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.
Chris Kreider has approached a crossroads in his Rangers career. Kreider has the opportunity to make himself either untouchable (and in line for a new fat contract) or very quickly place himself in the cross hairs of General Manager Jeff Gorton as the team approach the trade deadline.
One assumes that the Rangers (whether you like it or not) are likely to be buyers at the deadline. They need to add to the core if they’re going to have realistic designs on a deep playoff run and with draft picks at a premium it’s likely to be young roster players that are the focus of any potential trading partners. There’s a handful of underperforming players on the roster at the moment and teams covet upside – particularly upside that’s attached to an expiring contract.
There are a whole load of questions (and moving parts) when it comes to how the Rangers approach the trade deadline in February. One player who could have an indirect impact is top prospect Pavel Buchnevich.
The Rangers top forward prospect has developed incredibly well over the past two seasons in the KHL. Buchnevich quickly became Severstal’s best forward, breaking scoring records for a teenager along the way – besting Vladimir Tarasenko’s previous scoring mark. He earned himself a move to the powerhouse SKA club where he has more than held his own on a stacked hockey club. Even with less ice time than at Severstal, Buchnevich is making an impact.
Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, hell even Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Right now the Rangers have a handful of contracts that – to varying degrees – aren’t offering full value and ‘value’ is über critical in the cap era NHL. However, the fact that the Rangers have a handful of big contracts on their books shouldn’t make them shy away from adding more. On the contrary. If a player is worth the investment, it’s the Rangers duty to upgrade their talent base. After that, well that is when the Rangers need to get creative, but spending big shouldn’t be a concern.
People think that salary needs to be spread out around the roster: a spread the wealth approach as it were. However, the best team in the league right now, and arguably for the past half decade, has been the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks have taken a significantly top heavy financial approach to staffing their roster, one that many people would have thought would lead to major depth issues yet year after year the Hawks are in contention.
Anyone that watched the mini-debacle against the Ottawa Senators will know that there are a few serious flaws to be found on the Rangers roster. The win against the Sabres shouldn’t change the way people view the Rangers. This team doesn’t engage enough along the boards and they certainly don’t go to the net enough or make life difficult enough for the opposing goaltenders. The blank in Ottawa wasn’t an isolated case. This team needs to change its DNA up front (or at least mix it up) and needs a different type of top six forward.
In theory, the Rangers should have the players to get to the net with regularity. When Rick Nash wants to he can absolutely dominate most defenders and when he drives to the net he’s hard to stop. Same goes for Chris Kreider but too often both players play on the perimeter. At least, when you consider the physical tools at their disposal. Even if you consider their attempts to generate traffic appropriate, the rest of the roster doesn’t get to the high traffic areas nearly enough.
This post isn’t so much about Daniel Paille (although Paille is still a guy who couldn’t get a job at league minimum for the past half a year) than it is about the worrying decision making amongst the Rangers hierarchy.
Let’s give a little bit of credit to Paille to begin with. Paille was a key member of the Boston Bruins once highly thought of fourth line along with Gregory Campbell and (correct me if I’m wrong) Shawn Thornton, a line that helped the Bruins win a Stanley Cup. Paille has 172 regular season points in the NHL and has carved out a solid NHL career as a depth forward once coming a goal shy of a 20 goal season. It’s fair to say Paille has some ability and has helped previous teams win.
Now let’s get back to the Rangers and their decision to bring in Paille despite other major and more immediate roster needs and facing an already restrictive cap situation. Paille’s arrival will likely change very little (I hope I am wrong). While it is refreshing to see Alain Vigneault admit the penalty kill is struggling and for once seen offering some frankness to the media and fanbase, it is maybe a sign that he is not seeing the greater issues. And by his decision to bring in Dan Paille, maybe neither does General Manager Jeff Gorton.
It’s amazing how things change in a short period of time. Just last season the bedrock of the Rangers’ success was arguably their defensive depth from one to six. This season however we have seen the inconsistencies of Ryan McDonagh, the misuse of Keith Yandle and the relative regression of Marc Staal but especially Dan Girardi. Last season several people thought Kevin Klein was the organisation’s best trade option on the blueline if the Rangers were to strengthen elsewhere because he was dispensable.
Fast forward to this season and the Rangers have (as has been well documented) struggled to keep pucks out of their own net and most people assume, to maintain a mid to long term competitiveness, the Rangers will need to move Girardi and/or Staal to ease the cap problems. Not so much discussion on trading Kevin Klein any more hey?
The Rangers have always gone after the big names, most recently of course Keith Yandle and Martin St Louis. The following months will likely see a lot more big names changing address both in-season as well during the summer and free agency. Ryan Johansen, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Marleau, and even Evgeni Malkin are the source of rumours.
A lot of noise has been made recently about the Ryan Johansen situation. The big, young center is a phenomenal talent but has been through turbulent times in Columbus on and off the ice, including an acrimonious contract negotiation over a year ago.
Recently, Johansen has been scratched and apparently had problems with John Tortorella as well as being inconsistent with his performances on the ice. But Johansen’s talent is undeniable, and his upside almost unlimited, which is why so many teams are linked to the big center. Johansen (as an FYI) is on course for unrestricted free agency in 2018 at just 26.
The Rangers are as big a defensive mess as they have been in well over a decade. It’s truly difficult to recall a sustained stretch of such defensive lapses on a game by game basis as this recent ‘run’. So how do you find the cause to the problems? Where do you begin to remedy the team’s ills? And how can this coach turn it around with little assets or depth to change the roster or practice time to go back to the drawing board?
Ironically, the problem isn’t the powerplay which is currently in a 5 for 21 stretch – not good enough to brag about but certainly not the problem. The problem also isn’t Henrik Lundqvist even if he has been pulled in two of his last four starts. We could go through this post listing a bunch of trends, statistics and/or players who have shown up on the box scores and suggest they’re doing their bit. However the fact is – other than stating the obvious and noting that the defense is a mess – the fix isn’t obvious either.