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Category: State of the Rangers

Rangers have legit excuses for early struggles, but show they’re capable of much more

Few teams can win without their No. 1 C, No. 1 D and PPQB

When we look back on the season at the end of the year, there’s a good possibility that last weekend will represent its low point.

A blown lead against Toronto followed by another embarrassing performance at home against Edmonton seemed unacceptable over the last couple of days, but last night’s 5-0 drubbing of Pittsburgh was a good reminder that the Blueshirts are capable of much more.

Any team can dominate on any given night in the NHL, but only two can say they were in the Stanley Cup Final last year, so the Rangers’ best efforts carry a little more weight than a team like the Oilers.
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Fixing the fourth line

(Photo: Blueshirts United)

Photo: Blueshirts United

All season long, the Rangers have had some serious issues with the fourth line. It’s not really a surprise, since the Rangers have used nine different players on that line already. Nine. Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, Ryan Malone, Chris Mueller, Lee Stempniak, Kevin Hayes, Anthony Duclair. Suffice it to say: That’s a lot of forwards used on a line that was a huge strength for the club last year.

Out of those nine, four are rookies, three are in the AHL, two are retreads that probably shouldn’t be on an NHL roster, one’s a possession anchor that shouldn’t be on a roster, and two more shouldn’t be on a fourth line (top-nine only). It’s a mess, but it’s a fixable mess. In fact, it’s easily fixable.

Step One: Enough with the retreads.

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Conor Allen showing John Moore’s spot is not guaranteed

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When the Rangers blue line finally gets healthy, the assumption has always been that John Moore will be the LD on the third pairing. It’s tough to argue with that, as the one prospect who appears NHL ready is currently playing at the University of Minnesota (Brady Skjei). Conor Allen, in preseason, was seemingly beat out by Dylan McIlrath as the 7D (both were sent to the AHL for Matt Hunwick, since the kids need playing time). Moore’s spot appeared to be safe.

Allen, recalled due to the Moore suspension and the injury to Ryan McDonagh, looked steady in his two games this year. He’s not flashy by any stretch, but he reminds me of a right-handed Anton Stralman. If you recall, Stralman didn’t show up on the scoreboard, but he always made the smart, short, easy pass to move the puck out of the zone. It’s something that is greatly under appreciated because it is such a subtle play. Allen showed a lot of those qualities when I watched him.

Naturally I’m a bit of a nerd, so I took to the numbers to see if what I saw matches what was produced on the ice.

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New York Rangers defense: Just survive

Photo: AP

Photo: AP

Good news folks, Derek Stepan is almost ready to return for injury. Figured I may as well lead with that.

The six defensemen that started for the Rangers on opening night: Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, John Moore. Only the first two will dress tonight, and may be the only two that dress for the next four games. No matter what side of the fence you fall on regarding Girardi/Anton Stralman, or Staal, or Klein, or Moore, you recognize that this is a significant problem.

Boyle went down first with a broken hand two periods into the season. Then Moore was suspended for five games. Then over the weekend the club lost McDonagh for 4-6 weeks with a separated shoulder and Klein for at least one game with a foot contusion. Saying that this situation isn’t ideal is a drastic understatement.

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Derek Stepan’s return raises Rangers line-up questions

Stepan's return will have a major impact on the Rangers line-up. AP Photo/Bruce Bennett, Pool

Stepan’s return will have a major impact on the Rangers line-up. AP Photo/Bruce Bennett, Pool

As Derek Stepan has finally hit the ice with his team mates (albeit in a non contact jersey) the questions will now begin to focus more on where rather than when will Stepan play. Following the excellent instant chemistry Rick Nash has shown with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello the logical thinking will be to try and keep that trio in tact in the short term. Of course, given Nash’s not so pretty possession numbers perhaps Alain Vigneault will consider reuniting Stepan with the Rangers best and hottest forward.

Questions will be raised about Stepan’s match readiness. Will Stepan need to be eased back in? And can Nash be a spark for Stepan the way he appears to have been for Zuccarello and Brassard? The options for Stepan are numerous at this stage. With Stepan’s return almost certainly meaning the end of the Marty St Louis at center experiment, the chances are that Stepan will be paired with St Louis and Kreider, (finally) giving the Rangers two legitimate scoring lines for the first time this season.

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With a John Moore suspension looming, what are the options?

john moore

Moore.

