In a utopian hockey world, the Rangers’ roster would be full of 6-foot-6 tanks that all skated like the wind, possessed unreal skills, and paid equal attention to both ends of the ice.
But in reality, NHL teams can really only afford to focus on a couple of attributes in building their rosters. The best franchises have identified those characteristics within their existing talent pool and continued to add and improve over the years. The Kings, Ducks and Panthers are teams of physical giants that will grind you into a pulp, while the Lightning, Penguins and Stars have focused on speed and skill.
The 2015-2016 Rangers lost their identity. They maintained the same all-world goalie that was key to the John Tortorella-era Blueshirts who were airtight defensively, and the recent Alain Vigneault edition that became a lightning quick counterattack team. But this year’s group never quite figured out what it was beyond having that super-safety net in goal.
The Rangers’ 2015-2016 season was about a team that didn’t necessarily lack enough talent, but certainly had the wrong mix.
That’s not meant to absolve Alain Vigneault. There’s no question the coach deserves a share of the blame for his atrocious deployment – but there was also only so much Vigneault could do to right the ship with faulty personnel.
New York’s major problems were three-fold – and all were hallmarks of previous success that suddenly became glaring warts. The headliner was the disastrous blueline with long-time rocks that crumbled and created a domino effect that directly impacted the club’s other two biggest issues – forechecking and the penalty kill.
We’ve talked about the blueline repeatedly and are in universal agreement that fixing the defense will be priority No. 1 this offseason, so let’s explore the other two dilemmas.
The smoky remains of the 2015-2016 season are beginning to clear and the Rangers front office must begin sifting through the wreckage and addressing the various questions that surround the team’s future.
Given New York’s cap crunch, it’s going to be a monumental task to diagnose what went wrong, develop a go-forward plan and reevaluate and retool the roster.
The process must start with getting rid of not just one, but both Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Each has a no-movement clause, but recent history shows that those hold very little weight when it’s made clear to a player that he’s no longer wanted. It will be very difficult to show these long-time loyal soldiers the door, but it’s in the best interest of the team to rip the Band-Aid off as quickly as possible.
– That was a tough, tough loss. When Chris Kreider’s goal was called back, it seemed like a lot of wind was taken out of the team’s sails and the Rangers couldn’t recover. The Blueshirts battled tooth and nail all night, but they had a very difficult time gaining the offensive zone and creating any sustained pressure.
– That said, I’m far from panicking. Despite what many believed heading into the series, there’s not much separating these teams. I expect New York to come out flying in Game Four and send the teams back to Pittsburgh tied 2-2.
– Can the Rangers give Brady Skjei a real number? The kid might already be the team’s fourth-best defenseman after Ryan McDonagh, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein. He’s been a savior on the blueline and has demonstrated remarkable poise with the puck and compete level. Between him and Pavel Buchnevich, I have a hard time listening to the annual panic about the window closing. Will the team be different next year? Sure. But if the organization makes smart personnel decisions, there’s no reason the Rangers can’t extend this run.
– Obviously Sidney Crosby draws most of the attention whenever anyone talks about the Penguins, but I believe the most important player in this series is Kris Letang. He’s the straw that stirs the Penguins’ drink, so to speak, and has posted 48 points in 43 games since January 1 (13 goals, 35 assists) while being Pittsburgh’s best player in its own zone by a country mile. Letang is the guy that spurs the Penguins’ speed game, be it an outlet pass to Crosby or hitting Carl Hagelin in stride or with an alley-oop to gain possession in the attack zone. The Rangers have benefitted from some fortuitous timing in the past with Letang missing several key games with a slew of injuries, but he’s at the top of his game right now.
– Speaking of Hagelin, I’m absolutely terrified about the hockey karma of the guy that knocked out the Penguins last spring being on the other side of the ice this time around. You know he’s going to score a big goal in this series.
– Since my post last week, Eastern Conference playoff teams have lost the following key players: Steven Stamkos, Marc-Andre Fleury, Vincent Trocheck and Travis Hamonic. Once again, having capable fill-ins is absolutely vital this time of year – and why Alain Vigneault needs to keep both Oscar Lindberg and Dylan McIlrath game-ready.
