In all reality the Rangers shouldn’t be leaning on Mats Zuccarello. After all, Zuccarello is somewhat middle of the pack when it comes to the big tickets assembled by the contending Rangers. A handful of forwards drop more salary. Zuccarello’s salary rank takes an even bigger hit when you factor in the blueline and a certain All-world goalie residing in the New York net.
The thing is, Zuccarello – also not yet at his best after his scary injury – has been the Rangers best and most consistent forward this season and there hasn’t been much competition. The Rangers just haven’t been good enough up front; whether it’s a lack of finishing (looking at you Mr Nash and Mr Kreider), struggling to establish a consistent forecheck or even helping out their own blueline who’ve faced countless odd man rushes in part because of the miscommunications with their forward brethren. The Rangers forwards aren’t where they need to be. Yet there is Zuccarello on course to smash his career high in goals in part thanks to his hattrick against the hapless Leafs while playing the best hockey amongst the Rangers vaunted top six.
Like most teams the Rangers go as their best players go. Right now, only Henrik Lundqvist can say he’s his usual elite self and keep a straight face. Rick Nash, Derick Brassard as well as the entire blueline are not contributing as expected. Right now it’s the blueline that is causing most concern. Other forwards and the Rangers’ general depth are covering for Nash, for Kreider and for Brassard (take a bow Oscar Lindberg) but the defensive unit – as a collective – are making a series of errors each and every game.
The entire blueline has been a relative tire fire. It’s been hockey punctuated by individual mistake after individual mistake, by poor coverage and unacceptable defensive zone exits. The Rangers blueline has also been a turnover machine throughout October. Through all of that negative narrative (say that drunk) and no one, perhaps not even Dan Girardi, has begun the new season in as disappointing fashion as Ryan McDonagh.
Wherever you look, whatever league; this season Rangers’ goaltenders are putting up strong numbers. Led by Henrik Lundqvist’s strong start, the Rangers group of netminders are showing that, at the very least, the Rangers are among the best organisations in the entire NHL for goaltending depth. Let’s take a quick look at how Rangers goaltenders are getting on to begin the season;
Obviously, any conversation about goaltending begins and ends with Lundqvist. As he goes, so do the Rangers. Lundqvist is neck and neck with Carey Price for the best goaltender in the world tag and if the Rangers actually manage to play some consistent defense in front of their franchise goalie then this season could feature a second Vezina trophy for Lundqvist. Lundqvist may ‘only’ have a 3-2-1 record but his 2.16 GAA would be the third best mark of his career and his .931S% would represent a career high if he can maintain such a lofty figure all season.
Replacing Cam Talbot was never going to be easy for Antti Raanta but a shutout victory in your Rangers debut is one way of endearing yourself to the Rangers fanbase. His 19 game stretch (16-0-3) without losing a home game in regulation is borderline ridiculous. The Rangers managed to develop one backup (Talbot) into an NHL quality starter and there’s a legitimate chance they could do the same with Raanta. Success in the modern NHL often requires effective asset management and Raanta (26) could be the next example of the Rangers developing a young, cheap acquisition into something more significant.
Once again the Rangers found a way to play down to the level of an opponent. What was a fast start by the Rangers was in fact a false dawn. The Rangers came out quick in the first period creating chances, pressuring the Devils defense into mistakes and using their speed to enter the Devils zone all of which was evident in Derek Stepan’s opening score. A turnover forced by the impressive Oscar Lindberg resulted in the Rangers going the other way up ice and Lindberg’s excellent cross ice pass found a streaking Stepan who went to his backhand to put it under Corey Schneider.
As the game plodded along however, the Rangers progressively lost control of the game. The Devils outworked the Rangers in the second and deservedly tied it up following a turnover by the Rangers in their own zone. The Rangers coughed up the puck along the boards and Adam Henrique put the puck on net with a kneeling Dan Girardi screening Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist may have been unsighted on the play and maybe wasn’t tight enough to his post which allowed Henrique to follow up his own rebound to tie the game. That’s how the game stayed until overtime. The remainder of regulation saw a few chances exchanged but the Rangers never really had significant offensive zone time, a few isolated shifts aside.
Rangers special teams costing the Rangers games – already.
Some things remain the same? The Rangers powerplay is already costing the team games. It’s possible to win the Stanley Cup without a functioning powerplay. Boston did it a few years back but it’s certainly a lot easier to win the holy grail – and more realistic – to have at least a competent unit. The Rangers don’t have one, yet they have the personnel where it should rank at least in the top half of the league. A unit that features Nash, Yandle, Stepan and Kreider should be better. There is no movement, there is a lack of willingness to shoot. It’s only five games in but the inept powerplay could undermine the Rangers if Alain Vigneault can’t inject some life into the unit.
