Rangers midseason grades: The top-six forwards

Derek Stepan is one of several players that need to be better

Derek Stepan is one of several players that need to be better

The Rangers have struggled to score consistently all season. Successful teams get the bulk of their scoring from their top six forwards, but no Ranger forward has covered himself in glory this season. Before going on to look at the individual grades at the halfway mark consider this: Mats Zuccarello is leading this team in scoring – a team designed to win the Cup – and is 71st in scoring in the league at time of writing.

Rick Nash

Offensively this team will live or die on Rick Nash’s production. As of Wednesday night, 156(!) players had scored more goals than Rick Nash (7 goals, 16 points in 24 games). While his injuries are unfortunate, the peripheral play, extended droughts, and lack of dominance from a player with Nash’s skill and size are a concern. Nash is making $7.8 million and is the team’s most gifted forward, but rarely has he come close to earning his salary or leading the Rangers offense. A team with limited skill need more from their sole elite forward, Nash needs a strong second half if the Rangers are going to have success.

Grade: D

Brad Richards

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The Marc Staal audition begins tonight

Can Staal get back to his dominant old self?

Can Staal get back to his dominant old self?

With Marc Staal returning to the line-up tonight, speculation will begin (again) as to whether the timing of his return is right, and whether Staal will ever be able to return to his previous best. In addition to the obvious chase for a playoff spot, and the continued (prolonged) acclimatisation to the new coaching staff, the Rangers will need to treat the second half of the season as an audition of sorts for Marc Staal.

There’s no question that Staal – at his best – is an elite All Star calibre defenseman, capable of shutting down the league’s best scorers, while also contributing offensively. However there are a boat load of questions regarding his durability, the task of re-projecting his long-term potential, and subsequently measuring his relative importance to the Rangers. In addition, the club needs to consider the financial risks that come with committing to such an injury prone and potentially concussion-vulnerable player.

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Time for a controversial addition in Dion Phaneuf

Photo: The Score

Photo: The Score

Dion Phaneuf. Yes, I said it. The Rangers have a huge question mark in an area – defense – which on paper at least, they have had good depth. Michael Del Zotto is likely, barring a stunning turnaround, on his way out of New York in the summer (at the latest). Marc Staal’s long term future is full of doubt due to injury. That leaves –on paper– two key cogs: Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. McDonagh is a stud, he’s a future, perennial Norris candidate if he gets some support; unfortunately Dan Girardi is no longer the guy to provide it.

Girardi’s game appears in decline, and yet he’ll still get paid handsomely in the summer, based on past achievements. His play this year has been underwhelming (on a team that, in his defense, has collectively underwhelmed) and he hasn’t been the same consistent presence we grew to appreciate, for the last two years. That’s a long time, playing under his normal assumed levels, to commit to a long term future at a big financial cost.

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Injuries, a lack of form, bright lights and confusing trade scenarios: The Musings

Franson could be NY bound (Photo: Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

Franson could be NY bound (Photo: Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

Welcome to Thursday. It’s finally time for another Musings (not that fake musings Dave did yesterday. What a bum). The Rangers have been better the past couple games without being very good. With plenty to muse over, let’s do it for the final time before the festive season kicks in.

As you’ll have seen; rumours are abound that the Leafs are considering Michael Del Zotto and Cody Franson may come the other way. From the Leafs perspective it doesn’t make sense. You’re essentially swapping one expiring contract for the other but giving up a bigger more productive player who’s better on his feet without being a great defenseman. Seems like a lot of trust in Del Zotto’s ability to turn the corner in his career.

Rick Nash. Oh, Rick Nash where art thou? He was invisible in the Penguins game – a game where I had previously said he needed to make a statement. It’s as simple as this: the Rangers cannot be successful long term unless Nash and Henrik Lundqvist are on or near the top of their games. Right now neither is close, hence the current position in the standings.

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Rick Nash needs to make a statement

Will the real Rick Nash please stand up. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Will the real Rick Nash please stand up. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

When the Rangers traded for Rick Nash, it was with the intention of finding their offensive saviour. It hasn’t happened. The Rangers still struggle to score goals consistently, and while Nash has flashed his obvious and undoubted brilliance, he hasn’t (yet) been the player the Rangers were looking for. Nash’s first regular season as a Ranger was a solid one (42 points in 44 games), but the season ended in underwhelming style as the team (and Nash) left the playoff party without much fight.

This year Nash obviously suffered the concussion, but has also been caught in the same quicksand that the entire Rangers offense has found itself in. With 12 points in 17 games and just 6 goals, Nash needs to produce more. A lack of reliable line mates or an injury simply can’t count as excuses any longer. When a player is drawing a $7.8 million annual salary he needs to be doing more. No one will criticise Nash for missing time through an unfortunate injury, but when he’s healthy the most talented Rangers forward has to deliver more consistently and in fact more in almost every way.

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Rangers talent levels not sole concern

The Rangers need their coach to coach, not to moan about talent Photo: AP

The Rangers need their coach to coach, not to moan about talent. Photo: AP

As the Rangers struggle to mount any kind of offense or physicality, the team is being increasingly exposed for the obvious flaws that they have. We’ve discussed ad nauseam how the Rangers should turn to some of the prospects to help the ailing offense (Kristo) or the putrid levels of physicality (McIlrath). One player that hasn’t had much airtime is Marek Hrivik, at one stage a dark horse for a spot in the line-up to start the year. Hrivik could help both of the Rangers critical areas of concern.

