AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Although the New York Rangers’ lines are in a state of flux due to injuries, we have seen enough games thus far to get a fair barometer on how Alain Vigneault will deploy his lines throughout the season. Earlier this month, prior to the start of the season, I took a guess at how AV would deploy his lines. The only thing that we knew for sure at that point was that the fourth line would get buried with defensive zone starts. That part at least remains true.
Before we get into it, we should note that J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, Chris Mueller, and Ryan Malone haven’t really played enough for the zone start percentages to be a true barometer of where AV has been starting them. However, the latter three have spent most of their time on the fourth line, with Miller getting most of his time on the third line (one game on the fourth line). The numbers for these players may be skewed a bit.
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Forget Mike Kostka. The one-game experiment with the 28-year-old defender notwithstanding, the Rangers’ depth has been extremely impressive so far this season.
Derek Stepan and Dan Boyle are two enormous losses that most teams wouldn’t be able to withstand, but New York has weathered the storm remarkably well through seven games.
It hasn’t been easy.
Poor planning down the middle during the summer forced first Martin St. Louis and now Kevin Hayes into unnatural positions, but both players have done well learning on the fly. The center problem has been felt most at the faceoff dots, but that’s never been Stepan’s hallmark anyway. And though Stepan’s myriad of contributions obviously can’t be replaced, the absence of the No. 1 center has done nothing to affect the team’s primary scorers on the wing. Rick Nash is off to an unreal start, and rotating top-liners St. Louis and Chris Kreider have found the scoresheet early and often even without No. 21. Stepan has been missed more in the defensive end, but the entire team has been awful in its own zone thus far, so the subs would be hard to fault for that.
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Anthony Duclair was a healthy scratch as the Rangers beat the Sharks 4-0 yesterday. When the initial news broke, there was some serious outrage over scratching Duke, some of it was rational and warranted, most was irrational. The Duke has three assists on the season, but has yet to put one in the net. That is partially due to lack of shots on goal –he has just six SOG– but it also has to do with his ability to put himself in a position to get shots on net.
Duclair has two games where he’s registered a shot on goal: The back-to-back 6-3 shellings by the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs. His two assists: Against Columbus in that 5-2 disaster. He’s not being given the room he had in the preseason, which is expected since he’s now playing against the cream of the crop. Spending some time up top watching a game or two can help a 19-year-old kid identify the subtle differences (speed) of the game. He hasn’t played his way out of the lineup, not by a long shot.
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This past offseason, the Rangers let Anton Stralman walk via free agency and a five-year, $4.5 million deal in Tampa Bay. They replaced him with Dan Boyle on a shorter term deal, two years at $4.5 million. While the move was hotly contested by many, and created a divide for the pro-Stralman and anti-Stralman debate, the fact is that Boyle was still a serviceable replacement, and someone who would certainly help the team on the powerplay.
But then, 40 minutes into the season, Boyle broke his hand. Mike Kostka and Matt Hunwick have been called upon to replace him in the lineup, paired with either Marc Staal or John Moore. For the first month of the season, the Rangers are replacing Stralman with the Kostka/Hunwick combination, and no matter which way you slice it, that was never part of the plan.
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Building on what Kevin talked about yesterday, not everything in Rangerland is a negative right now. Despite the inept goaltending currently found at the Garden and the sinking ship that is the Rangers defense, there are still reasons for optimism in New York. One of those reasons is Chris Kreider. If the Rangers had just a competent defense in week one we would be talking more about the good starts of Anthony Duclair and Lee Stempniak, the hot streak and return to prominence of Rick Nash but – in my opinion – above all, Chris Kreider’s emergence as an every game threat.
While still a little rough around the edges, Kreider has looked dominant at times. His one goal so far was a breakaway which he took extremely well, he has been hard on the puck all year, has been physically engaged while he’s also shown he’s willing to stick up for his teammates. Kreider has also impressed with a couple of great primary assists on goals for Nash and Derick Brassard showing that he’s not a one dimensional player and has been hungry for the puck on his stick. If he can maintain his start to the season he should also smash his career high for shots on goal with well over 200.
