Rick Nash is facing a huge amount of pressure. Starting Thursday
As the Rangers prepare to open their season on Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes, they will do so missing two of their presumptive top six forwards and with their de facto top line center behind the eight ball thanks to Derek Stepan’s (partial) holdout. Throw in the continued struggles of the likes of Chris Kreider and the less than inspiring preseason of Brad Richards, and the pressure on Rick Nash to lead an offense has never been greater.
Despite being part of a far more talented collective in New York, Nash wouldn’t even have faced this level of expectancy in Columbus, where he was the lone elite talent. In New York this season, the Rangers’ burly power forward is expected to lead a contender’s offense for the first time, and do so in a legitimate big sports market (sorry Ohio).
At the start of last year it was assumed Brad Richards was still a top line center. The excitement of Chris Kreider’s arrival was still very real, and the Rangers of course still had a guy called Marian Gaborik. Fast forward a year and the Rangers begin the season without Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, Richards is a shadow of his former self, and Kreider is in the AHL.
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(Source: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)
The Rangers are a very deep team this season, especially at forward. They are in a position where –when fully healthy– they have three scoring lines and a solid defensive fourth line. However there is one glaring weakness (on paper); the apparent lack of physicality and toughness on the roster. Even with a healthy Ryan Callahan, the Rangers are at risk of being surprisingly vanilla, with just three forwards (Callahan, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett) slated to play who regularly throw their body around. Arron Asham is a fourth, but he seems destined for the 13th/14th forward role.
On defense, it doesn’t get much easier. The club doesn’t have a “nasty” defenseman who makes life hard on players who go to the front of the net. Ryan McDonagh is the closest thing they have, but he doesn’t have a history of beating people down in front of the net at the NHL level. Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi led the team in hits for defensemen, and we saw them being more physical in front in the preseason, but they still don’t qualify as that “nasty” player.
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Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images
After the Rangers announced their final cuts yesterday, they practiced and showcased some new lines. These lines are not quite set, as Ryan Callahan is not cleared to play in games (just cleared for contact). Rick Nash, who missed practice, would take Cally’s place on the top line:
Brad Richards-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan
Taylor Pyatt-Brian Boyle-Jesper Fast
Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
JT Miller-Dominic Moore-Derek Dorsett
The first thing that stands out is that Brad Richards is on the wing. This is honestly a very savvy coaching move. It is clear that Richards is not the Richards of old, but can be a very effective offensive player. By placing him on the wing, Alain Vigneault is limiting his defensive responsibilities and allowing Richards to play more to his strengths. It’s a move that may seem small, but may have a big impact.
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A bounce-back season from Brad Richards would be a huge boost for the Rangers
Best case: Asham continues to provide comedic relief on Twitter and plays in a handful of games with the Blueshirts.
Worst case: New York is unable to find a taker for Asham on waivers and he spends the final year of his contract in Hartford.
Best case: The former fourth-overall pick puts it all together as a Blueshirt and records a 20-goal season.
Worst case: The Rangers learn why Pouliot has already played for four teams in his young career and the big forward is invisible most nights. Read more »
The battle for forward positions has been the talk of training camp thus far, and several of New York’s youngsters have made strong cases to be on the opening night roster. Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, Danny Kristo and Marek Hrivik have all impressed, while 2011 first-round pick J.T. Miller hasn’t gotten the opportunity due to injuries. With Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan out for the first chunk of the season, one or more of these players will likely be thrust into significant roles come October 3rd.
Chris Kreider has been skating with Brad Richards and Rick Nash for much of camp and it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be locked into a top-six role at the start of the season. But after Kreider, the roster battle is still ongoing. Read more »
(Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
We’ve heard this a million times: The Rangers can’t score. The Rangers have no scoring depth. The Rangers rely on one or two guys to provide all of the offense.
These statements aren’t exactly inaccurate. The Rangers have, for a long time, been thin on forwards. Last season they were thin with depth forwards. Two years ago they were thin on secondary and tertiary scoring. Three seasons ago they lacked assistance for their one main weapon, but had secondary scoring to back it up. Each year, the Rangers have added pieces to address a need, but opened holes in other areas.
They signed Brad Richards to address the need to assist Marian Gaborik after the 2010-2011 season, but remained thin on assistance past that top line. They traded their vaunted depth after the 2011-2012 season to acquire Rick Nash, but the trade left them woefully thin on the bottom six. They addressed that by trading Gaborik and acquiring pieces that can –potentially– play a second line role. Then, this past offseason they acquired the last pieces for tertiary scoring. When you add in the development of home-grown players, you have a well-rounded forward group, when healthy.
