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.
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.