While it may have gotten to the stage where veteran help (aka a trade) is what’s needed to mix it up, Hrivik has shown that he can control the puck, work the boards and use his body to good effect. He’s also a player with legitimate offensive upside. At 6’1 and 200 lbs Hrivik may not seem physically imposing on paper but in limited exposure he has shown he uses his entire skill set effectively. We can’t say that about the Pouliot’s and Pyatt’s of the NHL roster.

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With changes necessary, the Rangers need to look within

AP Photo/Mike Strasinger

Rarity: A Ranger goal celebration. AP Photo/Mike Strasinger

With the Rangers seemingly in a tail spin and with the injuries mounting it really isn’t time to panic no matter how bleak it may seem at present. That said, changes do need to be made.

The Rangers have an opportunity to insert the likes of JT Miller, Danny Kristo and Dylan McIlrath now and give them consistent ice time and at no real risk. All of the aforementioned cannot do worse than the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Taylor Pyatt and (this season at least) any combination of Falk, Del Zotto and John Moore. If all they achieve this season is to become role players – or even that they simply avoid being liabilities – then it’s almost already an upgrade and developmental time long term.

With the team generating little to no offense, inconsistent (at best) defense and with spaces to fill thanks to an injury list that could backfill a local hospital there is an opportunity to exploit. Alain Vigneault has bemoaned the lack of appropriate player types and perhaps that’s true but is that because he’s simply icing the wrong type or is it that he hasn’t got them within the entire organisation? It’s time to find out.

Barring a disaster of epic proportions, Vigneault has time on his side so it would surely benefit him to look at the prospects available. He’s not getting fired this season unless the Rangers go on a winless streak that would threaten riots in New York.

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Will improved consistency pay off for Mats Zuccarello?

Zuccarello: one of the more consistent Rangers this season

Zuccarello: one of the more consistent Rangers this season

Amid the very up and down season the Rangers are currently ‘enjoying’, one player who has finally started to show some legitimate consistency is Mats Zuccarello, and it could cost the Rangers. The Rangers did the right thing last summer when they did not over commit to Zuccarello when they brought him back on a short term deal. The player hadn’t shown enough consistency or finishing ability to be considered a viable top six NHL forward and given his size and skill set, any other role wasn’t a realistic option.

Since his early season benching for the Flyers game, Zuccarello has arguably been the Rangers most creative player and is producing at a solid level. For a player that until recently has struggled to exert himself on a game by game basis, Zuccarello has been a creative force.

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Coaching, not controversy

Is AV still looking to point his players in the right direction?

Is AV still looking to point his players in the right direction?

If any conclusions can be drawn from the apparent goaltending ‘drama’ that has been going on in New York it is that Alain Vigneault is still getting to know his team and he’s still learning which buttons to press with which players. Henrik Lundqvist is usually harder on himself than anyone else could be; such is his will to win. He won’t have been happy backing up Cam Talbot for Monday’s depressing defeat against the Jets but if the result is a hot streak from Lundqvist who are we to second guess the decision?

While some prefer to focus on a controversy, Cam Talbot is someone that has clearly grown with every start and you can see his confidence grow with every save – despite the defeat last night. It appears that Vigneault may be flirting with a goalie controversy but is it just a coach still familiarising himself with the assets at his disposal? Could it even be a message to the rest of the team rather than the star goaltender?

For those paying attention, Vigneault has prodded countless players over the past few weeks and months and given the middling results so far this season that is exactly what he should be doing. The Michael Del Zotto situation has been one where the coach has been unafraid to publicly challenge a player to be better. Vigneault has publicly expressed his opinion on Benoit Pouliot while players such as Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin and John Moore have been asked for more from the coach publicly. With the inconsistent and at times disappointing performances from numerous players on the roster this season it stands to reason that the coach will look to coach and prod his players for better performances.

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Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Brassard needs to show more, if he's to remain a Ranger

Brassard needs to show more, if he’s to remain a Ranger

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I hope you all have a great day and weekend. In the mean time, a couple thoughts on the Rangers as they head in to the weekend and toward a big double header.

Offensive Alternative?

If Taylor Pyatt continues to struggle once he’s back up to speed and Benoit Pouliot continues to be consistently inconsistent when does Alain Vigneault look for alternatives to help his frustrating offense? Wednesday night saw Danny Kristo add another goal to his tally in the AHL.

With 10 goals in 19 games for the WolfPack Kristo is on pace to flirt with 40 goals in his rookie year as a pro. While showing patience with Kristo is possibly the right course of action, if the Rangers continue to underwhelm offensively he’s surely worth taking a look at sooner rather than later.

Crossroads

Alain Vigneault has said that Pouliot is at a career crossroads. Well, could Derick Brassard also be at a crossroad? While Pouliot may have his entire NHL career under scrutiny, Brassard has been far too inconsistent thus far to warrant being retained at his current salary beyond this year (and certainly isn’t in line for a raise).

Brassard’s status as a promising talent is under threat. While Brassard would definitely find a home somewhere should the Rangers cut the cord, Brassard needs to find some consistency to justify the Rangers retaining him beyond this season. Very talented, very frustrating.

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