I’m not a pessimist, in fact I am usually quite the (complete) opposite but here’s a grim statement for all you Rangers fans out there: barring a remarkable turnaround in performance, momentum and decision making the Rangers will be enjoying the offseason in about ten days time.
Here’s another pretty bold statement for you: this season Henrik Lundqvist has saved Alain Vigneault his job. At first glance Lundqvist’s numbers are not their usual Vezina standard until you dig a bit deeper and see what incredible numbers he’s actually put up against the quality of shots he’s facing. Lundqvist has never had it harder and yet has never been more important to the Rangers success.
As we have discussed a few times, and from a few different angles, the Rangers are approaching a period of significant change over the next summer or two. With players (Girardi, Dan and Staal, Marc to name just two) regressing, contracts expiring (Eric Staal amongst others), other cumbersome contracts causing reason for concern (Rick Nash is making almost 8m? Really?) and a lack of can’t-miss prospects on the way, the Rangers are going to have to be both creative and proactive as they look to build on the fly as they try to stay in contention.
Jeff Gorton’s trade savvy will need to be in full beast mode over the next summer or two and maybe one player worth exploring might be Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman. Hoffman, despite emerging as a legitimate goalscorer, hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the Sens coaching staff this season and at times has even been demoted to the fourth line .
You know that kid J.T. Miller? He’s quite good at this thing they call hockey. Miller has surely, finally established himself as a New York Ranger and is fast becoming (if he hasn’t already) a Rangers fan favourite with his all-action, never stop style. He’s also going to get paid this summer.
Given the sudden surge in his development this season, and despite the way the Rangers are hard pressed against the cap, the Rangers need to go against their usual process and think long term with Miller when discussing a new deal this summer. Sure, there’s a lot of hockey left in the season (we hope) and things could change, but there really is no reason the Rangers should be thinking ‘bridge deal’ when it comes to Miller.
With the news that SKA were eliminated on Monday and thus Pavel Buchnevich’s season in Russia being officially over, excitement began about the prospect of the über-prospect hot-stepping it to New York. I was also twitter guilty of a little bit of Buch-hysteria. But not so fast.
The Rangers are a cap team and they’ll be tight to the cap for (at least) the foreseeable future. Take a look at the current Rangers roster and the ‘problems’ that Alain Vigneault is having with finding appropriate roles, ice time and combinations for all his presumptive top nine forwards. Is there really enough room to squeeze Buchnevich into the top nine – in a meaningful role?
Two Rangers prospects went up against each other in college on Friday night and it was ‘Boo’ Nieves that came out on the right side of the elimination game as Michigan beat Steven Fogarty’s Notre Dame 3-2 in OT. Nieves assisted on Michigan’s third period game tying goal (scored by blue chip NHL prospect Zach Werenski) to help prolong Michigan’s season. Fogarty is now free to sign with the Rangers as his season is over following the loss.
Nieves meanwhile has put up his best stat line in college with 31 points (10 goals) in 34 games. Nieves has never quite dominated in any of his four seasons but has been remarkably consistent. A good skater and a big body, Nieves is a pass first center and can definitely be an asset with his playmaking ability in the pro game – he remains an intriguing prospect.
One of the main questions facing Nieves as a NHL prospect is whether his good (but never great) numbers have been the by-product of having played on Michigan teams that featured the likes of Kyle Connor, Zach Werenski, Dylan Larkin and Jacob Trouba. Nieves has always been a productive player for Michigan but he’s never really been able to stand out on several talented squads.
Could the Rangers be a contender without Rick Nash on their roster? If you think the answer to that question is yes, then you may have come to a similar conclusion about what the Rangers should do with Rick Nash as I did. Let me qualify this by stating I am a huge Rick Nash fan.
I’m a proud owner of a blue #61 jersey, a signed Nash puck and have followed his career since he emerged as a major prospect for the OHL London Knights. However, after this season comes to an end – and regardless of how it ends – it may be in the Rangers’ best interests to move Nash and the final two years of his $7.8m/year contract.
At some point your best players need to be just that. At some point, the forward you pay $7.8m a year to score goals needs to score goals. At some point, hustle, a defensive conscience and ‘driving possession’ isn’t enough. Nash needs to produce on the ice.
We’ll know a lot more about the Rangers by the end of this week. This week they are playing three of the hottest teams in the league and some of the best puck possession teams out there. You’d think that all wouldn’t bode well, but defensively against the Ducks it was a much improved performance.
The Rangers are a team of contradictions. They struggle on the puck possession side of things yet have a great recent record against the Western conference.
The win against the Ducks was another example of how you just cannot predict which Rangers team will turn up. The Rangers haven’t been this inconsistent for a generation.
A lot of fans immediately heard alarm bells when hearing Jeff Gorton speaking almost in past tense about Keith Yandle while championing Brady Skjei. The alarm bells were because he didn’t speak openly about Girardi and Staal. But remember this: the management can surely see the regression that Girardi and Staal are showing.
You don’t just throw big names, big tickets under the bus. It damages their trade value, it doesn’t help the team either. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if one of the two were shipped out in the summer. You just don’t publicly bash guys of that stature and expect to get any kind of positive return for them in the summer. It’s a process.
Give good players time and you will be rewarded. Mats Zuccarello had to fight off traditional hockey stereotypes, climb up the Rangers cluttered depth chart and fight his way into a prominent position over a long period of time but Zuccarello eventually became one of the Rangers most reliable and cost effective players. Zuccarello’s contract is looking better every game and it’s worth looking into the value again because right now, there are few better value deals around the league.
Zuccarello is likely going to lead the Rangers in scoring for the second time in three years by season’s end. Over the past three years (going on numbers after the loss to the Red Wings) Zuccarello is averaging around 54 points per season and this is with 14 games of the current season to go.
Zuccarello is of course, in the first year of his new deal that pays him 4.5m per season. Prior to this season Zuccarello had bagged 142 points in 222 regular season games for an average of .63 points/game. This season he’s scoring at a .77 clip; a pretty significant increase.
The Caps are making most of the headlines (and justifiably so) while the Bruins, Lightning and the Islanders are all streaking at the right time of the season but, despite their inadequacies on the blueline and on special teams, there is no team in the East that the Rangers should fear as playoff season approaches – thanks to their depth at center.
The team’s center ‘situation’ however figures to change significantly over the short term almost regardless of how successful this year’s edition end up being. Against the Kings two summers ago, the Rangers were dominated at center and that difference up the middle left an undeniable imprint on the organisation and the acquisition of Eric Staal will have certainly been influenced by the organisation’s desire to control center ice, as well as find the ideal running mate for the team’s one elite forward, Rick Nash.
With that said, the Rangers’ situation at center promises to get serious scrutiny over the summer. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard (barring abysmal – but unlikely – finishes to their respective seasons) are locked in for the immediate future but with JT Miller, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Dominic Moore and Staal on the roster, the Rangers have seven players who can play center on the current roster alone.
It would probably have been better timed to publish this post after Aanti Raanta stonewalled the Caps last week. Raanta was of course, in the middle of some solid form while subbing for Henrik Lundqvist. While Raanta was certainly shaky in the (ugly) loss to the Isles on Sunday night he wasn’t the main problem. You could have put any goaltender in front of that defensive performance on Sunday and very few would have come out on the right side of the win/loss column.
The fact is though; the Rangers have found another solid keeper in Raanta. They have developed another NHL quality goaltender and critically, have found someone they should be able to keep under relative cost control in the short term (despite his pending status this summer). Raanta should be a strong backup for the Rangers while the prospects develop out of the New York spotlight and while Lundqvist continues to do his thing.