect the Rangers have developed in an entire generation.
With Dan Girardi and Marc Staal in decline (regardless of their respective bounce back seasons, they’re certainly not going to ‘improve’ from hereon in) and with only Ryan McDonagh a sure thing on the blueline moving forward, the Rangers absolutely needed Skjei to become a bonafide top four defenseman.
Not many people will have predicted this regular season coming out party from Skjei, particularly after his underwhelming preseason, but that fact is that Skjei has become an integral and surprisingly productive member of the Rangers and he’s helped solidify a blueline that faced a ton of question marks. His importance will surely only grow as he gains experience.