– Despite the massive warts on this Rangers squad and all the negative energy coming out of the weekend, there’s still reason to hope for this playoff run. The aforementioned injuries to rival teams’ star players have leveled the playing field somewhat and are a good reminder of how quickly things can change at this time of year. The Rangers still have the best goalie on their side of the bracket, oodles of postseason experience to lean on and they’ve demonstrated the ability to beat the league’s top teams consistently. And outside of the Capitals, I’m just not all that worried about any of the other teams in the Eastern Conference field. I’m not saying I’m predicting a Cup, but let’s all just remind ourselves that there are reasons for optimism and a chance for a pretty fun ride ahead.
– Eric Staal did a lot to save himself from this chart with two goals on Sunday, but his production compared to other players moved at the trade deadline doesn’t look great. For New York, it’s all about what Staal does in the playoffs, but what’s frustrating about this list is the success of some of the other guys the Rangers could have gotten for next to nothing that would have improved their chances even more.
– You can slam the front office for a number of decisions made over the last couple of years, but one the Rangers absolutely nailed was the signing of Viktor Stalberg. This is a guy that was near being out of the NHL and instead the Blueshirts gave him a one-year prove-it deal that couldn’t have worked out better. Stalberg has done yeoman’s work up and down the lineup and contributes consistently on both ends of the ice. It would be great to have him back, but the new deal he’s earned will probably make that impossible.
– Kevin Klein is such an interesting case because he’d never been much of an offensive contributor until last season, when he shot 11.8% (much higher before he got hurt). The thing is, he’s continued to produce this season and is converting at a 14.5% rate. Now according to most models, Klein’s scoring was and still is destined to come crashing back down to earth. But I think one of the things that gets overlooked when analyzing luck and shooting percentages is that you don’t need a high shooting percentage to be a good player, but you can definitely be a good player if you have a high shooting percentage. I don’t buy that all shooting is even, that all players must fall to the mean. Colorado’s Alex Tanguay has shot a whopping 18.6% over his 1078-game career, which has resulted in an extra 146 goals in comparison to a player with the same number of shots converting at the rough league average of 9%. In other words, Tanguay has doubled his goal total thanks to sharp-shooting, and that’s the difference between being just a guy and ranking 213th on the all-time scoring list. The perception of Tanguay is significantly enhanced because he’s produced at such a high rate and there are a number of players both active and all-time that maintained abnormally high shooting percentages and had much better careers as a result. I think Klein is just one of those guys that picks his spots wisely and is efficient when he does. And he has a little more skill than he gets credit for.
– Interesting idea by Alain Vigneault to create a “tower” line of Rick Nash, Eric Staal and Viktor Stalberg. I still think Staal makes more sense as a winger in this lineup (who takes a ton of faceoffs), but I admit the idea of this monster line harassing the enemy net in the playoffs is tantalizing.
– How much money has Chris Kreider earned with his late-season surge? He’d been in the midst of a brutal year and it seemed like his lack of production would result in a discounted contract, with the savings earmarked for J.T. Miller. But now Miller’s offense has dried up and Kreider is on a tear with five goals in his last nine games and 10 since January 16. Kreider’s usual strong playoff performance will also have a major impact, but he’s now in position for a hefty raise over his current $2.475 million cap hit.
– The news that Dylan McIlrath will miss a couple weeks with a knee injury will likely effectively end his season. Barring another significant injury, there’s no chance Alain Vigneault will look McIlrath’s way upon his return when he won’t immediately be at full speed, nor in the postseason given Vigneault’s preference for the veterans. But it is a pretty huge luxury for the Blueshirts to know that their 23-year-old seventh defenseman and 21-year-old first call-up from Hartford can both be penciled into the lineup for next fall. Dan Boyle will obviously be a goner and at least one of the other five veterans will likely be out as well, but the Rangers are lucky to have two replacements in house.
– While Cam Talbot was busy wrapping up First Star of the Week honors in Edmonton, Antti Raanta was giving up three goals in the first five minutes of the game against the Islanders on Sunday. Raanta has been mostly OK, but there’s been a noticeable drop-off from Talbot last year to Raanta now. Granted, Talbot was among the top backups in the game over the last couple years and Raanta was acquired for Ryan Haggerty (remember him!?), but with Henrik Lundqvist getting older, the backup goalie is only going to be a bigger issue each year going forward. While Chris advocated for keeping Raanta this summer, I’m not as sold. I wonder if Magnus Hellberg could be the No. 2 next season?