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Think Miller is the first call up? Think again (Seth Wenig/AP)
One thing that we can be sure about next season is that there will be injuries. If we learned anything from this postseason, it’s that you can never have enough depth, because you never know when the injuries will begin to mount. It was one area that Slats worked very diligently to address this offseason, and he did a mighty fine job at doing so.
For the sake of this post, we are going to assume a few things:
- The entire roster is healthy. The point is to see who would be the first call up following an injury from a roster at full strength, then work our way down.
- Arron Asham and Darroll Power will be in the AHL. It’s a cap thing and a roster space thing at this point. The same goes for Aaron Johnson.
- Chris Kreider makes the opening day roster. J.T. Miller, Oscar Lindberg, and the other kids people might have penciled in, do not.
- No trades from now until the season starts.
These aren’t exactly ground-breaking assumptions, just things we have been able to infer from the roster moves so far.
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Pouliot and Zuccarello are not mutually exclusive. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).
When the Rangers signed Benoit Pouliot to his one-year contract, there were some that suggested that Mats Zuccarello would be sent packing (Larry Brooks started this one). It was a thought process I understood, but was a bit puzzled by. The Rangers currently have Richards, Nash, Callahan, Stepan, Hagelin, and Brassard as the shoo-ins for top-nine work. Pouliot slides in nicely into the third line, so that makes seven players rounding out the top-nine. I’d venture a guess that people are handing a spot to Kreider, and it would shock me if he doesn’t make the team, so that makes eight. Zuccarello makes nine on a fully healthy squad.
For the purpose of this post, let us assume that Moore, Dorsett, Boyle, Asham, and Powe don’t magically find a scoring touch this season and find their way to a top-nine role. This leaves those five competing for fourth line (shutdown, on an AV coached team) roles.
This doesn’t take into account the injuries to Hagelin and Callahan. Although both should be ready for the start of the season, it is likely that at least one will need an extra week. Shoulder injuries are tricky, and it can really affect a guy’s game if he’s playing with a bum shoulder. Due to these, the Rangers are not only in need of a ninth for their top-nine, but two injury replacements.
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Forward usage chart
John Tortorella loved his matchups. One of the major points of his coaching style is giving tough minutes to those he could rely on defensively. If there is one area where he and new coach Alain Vigneault are similar, it is here. Both coaches are known for matchups and zone-starting, deploying the offensive players in the offensive zone draws and defensive players on defensive zone draws. This style plays to the strength of certain players, and particularly keeps the weak defenders away from big draws in the defensive zone. Explaining how players are deployed is tough, but luckily Rob Vollman has HockeyAbstract.com, where we can create player usage charts.
A quick note about the chart above, the Y axis is Corsi Rel QoC, the X axis is OZone start percent. The size of each bubble represents the average TOI per game (larger bubbles for more ice time), and the color represents the RCorsi (red is bad, blue is good). The chart is broken down into four quadrants, which tells us how each player was deployed: Shut Down, Two-Way, Less-Sheltered, and Sheltered. Put it all together, and you get how each forward was deployed on the ice, for how long, and how effective they were at driving puck possession. Also, I set the GP minimum to 20, so that’s why Mats Zuccarello doesn’t appear on this chart.
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The Rangers won’t find a better alternative than Zuccarello
Mats Zuccarello has proven he has NHL ability, even if he hasn’t proven he can score consistently over an 82 game season. However at this stage, whoever the Rangers employ for a scoring role among the top nine wing positions, they will be taking a calculated risk, especially when you look at the alternatives – viable or not – that are still available in free agency.
With a ten percent cushion on the cap over the summer, the Rangers shouldn’t be worrying about squeezing Zuccarello in. Given the likely amount he’ll command, he is worth the commitment, and the Rangers will surely be able to move a half million or so if needed. When looking at alternatives, it is pretty shocking what some players are rumoured to be commanding.
The Detroit Red Wings decided to go down the Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss route rather than keep Damien Brunner on board. A large part of that decision by Wings’ brass will have been about value for money, as Brunner is rumoured to be commanding over $3.5m despite just one abbreviated, yet promising season under his belt. Clearly, the going rate in the NHL is shooting up if you command $3.5m for a 12-goal rookie campaign. It’s this reason why the Rangers need to keep Zuccarello.
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