Archive for State of the Rangers
Per Larry Brooks, Dan Girardi is back in the lineup. He is practicing on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh. Marc Staal and Nick Holden are back together. Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith are the third pair. Adam Clendening and Steve Kampfer are the scratches.
This is what we expected from Alain Vigneault, as disappointing as it is. At this point it’s beyond the players, it’s on the coach. These are not the optimal pairs for a team that wants to succeed in the playoffs.
Who knows? Maybe this is just a one game thing before AV tinkers more. But I’m not optimistic. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Over the weekend, Alain Vigneault decided to put Pavel Buchnevich, Oscar Lindberg, and Jimmy Vesey together on the fourth line. The trio clicked immediately, despite some concerns they might be defensively deficient. It provides even more evidence to support the speed/skill fourth line over grit/toughness.
Now don’t get me wrong, every team needs snarl. We got a little bit of that last night with a good Old Time Hockey brawl. It wasn’t a staged fight. It was one of passion that involved Vesey dropping the gloves, teamed with Brendan Smith and Nick Holden against three Devils. That same Vesey has been involved in a few other tussles this season.
In hindsight, the 7-6 circus loss to the Dallas Stars on January 17 might have been the low-water mark of the 2016-2017 season for the Rangers. That marked the third time in 11 games the club yielded as many as seven goals and the Blueshirts were mired in a stretch of atrocious defensive play that made playoff contention seem comical.
But since that night, New York has given up four goals or more only six times in 27 games, and just twice surrendered as many as five.
In fact, the Rangers have allowed just 64 goals over that timeframe – a stingy 2.37 goals-against per game, which would rank fourth in the league if it were the team’s season-long rate.
It’s no secret that I am a big proponent of four skill lines that can put the puck in the net. If I haven’t come out and said it, it’s been implied in almost every post I’ve written about lineup decisions and forwards. The best teams in the league, the ones that are true Cup contenders, are ones that have four skill lines. And the reason is simple. Matchups.
The Rangers’ fourth line scored twice on Saturday against Minnesota –a game I did not watch, as I was at a wedding– while dressing three young skilled guys on that fourth line. It was the first game in a week where the most polarizing fourth line player in history (Tanner Glass) did not play. Jimmy Vesey and Oscar Lindberg scored. Lindberg and Pavel Buchnevich also had assists.
The Rangers haven’t had a fully healthy defensive unit for some time now. Kevin Klein has been out with a nagging back injury, and Dan Girardi has been out with an ankle injury. We haven’t heard any news about them skating in practice yet, so it’s safe to say the Rangers are taking their time and not rushing either veteran back into the lineup.
With the new luxury of being able to rest some players without really impacting playoff seeding, Alain Vigneault has a rare opportunity to evaluate the current six-some on defense and see if and where Girardi/Klein can slide in when healthy. Emphasis here is on if.
As the Rangers gear up for a playoff run, a lot of the focus has been on potential opponents and/or pending lineup decisions. But I want to take a step back and appreciate the big picture for a second. In September, we all thought the Rangers had no chance of being this good. If you had told me that Henrik Lundqvist would struggle for the first half of the season, I would have guessed the Rangers missed the playoffs.
But here we are, 90 points later and a virtual lock for the playoffs. The goaltending came around. The defense is pretty bad, but there have been bright spots and unexpected scoring sources. However it’s been the forwards carrying the load by outscoring the inconsistent goaltending and porous defense. It’s time we appreciate that depth.
Jeff Gorton has done a masterful job remaking the Rangers’ forward corps and deserves full credit for that.
But as the trade deadline closes in without any apparent blueline solutions on the horizon that don’t cost an arm and a leg, it’s fair to ask – what was the plan on defense?
The decision to let Keith Yandle walk was puzzling, but with Yandle having a poor year and his not insignificant contract, we’ve largely given Gorton a pass on that.
And indeed, the acquisition of Nick Holden has worked out marvelously. Paying a mere fourth-round pick for arguably New York’s second-best D-man was a coup.
But here’s the key question: was that it?
Earlier this week, the Rangers extended head coach Alain Vigneault’s contract another two years through the 2019-2020 season. The timing was a bit odd, as AV still had another full year on his initial deal and was fresh off a pretty embarrassing playoff defeat last season. But it’s tough to argue with AV’s success with the Rangers. He sports a 175-97-23, good for a .632 win percentage.
AV is a very smart coach. His systems on the ice generate solid offense. There’s a reason why he is as successful as he is. It’s not just dumb luck. But he is not a perfect coach. His flaws not only overshadow his successes, but follow him from team to team.
The New York Rangers are a good hockey team. Their top 14 forwards as a unit are some of the best in the league. They have skill, speed, and most importantly, depth. They have one of the best goaltenders in the world. But as we’ve all seen, the Rangers are deeply flawed on the blue line.
Flawed teams are generally inconsistent. I say generally because the size and type of flaw matters here. A flawed fourth line, for example, isn’t as big of an issue as a flawed blue line. It’s tough to hide three or four bad defensemen. With that flaw, and the division the Rangers play in, we are going to get what we’ve been getting. Some bad losses, some great wins, and some in between.
Per Larry Brooks, the Rangers have given head coach Alain Vigneault a two year extension. Vigneault, whose contract was set to expire after next season, is being rewarded for a pair of Conference Finals appearances, one Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and one President’s Trophy.
AV came under fire last year for his deployment of his so-called favorites, but has taken a step in the right direction this season. He is not the perfect coach, as anyone who watches his defense deployments will tell you, but he’s a solid hockey mind. He certainly has offensive strengths, even if he lacks defensive evaluation.
Vigneault has a solid record with the Rangers, at 175-97-23, good for a .632 win percentage. By the time the season is over, he will be fourth in franchise history in coaching wins. Love him or hate him, he’s had a good run.