Archive for State of the Rangers
It seems like ages ago that New York and Vancouver took part in a Coach Swap, something each team needed. Long tenures are tricky because coaching flaws can begin to show. If the coach isn’t willing to adapt, their future with that team looks murky.
It’s how they create reputations and the reason that so many get hired, as is evidenced by that Rangers wife-swapped squad; tired of the aggression and hard-nose, “gritty” hockey, the Rangers opted to hire the offense-minded Vigneault who had come very close to Stanley Cup glory in the Northwest.
One of the bigger tasks on GM Jeff Gorton’s plate this summer was revamping the bottom six. The Rangers had just met a quick defeat at the hands of eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins and throughout the series (and much of the regular season, depending on the opponent) was that the Rangers depth players simply couldn’t match up against those of elite teams. I won’t beat a dead horse too much, but I will note that Tanner Glass saw significant minutes in the playoffs last year. Enough said.
Gorton rose to the occasion and made savvy acquisitions in the offseason, most notably Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, and later picked up Matt Puempel on waivers from Ottawa. While Grabner has obviously been the standout amongst this group the three of them, and call-up Marek Hrivik, have given the bottom six a whole new look. The Rangers’s bottom two lines are now primarily identifiable by their speed and puck handling ability, as opposed to their propensity to bleed shot attempts.
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.
With the Rangers on their bye week, which was perfectly timed with the halfway point of the season, we are afforded the opportunity to evaluate the Rangers with nothing else going on. Midseason report cards have been a bit of a tradition here at BSB, so let’s keep that tradition going, shall we?
Over the next few days, each of us will be tackling a different aspect of the team, and assigning grades accordingly. I’m batting leadoff here, and I’m going to be discussing the most polarizing aspect of this year’s team: The defense.
Overall, the back line for the Rangers has been relatively bad. The combination of age, injuries, wear and tear, and a shift towards speed has made what was once a strong defense into a bottom-five unit in the league. The slow start by Henrik Lundqvist exposed the defense even more. But it’s not all bad, either.
With the other night’s thrilling comeback win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Rangers are entering the CBA negotiated bye week with a 28-13-1 record and 57 points. That is only good for third in the Metropolitan Division, with the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins ahead of the Rangers. The Washington Capitals are just two points back as well. Suffice it to say, the Metro is the toughest division in hockey this year.
But the Rangers do have a +39 goal differential, which is good for second in the NHL. That is attributable to their 146 goals scored, tops in the league. Shoddy defense has made the Rangers somewhat inconsistent at times, but it’s been just barely passable to help the Rangers get to 26 regulation/OT wins, tied for tops in the league (Columbus). Considering the obvious hole in the lineup, the Rangers are in solid position at the halfway mark.
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 Rangers’ biggest strength at the outset of the season was their depth at forward. Although their early scoring bonanza turned out to be unsustainable, it certainly showed us what four balanced scoring lines are capable of accomplishing – a complete style of play predicated on quick transitions and overwhelming offensive contributions.
Since then things have tapered off a bit, in large part due to the team’s unsustainable shooting percentage but also due to injuries. Missing Rick Nash, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mika Zibanejad has definitely altered the look of the Rangers lineup leading to a dependence on certain players to carry the team on any given night (think Derek Stepan against the Senators or Chris Kreider more recently against Colorado). Certainly when you consider that Matt Puempel is on the second powerplay unit (all due respect to Matt Puempel), it’s evident that the team’s forward depth has taken a hit.
So things are starting to look up as the Rangers’ three biggest injuries prepare to return to the ice, with Rick Nash all but ready and his latter two comrades skating in non-contact jerseys at practice of late.
As the focus of the Rangers season thus far has shifted from the goaltending to the defense, it seems that the one thing that seems to slip under the radar is the wild success of the forward group. It’s easy to have that slip through the cracks, as we like to think of ways to improve the club, potentially taking what we see in front of us for granted.
When fully healthy, the Rangers were a scoring machine. They still hold the top offense in the league with 135 goals with a full top line out to injury for an extended period of time. Rick Nash is arguably the Rangers best forward and has played just three games in the past three weeks. Mika Zibanejad is likely the most dangerous forward on the powerplay, and he’s been out for two months. Pavel Buchnevich is the top rookie, and it looks like Putin kidnapped him.
The New York Rangers have hit a prominent lull in the 2016-2017 season. It is pretty easy to expect fans to be getting antsy when your team has given up more touchdowns than the Cleveland Browns in one week, followed up by spotting Ottawa a two-spot early on. Members of the analytics community expected the team to slow down, and losing an entire first line tends to make the regression even more excruciating. Other bloggers in the Rangers community have mentioned that perhaps, a key thing the Rangers need to help turn this lull around is toughness.
One of the biggest proponents for adding toughness in the Rangers blogger universe is @NYR_Fulltilt and he laid out his points well in this post. I tend to disagree with a lot of what he says, but I have noticed that much of the backlash he is getting is disjointed yelling, making following and cheering for the team difficult at times. I am just going to flat out say my view, toughness is not an issue, nor is having four similar lines of skill, but I do think there is more to the discussion than what meets the eyes.
The Rangers have gone 8-3 in their last eleven games, which is obviously a good thing. However, there has been some really bad process along the way. I don’t think there is any question at this point that the Rangers are most definitely a playoff team, but the bigger concern lies in their ability to win a seven game series with the likes of the Penguins and Capitals.
At BSB, we analyze performance on a game-by-game basis, while trying to identify good and bad traits in what is happening on the ice. We also like to take macro view of overall production and trends, which can hopefully be predictive of future performance and adjustments that need to be made for sustained success. I suppose what makes analyzing this stretch of Rangers’ hockey frustrating is the injuries to several key forwards, namely Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.