A shutout victory against a very good team can mask a lot of deficiencies but the Rangers won’t win the Stanley Cup the way they’re currently playing – I think all Rangers fans know this. The top line can dominate all they want but they can’t play sixty minutes every game and Henrik Lundqvist can win the Vezina by a landslide but even he needs support. There is no way Lundqvist can continue this stretch of excellence unless the team start to play better in front of him.
The Rangers are winning games but they aren’t playing consistently well at either end of the rink – a handful of players aside. If it wasn’t for a potentially career year from Mats Zuccarello and Lundqvist’s sustained brilliance, what would this team’s record be? A lot closer to .500 hockey for sure.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons for optimism. The vast majority of the roster can play better, the defense certainly has the ability and collective track record to suggest they can (and will?) offer Lundqvist more protection and if team-wide discipline improves (it must) then the Rangers would spend less time in the penalty box surely resulting in more offense by default.
There are many reasons to hope Dan Boyle can get his game to the point where he sticks in the Rangers line-up in what appears to be his final season as an NHL defenseman. First of all, if Boyle improves it would surely bring with it a ripple effect on the Rangers blueline – his improved play would solidify the Rangers’ top six. It would also likely mean he’s helped influence an indifferent powerplay (despite just two PP assists only Keith Yandle averages more PP ice time among Rangers blueliners). It would also likely mean that the Rangers have continued to win games meaning management don’t prioritise changes to their experienced but at this point underwhelming (as a unit) blueline.
The most important reason to hope for a short term Dan Boyle resurgence however currently resides outside of the New York spotlight. It’s Brady Skjei. Not every young college alumni can Ryan McDonagh themselves to the NHL. Not every defenseman is ready after a few weeks of pro ice time and the Rangers should (and likely have) absolutely no interest in rushing their prized asset. Dan Boyle’s situation however massively influences the Rangers immediate attitude toward Skjei.
New York Rangers’ general manager Jeff Gorton must be watching his team win game after game to start the new season while wondering what he’s done to deserve such luck. Why luck? The Rangers are likely headed toward a tough offseason with several young, but key, roster players due new contracts. The lucky part for Gorton right now, is that none of those players are making a strong case for (key word) significant pay rises.
As we enter mid-November, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Emerson Etem and veteran defenseman Keith Yandle are all approaching next summer with their future’s unclear. Particularly in the cases of Kreider, Hayes and Yandle all three should be significant parts of the Rangers future. Kreider is the power forward, goalscorer in waiting, Hayes has quickly become an integral and flexible part of the top nine while Yandle is the best puck mover the Rangers can turn to.
There are many different ways to develop prospects but are the Rangers – and coach Alain Vigneault – mishandling Emerson Etem and Dylan McIlrath? Sometimes a team needs to let a player grab a regular spot even before he’s earned his role. Maybe the Rangers need to lengthen the leash for Etem and McIlrath while the season is still early.
The Rangers have two unique prospects on their hands in Etem and McIlrath. A team not known for their physicality, the Rangers could surely benefit from Etem and/or McIlrath establishing themselves in the rotation. Etem has one of the biggest bodies up front for the Rangers and has speed the team would love to see more of. McIlrath of course, is a massive presence on the blueline who is comfortably the biggest, most physical defenseman the Rangers have on the backend. The problem is, neither player has been able to display their physical talents nearly enough. Part of that reason is opportunity.
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.