While the Rangers have gotten off to a fast start, several of the Rangers European based prospects have been seeing significant action at the same time. Let’s take a quick look at the kids playing in Europe.
Buchnevich playing well
While the KHL’s leading point scorers feature faces from Rangers past (Wojtek Wolski and Nigel Dawes are both in the league’s top ten and each averaging around a point per game) Rangers top forward prospect Pavel Buchnevich is off to a respectable start this season with 13 points in 18 games. Buchnevich has six goals of which three have already been game winners and five have come at even strength. Buchnevich’s 3 game winners rank second in the league.
Buchnevich’s Severstal club are one of the league’s worst midway through October but Buchnevich leads the team in points and is third amongst forwards in ice time (17 minutes per game) so Buchnevich is getting significant opportunity to develop his game before he becomes an option for the Rangers.
The Rangers couldn’t really have asked for much more after two games. Two road games brought two wins against the reigning Stanley Cup champion and one of the Eastern conference’s rising powers. The first two games also gave significant insight into how the Rangers will have sustained success this season: depth and Hank.
Depth wins in the NHL, wins for the Rangers
Mats Zuccarello aside, the Rangers top line hasn’t got started yet and despite this the Rangers have two victories to kick off their season. Six Rangers have at least two points after two games, with rookie Oscar Lindberg starting his first Rangers’ October in sensational style with two big goals and JT Miller showing his difference making ability with three assists in his first two games. Indeed, the Rangers third line (with Viktor Stalberg) has been the team’s best thus far. They’ve established offensive zone time, generated offense and have gotten in on the forecheck consistently.
The Rangers head to Chicago tonight for their season opener while having the ‘pleasure’ of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup banner raising ceremony. The Rangers and the ‘Hawks have both undergone significant roster change – perhaps highlighted by Antti Raanta who headed from Chicago to New York to replace Cam Talbot. With tonight’s game an immediate test of how ready the Rangers are for the new season, let’s take a look at three Rangers players who could play a critical role tonight.
Anytime the Rangers head to Chicago to play the ‘Hawks Kevin Hayes will be a focal point given how he was drafted by the Hawks then walked away from the team. Hayes will be one to watch tonight firstly to see how he acclimatises to his new top six right wing role, a position he rarely played last season. In two games last season Hayes went pointless against Chicago but he’ll be counted on from the get-go this season as the Rangers look for more secondary scoring.
The new Kreider – Stepan – Hayes line boasts a ton of size and playmaking ability but could see a lot of Patrick Kane tonight as Kane starts on the second line with former Ranger Artem Anisimov. How the Stepan line copes with Kane and co. will be a huge factor in the Rangers ability to leave Chicago with a season opening win.
The Rangers are likely looking at a slow start this season and anything better than treading water will be a bonus for Alain Vigneault. Fans should not expect miracles to kick off the season for multiple reasons. While Dave has already discussed the Rangers looking at all their line-up options to begin the season, the fact is only one line offers stability. The trio of Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello will start the year together and that should come as no surprise but beyond this, there will be significant tinkering with the line-up. It’s not just line-up decisions however that could cause a slow start.
Looking beyond the obvious roster decisions and the Rangers have a tough start when you factor in the early schedule. Starting in Chicago is tough enough but throw in a back to back with the talented (and presumably now healthy) Blue Jackets makes the Rangers opening three games a real baptism of fire for the 15/16 season. It doesn’t get much easier. With Eastern conference heavyweights Montreal on tap inside the first two weeks and the San Jose Sharks due two weeks today, the Rangers have a lot of talented opponents to begin the year. ‘Relief’ should come in the form of games against the Devils and the Coyotes but a .500 record after eight games would not be such a bad thing given the opponents up first to kick off October.
Three conference finals and a Stanley Cup appearance is no mean feat, whatever franchise you are. The Rangers have had a strong run over the past half decade or so; they have done it despite the ongoing need to develop young talent, spend to the cap to retain their own and recruit the biggest names on the market. Despite the absence of a Stanley Cup, the Rangers have balanced youth and (relative) success very well. The current roster has a young core and even the most key players have plenty of miles left. With this week’s roster decisions it appears the Rangers are continuing with their dedication to youth.
This week’s announcement that 2010 top ten draft pick Dylan McIlrath made the Rangers opening night roster over cheap and flexible roster part Raphael Diaz wasn’t just the right decision (McIlrath had consistently been the better of the two all preseason) but it was another example of the Rangers dedication to youth. Oh how times have changed since the 1997 – 2003 period (what some fans call the lost years). Factor in Oscar Lindberg having likely played himself into the opening night line-up and another season has arrived where the Rangers have managed to inject youth into the line-up with at least two rookies.