With the Rangers sputtering, anticipation is quickly building for the March 1 trade deadline. Unlike in past years, New York is set up front, so it’s hard to fathom a deal for another forward. But it’s no secret that the Rangers desperately need help on defense and have been searching for a top-four blueliner for much of the season.
The options are limited, but one name that appears likely to be on the move is Arizona’s Michael Stone. He wouldn’t be the sexy acquisition many crave, but the pending free agent might help fortify the back-end.
Stone, 26, broke out last season with 36 points (six goals, 30 assists) including 14 power play assists. That performance helped him earn a new $4 million contract for this season, but Stone has struggled to match that production.
Continuing our midseason grades (defense here), next up is the front office and goaltending. Grading both is a little tricky, as the front office is just ramping up their efforts for the trade deadline, while the goaltending has been a bit inconsistent.
When grading the front office, I had to look at the offseason body of work in addition to the moves made in season. Considering the injuries, the front office has been a little busy lately. As for the goaltending, well I’m taking a different approach this year. Instead of looking at each player individually, I’ll be looking at both Hank and Raanta as a single entity.
Tonight’s game marks the halfway point of the 2016-2017 season. The Rangers are in prime playoff position, with an 11-point cushion separating them from the wild card cutoff line. But despite a successful campaign thus far, things haven’t gone perfectly on Broadway. Here’s a recap of where the Rangers stand halfway through the year.
What’s gone according to plan
– A bounce back season for the penalty kill. When asked about the team’s plans for the summer, GM Jeff Gorton said, “you can probably look at our roster and pick that apart and figure out what we need to do.” While many of us believed he was referring to the defense, Gorton’s subsequent moves made it very clear that he was dead set on improving a penalty kill unit that ranked 26th last season after three top-six finishes in the previous four years. So far, Gorton’s makeover has paid major dividends. Thanks to acquisitions like Michael Grabner and the development of youngsters like J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes who have often tilted the ice in the Rangers’ favor even when they’ve been shorthanded, New York currently ranks ninth in the league.
The pair of 7-goal spankings the Blueshirts took just before the holiday break at the hands of the Penguins and Wild magnified warts that had gone masked for much of the early part of the season.
There are obvious problems with the Rangers lineup, but if all goes well, they may only have to play a handful more contests before the cavalry arrives. Top center Mika Zibanejad and rookie Pavel Buchnevich are closing in on their returns after missing the last 18 and 22 games, respectively.
Buchnevich has already hit the ice in a non-contact jersey while Zibanejad is out of his walking boot and now skating on his own. The expectation is that both players will ramp up activity during the approaching bye week and return in mid-to-late January. And that can’t come soon enough for the floundering Blueshirts.
Somehow every year this game tricks us into forgetting that each season consists of 82 games and will without fail feature peaks and valleys in both performance and results.
The 2016-2017 campaign has been no different for the Blueshirts, who came out of the gate like gangbusters – scoring at an unprecedented rate and looking very capable of making another run despite pessimistic preseason predictions by most pundits.
Then, the offense dried up, the luck ran out, injuries struck and the usual all-world goaltending became suddenly average.
– The Rangers are going to lose a good player to expansion, but I sure hope it’s not Jesper Fast. He may never score 20 goals, but Fast is exactly what you want in a modern day depth winger. Fast is ferocious in all aspects of the game. He’s aggressive on both the forecheck and backcheck, tenacious on the penalty kill and always gives his all in his own zone. Time and again Fast has been up to the task when he’s been moved up and down the lineup due to injury. Fast is just a selfless player that does all the little things right – he continues to remind me of Ryan Callahan. Alain Vigneault gets made fun of for it all the time, but it’s easy to see why he loves “Quickie.”
– Last night’s result was probably the best Vigneault could have hoped for regarding the Rangers goalie controversy. Antti Raanta finally lost, so Vigneault can justifiably turn back to Henrik Lundqvist on Thursday night without Raanta breathing down his neck. Yet Raanta still remains in a groove, so Vigneault can continue to mix him in regularly until Lundqvist settles back into his normal workload. Best of all, the Blueshirts once again played well in front of their netminder and seem to have rediscovered some good habits that should make things easier on The King.
– There’s a lot of consternation over Adam Clendening’s lack of playing time. Ideally, he’d be in the lineup in place of Kevin Klein, but generally we as fans make way too big a deal over the guy in the press box. Rarely does that roster decision make or break a team. The bigger issue on defense continues to be the distribution of minutes within the existing top six and the need to add a real difference maker.
– With many of the once available trade targets now re-signed, the one big name still on the horizon is Kevin Shattenkirk. Yes, Dougie Hamilton can also be had, but he’d cost the Rangers a player they won’t give up. If GM Jeff Gorton wasn’t willing to build a package worthwhile for the Jets or Ducks, then I don’t think he’s prepared to give up J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes or Chris Kreider for Hamilton. And given the way this team has been winning on the back of its offense, that’s probably the right call.
– But as there have been for months and years, there remain loud whispers that Shattenkirk is eyeing New York. It’s hard to see a path to his services during this campaign, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel come July. Read More→
There are many reasons for the Rangers’ early-season success, but chief among them is the emergence of a group of Blueshirts that are thriving in the second stage of their careers.
J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad have been in the NHL for several years now and seen varying degrees of success. But all have now gotten past most of their growing pains and are really beginning to come into their own.
Miller and Hayes in particular have seen a giant leap in production and responsibility that we hoped would come last season. Now, both players have earned Alain Vigneault’s full trust, are playing in all situations and contributing on the scoresheet.
Things are going a little too well in Rangerland right now and I’ve had just about enough of it. Until the Blueshirts start losing some games and facing a little real adversity, I thought it might be helpful for all of us Never Satisfied New Yorkers to focus our energies on a few other irritating areas for the time being…
– Michael Grabner may be second in the NHL in goals, but he’s also second in that garbage plus/minus stat. I’d like to praise Grabner’s start, but until he gets that corrected, I just can’t get on board.
– Adam Clendening missed a golden opportunity for a viral Mannequin Challenge video on Sunday when he was glued to the bench. If he’s not going to play, he should at least be helping the Blueshirts get pageviews from the bench.
– Chanting BUCHHHHH sounds way too similar to ZUCCCC. How are fans watching on TV supposed to differentiate? Jeff Gorton needs to consider these things when he brings new players into the fold. Read More→
– I wonder if Dylan McIlrath requested a trade and that wish was granted once Jacob Trouba re-signed. I was very skeptical that McIlrath was part of a hypothetical swap with the Jets, but the timing is awfully curious coming a day after the Trouba situation was resolved given that McIlrath cleared waivers a week ago.
– McIlrath himself just wasn’t cut out for the game Alain Vigneault wants to play. You could argue that he deserved a better shot and should have played in place of Dan Girardi last year, but it’s not like the Blueshirts gave up on a future Norris Trophy winner here.
– In any case, let’s hope for the best for McIlrath. He had a great attitude throughout the last couple years under difficult circumstances. By all accounts he was a great teammate. And we’ll always have this.