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Three losses in four games and 12 goals against in the first two home contests certainly isn’t how the Rangers wanted to start the season, but it’s not altogether unexpected. With No. 1 center Derek Stepan and No. 4 D Dan Boyle on the shelf, and a slew of raw youngsters in the lineup, it’s no surprise that the Blueshirts have been a dumpster fire in their own end. There are certainly very real causes for concern, but there is plenty of time to right the ship – just take a look back at how last season started.
So since it’s all gloom and doom in Ranger-land this morning, let’s check out some of the things that are going right for New York, many of which have come as pleasant surprises:
– Rick Nash has six goals in four games. That’s a pretty decent start, by any measure. The #fancystats crowd insisted Nash would bounce back after a horribly unlucky postseason, but this offensive explosion has eclipsed anyone’s wildest dreams. This confidence boost will be huge for Nash after he was forced to take a long look in the mirror last spring, and it could be the start of a monster year.
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McIlrath may not be ready for prime time but his type of skill set is sorely needed. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sometimes you have to live with the growing pains while some teams traditionally have slow starts and if you want prospects on the roster you have to endure the inconsistencies that accompany them. However, the sudden lack of depth the Rangers have on defense is an issue that might need resolving with acquiring help from outside of the organisation rather than turning to a prospect.
The Rangers defense, thus far, has looked completely inept. Countless blown assignments, a lack of physicality and terrible positioning in their own zone; the Rangers defense has been highlighted by a boat load of errors in the first three games. Even before Dan Boyle got injured in game one, the Rangers defense had its struggles. In game one it was the inability to get out of their own zone effectively.
The Rangers bottom pairing needs addressing and despite a respectable first game, Matt Hunwick is not the answer. Players such as Hunwick and Mike Kostka are stop gaps. They are not ‘plug in and play’ types that add competence to a unit long term. The Rangers can (and will) stop the bleeding despite Dan Boyle’s absence but even with Boyle this unit has its flaws that will need addressing.
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Sometimes opportunity is about timing. Anthony Duclair, JT Miller and Kevin Hayes have made the Rangers at the right time because in Alain Vigneault they have the right coach to develop them into full time – and hopefully long term – Rangers.
Vigneault won over a lot of the fan base last year by staying patient amid early troubles, by being the Anti-Torts in allowing players to develop chemistry together and also by being able to acknowledge ‘hot hands’ and give players a platform to perform when their form deserved extra playing time (example: Cam Talbot taking over midseason for a short period).
There’s every chance Anthony Duclair goes back to junior this year and if he does, it will have been the right decision. If he sticks, he’ll have earned it. The Rangers Head Coach has earned everyone’s trust and whatever he decides will likely be the best course of action. Alain Vigneault has proven he’s confident in his younger players if they earn his trust and the even ice time distribution in the St Louis game (every forward had at least 11 minutes ice time) suggests Vigneault will continue to work the kids in to meaningful positions and give them a chance of growth.
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Who could have guessed that Marty St. Louis would be the top-line center?
It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict the opening night lineup before training camp. Even once camp begins, there are far too many variables to nail it.
But though we can’t help anticipating and debating who will make the team during the summer months, the opening night lineup means very little in the grand scheme of things.
No one could have predicted that Martin St. Louis would end up being New York’s first-line center, or that 19-year-old Anthony Duclair would beat out a slew of veterans and near-NHL ready prospects for a top-nine spot to start the season. But St. Louis’ position change is only temporary, as Duclair’s stay in New York could be.
The first month of the 2014-2015 season will be about treading water in Derek Stepan’s absence, first and foremost, and determining if prospects like Duclair and Kevin Hayes deserve to stick. Read more »
John Moore was the last regular from the 2013-14 varsity to sign a new deal for the upcoming season. That he wasn’t a priority speaks of the Rangers cap crunch but also of Moore’s uncertain future as well as his underwhelming performance as a Ranger. Although Moore has played well at times for the Rangers, it is hard not to expect more when you analyse his talent, size, pedigree and the need the Rangers have for another defenseman to step up offensively.
Had John Moore developed as hoped there’s every chance the Rangers wouldn’t have pursued Dan Boyle and would have had a sizeable chunk of cap cash to pursue a big name center this past summer but Moore didn’t develop into the two way defenseman both the Blue Jackets and the Rangers hoped for and Dan Boyle is indeed a New York Ranger. Meanwhile the Rangers have a merry-go-round at center in Derek Stepan’s absence.
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