Archive for Forwards
When the Rangers signed Benoit Pouliot in the offseason, we viewed it as a solid depth signing that could lead to some great tertiary scoring. Pouliot was one of the league leaders in P/60, and the Rangers got him for a bargain of a contract. It was low-risk, high-reward at its finest.
However the signing didn’t work out as planned –at least to start the season– for the Rangers. As the team adapted to the new system, Pouliot was one of the players who really struggled. He didn’t register a point until the ninth game of the season. Through two months, he had a measly four points (2-2-4) and was the target of many angry Ranger fans.
Then December came around. Since the beginning of that month Pouliot has 11 points in 15 games (6-5-11), including a seven-game point streak. Five of those points (4-1-5) came on the powerplay. In the span of 15 games, Pouliot has gone from whipping boy to tenth on the team in scoring and sixth in goals. That is probably the fastest turnaround we have ever seen.
Like many parts of the 2013-2014 roster, the bottom-six forwards have struggled through long stretches of the season thus far. Part of that can be attributed to players being used out of place and in unusual situations, but the team hasn’t gotten consistent play out of many of its depth forwards for most of the year. That seems to be changing over the last few weeks, and has been as instrumental to the team’s mini turnaround as anything else.
Boyle will forever be a polarizing player amongst Ranger fans because he has hands of stone and doesn’t drive opponents through the boards with his massive size. You can’t really judge Boyle fairly until you accept those two facts of life, which many refuse to do. But Boyle is a very useful player in many other areas. Though this hasn’t been his finest year, Boyle is still being relied on as the team’s top defensive forward, plays well on the penalty kill, is the best faceoff man on the team and drives possession. He is guilty of being a passenger at times this season the same as nearly every player on the roster, but for the most part, Boyle has been use usual steady self. Still, scoring just one goal all year is pretty hard to do.
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The Rangers were able to salvage their franchise-record homestand with wins over Minnesota and Toronto, but things still need to change if the Blueshirts are going to turn their season around.
New York’s 27th-ranked offense has been carried by the likes of Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Benoit Pouliot over the last two weeks, while the team’s top players continue to struggle. Rick Nash hasn’t scored in any of his last six games, and has just one goal in his last nine. Brad Richards hasn’t scored in eight games and Derek Stepan has just three goals in his last 23 games. Not coincidentally, those cold streaks have coincided with the team’s worst stretch of the season.
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.
As the season has progressed the biggest concern has been the play of some of the veterans, specifically Benoit Pouliot and Taylor Pyatt (when healthy), and why a player like J.T. Miller isn’t in the lineup instead. None of the three have been consistent enough to warrant a full time spot on the roster, and it can be argued that some have been bad enough to get Prucha’d full time.
Starting with the vets, Pyatt brings a physical game and some good board work to the lineup when healthy, but he has cement in his skates. Pouliot is a fluid skater and creative offensively, but does nothing without the puck and has taken bad offensive zone penalties. Miller is a bit of a mix, bringing good board work and good skating to the lineup, but he is lost without the puck and in the defensive zone. This seems like a “pick your poison” type of decision, but let’s look into the stats a bit.
It’s come a year later than expected, but Chris Kreider is finally making his own way as a New York Ranger. During the Rangers recent stretch of good form, Kreider has arguably been the biggest physical force on the ice for the Rangers, using his body to great effect on countless occasions. He’s been producing offense, getting under countless opponents’ skin (hello Sidney), and generally playing the most consistent hockey he ever has done, at the pro level.
As with all projections and forecasts, when you’re barely a month into a seven month season, there is much scope for change. But there is no reason Kreider – who still qualifies as a rookie – shouldn’t be in the reckoning for the Calder trophy come the end of the season. If it’s down to opportunity and ability he’ll be in the mix.
Assuming Rick Nash returns soon – which every person associated with the Rangers hopes – Kreider will not be affected adversely as some may speculate, in fact quite the opposite. With Nash attracting the attention of most team’s best defensive lines, the theory is Kreider and his linemates will have weaker opposition to exploit. With 8 points in 10 games to date, and as one of the current focal points of the Rangers offense, Kreider has proven he can handle tough assignments so it stands to reason he should benefit from the attention Nash garners.
Mats Zuccarello’s response to his healthy scratch against Philadelphia has been nothing short of immense. At the time, Zuccarello was stumbling through the season doing nothing to warrant an extended future with the Rangers. Alain Vigneault was fully justified in removing the little Norwegian from the line-up when he did.
Since the 2-1 loss to the Flyers on the 24th October, Zuccarello has routinely flashed his high-end skill, perhaps encapsulated best by his perfect pass for Derek Stepan’s goal against the Penguins. Not many players would have tried that pass, let alone execute it so perfectly (the weighting of the pass was literally perfect for Stepan to skate to and roof past Fleury.)
With eight points in his last eight games Zuccarello has shown previously unseen consistency as –even accounting for the three assist splurge against the Hurricanes– he has only been held off the score sheet twice over that time frame. Not all is perfect though.
When the new line combinations were made public knowledge during yesterday’s practice, a lot of questions and a lot of heat were directed at the coach. The top line of Derek Stepan as the pivot between Brad Richards and Chris Kreider made sense. All three defense pairings made sense. But the second, third, and fourth forward lines looked like something out of the Tom Renney line generator.
Among the questions: What purpose does Mats Zuccarello serve on a line with Taylor Pyatt and Brian Boyle? Why is Derek Dorsett on a line with Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard? Is Dominic Moore still on the fourth line with J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast, or are they forming a third line? What order are these lines in? Which line is going to get the shutdown role? Which line can actually provide some non-Richards based offense? Where was the newly recalled Brandon Mashinter?
These are legitimate questions that came up on Twitter (in my @ mentions) and in the comments. To be honest: They are fair questions. They are very un-AV like lines as well. So let’s try to make some sense of it.
Every team has to deal with injuries over the course of the season, it’s a part of the game. The Rangers are one of those teams dealing with such injuries right now, and it’s testing their depth early in the year. Not only is New York dealing with injuries, they are dealing with injuries to significant players. They are missing three of their top six forwards at the moment, and haven’t dressed a full lineup all season.
Ryan Callahan won’t be back until next month. Carl Hagelin won’t be back until the end of this month. Rick Nash is out for the foreseeable future. Any team that is missing three forwards is going to have difficulties dressing a competent roster. Any team missing three top six forwards is even bigger trouble, and that is exactly where the Rangers are at this moment.
Depth becomes a bigger issue when the rookies who were expected to get injury call ups (Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast) are now on the roster full time, playing bottom six minutes in the NHL instead of top six minutes in the AHL. While the plan may have been to get these kids some NHL ice time later in the season, October NHL time didn’t give them much time for growth in the AHL.
When the Rangers opened camp in September, the assumption was that Brad Richards would play either second or third line center and Chris Kreider would be playing first or second line left-wing. It’s amazing how quickly things change. Six games into the season, Richards has solidified himself as the top LW, while Kreider is working on his game in the AHL.
With Richards no longer playing center, the Rangers vaunted depth heading into the season is no more. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard are still the top two guys down the middle, but Brian Boyle –who we believe is best suited as a 4C– is now lining up as the 3c, and Dominic Moore is lining up as the 4C. The best case scenario for the Rangers has Boyle and Moore on the same line, providing excellent defense while chipping in offensively here and there.
Naturally, this creates a hole at 3C. Boyle is a great asset to this club, but he is best served as a shutdown guy taking defensive zone draws.