Archive for State of the Rangers
You know it’s time to dust off your laptop and write a post for Blue Seat Blogs when there are jokes on the Internet about your location, your health, or doubts as to if you ever existed at all. Truth be told, I am not an alter ego for Dave Shapiro.
For new readers of Blue Seat Blogs, allow me to re-introduce myself, my name is HOV, H to the O V, The Suit. I like bourbon, matters related to bespoke tailoring, and hockey. I use a pseudonym for various reasons. I (sort of) invented blogging about Hockey Systems. Now Steve Valiquette has far surpassed me and did so with an air of Greenwich snobbery that even I can’t replicate (jk love you Vally).
Anyway, it’s been a while since I created internet, so I have decided to share a few views on things related specifically to our defense, because defense wins championships or something.
One of the many questions heading into the season was how Alain Vigneault would deploy his players. There were a bunch of new players, and even with four skill lines, AV still has a tendency to have his one “shutdown” line. Couple that with an aging and relatively poor defense group, and you have a lot of questions.
But in the early going, few players seem to be struggling. Sure you can name a few, but not many. In addition, there are the guys you assume will be used in defensive roles, like Dan Girardi, and the guys you assume will be deployed in an offensive role, like Adam Clendening.
In case you missed it, the Rangers are off to a pretty solid start. Not only are they winning games, they are completely dominating opponents. It’s a welcome change from last year, where goaltending was keeping a mediocre team above water. Speed and skill throughout the lineup has put significant pressure on the opposition, and the Rangers are capitalizing.
While much of our focus on stats is at even strength, since that is where the majority of the game is played, special teams play is critical to the success of a potential Cup contender. Last year, special teams –specifically the penalty kill– crippled the Rangers. They couldn’t consistently score or generate offense on the powerplay, and were Swiss cheese on the penalty kill.
The season isn’t even a month old and we’re not yet 1/8 of the way through this marathon, but screw it, I’m ready to call the Rangers contenders once again. In a season when nearly every pundit expected the Blueshirts to fall back to the fringe of the playoff picture due to their leaky defense, New York has instead emerged as a lethal transition team that has speed and skill throughout its lineup, its most dangerous power play in recent memory, and as usual, all-world goaltending.
Indeed, the hype train is leaving the station. NBC analysts Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire agreed that the Blueshirts have re-established themselves among the game’s elite teams and there’s even early buzz that Jeff Gorton could be a candidate for GM of the Year.
So are we getting ahead of ourselves?
Yesterday, the New York Rangers waived Dylan McIlrath, with the intention of sending him down to the Wolf Pack. As you can imagine, this sent fans into a bit of an uproar. After all, Josh Jooris was just diagnosed with a separated shoulder and was destined to hit LTIR. This would have given the Rangers more roster flexibility with the imminent returns of Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider. The Rangers didn’t have to make a move.
As of this writing, there are still several hours left in the waiver period, so we are not yet sure if the team will lose McIlrath for nothing yet. There seems to be no consensus on the likelihood of a claim (I tend to think there is a good possibility of one). If McIlrath sneaks through to Hartford that will be some grade A depth in the minors in case of future injuries, and additional ice time can only help his continued development. If he is claimed, it will highlight some poor asset management on the part of the organization, especially since he did not have to be waived at the moment.
We’re a few games into the season at this point, and it’s plain to see what the Rangers’ strengths are as a team. Most of this stems from the team’s deep forward corps – the team is fast and has a scoring touch on each of their four lines. What’s also becoming increasingly clear however is the Rangers’ weakness: the defense. While this may seem like an obvious point to make, it’s important to go further and parse out exactly what the issues are in order to better understand how to address them.
Let’s start with what even the most stalwart apologists for the Rangers defense would acknowledge: aside from Ryan McDonagh, this is not a defensive group that moves the puck well. The forwards on the team mostly make up for them, as they’re all quite fast and each line has someone capable of making quick passes and carry-ins on it, but the start of the breakout needs work.
With the return of Dan Girard in last night’s game against Arizona, the Rangers are finally back to full strength on their blue line. Adam Clendening joined Dylan McIlrath in the press box, as it appears Alain Vigneault will lean on veterans, as expected.
Girardi will likely go back to playing with Ryan McDonagh, while Kevin Klein probably ends up back with Marc Staal. That leaves Brady Skjei and Nick Holden in a third pairing role, with Holden still playing on the right side, a place where he wasn’t comfortable to start the year.
Heading into the season, the Rangers were going to showcase what amounts to a brand-new forward group. The offseason focused on speed, skill, and the ability to run four skill lines. It’s a model that won the Pittsburgh Penguins a Stanley Cup last season. It’s a copycat league, but this isn’t a new trend. Most of the league has been focusing on skill/speed up and down the lineup for a few seasons now.
The improved forwards have been the story of the first four games for the Rangers. A new identity for the Rangers is being formed, with speed at the forefront. The Rangers have regained their tenacious forecheck, and have been able to sustain more controlled zone entries, leading to more quality scoring chances.
Even though the Rangers have started the season 2-2, there have been plenty of reasons for optimism. The team has dominated possession and scoring chances in the two losses, and were simply stymied by two goaltenders on their game. There have been some highlights and lowlights since the season began, and as you can imagine, I have some thoughts…
1. This forward group has been really impressive so far. There is speed up and down the lineup. Oddly good chemistry has developed on certain lines very quickly (coughKreiderZBadBuchcough) and the special teams have had a much better look, as well. The sample sizes are still to small to look at efficiency or league rankings, etc., but the visual analysis tells me that it has been much improved.
2. It is really nice to have some shooters in the lineup for a change. There is obviously a point of diminishing returns with simply firing at the net with every touch, but having those guys with a shoot first instinct has made the offense much more dynamic. Mika Zibanejad has been especially impressive thus far.
Here’s food for thought: why can’t the Rangers have Jacob Trouba AND Kevin Shattenkirk? I think it is a legitimate option that the Rangers should explore. I am not normally an advocate of blowing your remaining assets to trade for any one player, particularly one (Trouba) who isn’t the finished article and particularly as the franchise is still in replenish the mode. However there is one circumstance where I’m willing to change my thinking and that is for a young, hard to find player that the team can build around. That player could be Jacob Trouba.
To cut to the chase, the Rangers should try their hardest to get both Trouba and Shattenkirk. There are so many benefits to this. Forget about the likelihood or practicalities of making this happen for a second, and just think about the benefits. A top four containing Ryan McDonagh, Trouba and Shattenkirk would immediately make the Rangers owners of a truly elite, modern blueline. Possession numbers would be better, special teams would be better, better breakouts almost a given and you can argue, having a stronger blueline should extend not just the Rangers’ window of contention but by default, Henrik Lundqvist’s career.