John Moore is almost guaranteed a suspension. An in-person hearing with the Department of Player Safety doesn’t guarantee a suspension, but it gives them the option of suspending a player more than five games. Since Moore is a repeat offender, receiving two games for a hit on Dale Weise in last year’s playoffs, it’s a guarantee he misses at least three games, likely five or more.

At the moment, Matt Hunwick is playing somewhat steady filling in for the injured Dan Boyle. Mike Kostka played one game, had a few epic turnovers, but one game isn’t indicative of an entire career. Conor Allen is in Hartford, and he’s the guy most fans think is ready for a shot. Dylan McIlrath was the last one cut from camp, and the first round pick has shown significant progress and promise.

So what can the Rangers do?

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Amid Rangers’ team wide struggles, Nash needs to be the catalyst.

Going to the dirty areas, scoring more goals. (Photo: Adam Hunger/USA Today)

Going to the dirty areas, scoring more goals. (Photo: Adam Hunger/USA Today)

Right now, outside of Anaheim, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more confident and in-form goal scorer than Rick Nash. Other than the Ducks’ Corey Perry, Nash has been the best the league has to offer as October draws to a close but unlike Perry, Nash has had very little (consistent) support to this point of the season.

While they’re different players, the start to the year Nash has enjoyed has been reminiscent of how Jaromir Jagr put his Rangers team on his back and carried them all season long on his way to that historic 54 goal season a few years back. Right now, the Rangers need Nash not only to generate the offense that he has, but to help kick start other players into life. It appeared that this additional part of Nash’s job description started in earnest against the Wild.

Prior to Monday night Mats Zuccarello had struggled mightily – much like his start to last year. Derick Brassard had also been inconsistent but both players came up with huge efforts when lined up with Nash Monday night. Looking back to the start of the year and Chris Kreider has also had his most effective games with Nash as a running mate.

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The Rangers have had too many passengers

Marc Staal needs to be better. Especially if he wants to cash in.

Marc Staal needs to be better. Especially if he wants to cash in.

Marc Staal quite frankly has been awful, Henrik Lundqvist has been inconsistent, Martin St Louis has been on the periphery, and core players such as Mats Zuccarello have either been invisible or terrible, depending on how forgiving you are as a fan. Throughout the Rangers line-up too many players haven’t kicked into gear yet or shown nearly enough consistency.

Almost the entire roster has Rick Nash (and to a lesser extent Chris Kreider) to thank that the record isn’t a lot uglier than 4-4, eight games in. Fancy stats to one side, this team hasn’t passed the good old fashioned eye test. A lot has been made of the Rangers ‘big three’ on defense not playing well so far, and that is certainly true (McDonagh and Staal were both particularly poor in Montreal) but better contributions are required all over the line-up.

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The need for the top-three to be better

Through the first seven games of the season, the Rangers have tread water with a 4-3 record. Considering the injuries to Derek Stepan and Dan Boyle, that’s what most had hoped for. These are two significant injuries that compound the issue of significant roster turnover from last year. Those that have been with the club for a while need to be the anchors that hold the ship steady, and right now, the top three of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal have been underwhelming.

The three of them combined have just five assists for the season. Defensive scoring is critical for successful teams, and while I don’t expect this to be an on-going problem throughout the year, it has been a problem nonetheless. While offense is an issue, the more alarming issue is the defensive meltdowns that led to three straight losses where the team allowed 17 goals. Evan Sporer at Blueshirt Banter wrote a good piece about shot quality, and how the Rangers defense was allowing quality shots. I’m not going to re-hash it here, but you should check it out, it’s a brilliant post.

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Building a better goaltending statistic

Wikipedia.org

Wikipedia.org

Over the past few years, the debate has grown more intense about the validity and reliance on #fancystats. The concept of quantifying the game has been a theme we have run with around here, albeit with the conceit that there is no perfect, all-knowing stat that can be universally relied upon to demonstrate a player’s ability level.

Statistics trying to quantify human athletic performance are inherently limited. There are very human characteristics in play; such as intelligence, judgment, emotion, situational awareness, etc. It makes it difficult to measure performance as if they were vital signs. I think that to fully expect that level of quantification or to vilify the statistic for being unable to is missing the point.

Much like politics, I think the emergence of these statistics and the resistance to adoption has pushed the two positions out to the extremes. The old school hockey community has written them off or marginalized their effectiveness, citing “games are played on the ice, not on a spreadsheet”, or taking pot shots at the Maple Leafs for hiring Kyle Dubas for their Assistant GM position, and various stats writers to make up a new analytics department. Read more »