Let’s have a gander at the grades for the Rangers’ top two forward lines shall we?
Rick Nash’s overall season can be argued both as a positive and a negative. Indeed, there are few players that have divided opinion the way Nash has since he became a Ranger. A season that featured notable career highs but that was offset by another underwhelming postseason, things went as far as culminating with Nash being considered prime trade material this offseason. Hardly the appreciation you’d expect for a 42 goal player and early season Hart Trophy candidate. The problem is that Nash, like many Rangers, is now judged primarily on what he does after the regular season and this is where he failed to live up to both his regular season production and significant salary.
Nash needs to be a leader, the go-to guy offensively and in the postseason that didn’t happen nearly enough. Nash lacked postseason consistency, was never close to being his dominant regular season self and as the Rangers went quietly into the offseason, tellingly, so did Nash. Once again, despite solid numbers the microscope will firmly be on Nash come October. Despite the disappointing end, Nash finished in the top ten for the Hart trophy. Grade: B
It is hard not to class Brassard’s season as anything other than a complete and utter success, if it were not for the fact this Rangers team were expected to reach another Cup final. Brassard has almost made a mockery of his new contract (bargain!) scoring an impressive 60 points in the regular and leading the Rangers in both postseason goals and points. Several times throughout the year but particularly in the playoffs Brassard came up huge for the Rangers and he arguably overtook Derek Stepan as the team’s #1 pivot. Or has he? (what a luxury the Rangers suddenly have).
Brassard played the entire season with infectious enthusiasm, was effective on an otherwise inconsistent powerplay and found great chemistry with Mats Zuccarello and Nash. The only real criticisms of Brassard could be his (continued) reluctance to use his wonderful shot more and again, as the Rangers struggled to score at home at the end of the playoffs, Brassard was another that was found wanting. Brassard took several careless penalties this season but if that’s the worst aspect of his game compared to all the positives sign me up. Grade: A-
Stepan has become a fine two-way pivot for the Rangers and has played himself into what will likely be a big new contract this offseason. Again, like other key forwards, Stepan didn’t step up to save the Rangers season when needed and going pointless in the last four games of the playoffs will have left a bitter taste on his otherwise productive season. Stepan did however score some huge goals in the playoffs including the series winner over the Capitals and was usually matched up against other team’s top lines so Stepan cannot be judged purely by his offensive numbers.
Stepan has become an established 55 point centerman but you get the sense there is more to come from the homegrown Ranger. Stepan’s biggest weaknesses remain the long stretches he goes without scoring (three droughts of at least 8 games without a goal, including a 14 game stretch) as well as his faceoff inferiority. It is a weakness that has undermined his game his entire pro career. You get the sense that Stepan’s career could go one of two ways: he could become a 70-80 point elite center or he could settle into a nice yet perhaps underwhelming complimentary piece. Either way, another season passed where Stepan was critical to the Rangers on ice fortunes. Grade: B
Martin St Louis
Grading St Louis hurts. It was hard to watch a future Hall of Famer and genuine good guy’s game disintegrate at the end of the season and make no mistake, St Louis’ game crumbled. St Louis has always been streaky and this year was no different but the lows have truly begun to outweigh the highs. How can his season, even when the winger was the Rangers second leading goalscorer, be classed a success when it featured two separate scoreless streaks of at least 15 games?
St Louis was often far too easily muscled off the puck, he coughed the puck up a lot in open ice, and wasn’t a difference maker or go-to guy the Rangers had thought they had acquired and in truth, he’s never quite been the force he was during his Tampa days. St Louis never really had that spark about him this year and after he returned from his injury lay off he looked a step slow, something he’s never recovered. It’s the measure of the man that his 52 point regular season (a quality year for 80% of the league) was underwhelming. His playoffs were almost a tragic occurrence. Grade: a generous C
Mats Zuccarello and the Rangers’ season overall may be summed up ‘what might have been’. Zuccarello was sorely missed in the playoffs and we’ll never know if his presence would have been enough for the Rangers to go the distance. What we do know however is Zuccarello is the glue that holds the Rangers top six together, he is a strong possession player and with the decline of St Louis, maybe the Rangers most creative spark. Few in the league can share Zuccarello’s vision. Zuccarello was often the catalyst for his line and is a big part of Derick Brassard’s emergence into a front line, quality NHL forward.
Zuccarello’s regular season started slowly and generally speaking, he really needs to score more consistently and shoot more frequently – a trait too many Rangers forwards share – but when Zuccarello was on his game, the Rangers invariably were a lot better for it. The fact Zuccarello did almost nothing on the powerplay all season long is borderline inexplicable and he’ll need to return to contributing to the powerplay next season to really become a force. With his new team friendly deal in place Zuccarello remains a critical piece of the puzzle. Grade: B
Consistency, consistency, consistency. One word, repeated over and again that can sum up Chris Kreider. If Kreider can discover some form of game to game (even period to period) consistency he could genuinely be one of the game’s very best power forwards. There were games where Kreider absolutely dominated opponents whether it was through his speed or his physical play and when he drives to the net with the puck he is oh-so hard to stop. Kreider set career highs across the board yet, like others on the roster, you get the feeling there’s much more to come (which clearly is exciting for Rangers fans).
Kreider was at times huge in the playoffs (something he’s done a lot), highlighted by his mammoth series saving goal against the Capitals but even then, 9 points in 19 games leaves you wanting more, even when his stat lines were full of big goals. Kreider flirted with 200 hits and 200 shots this year. Imagine if he played every game like it meant something? Kreider’s defensive gaffes still need addressing, his penchant for bad penalties needs sorting but the potential for Kreider is so great it’s hard not to be excited. Despite all that, the huge consistency issues and limp finish to the playoffs haunt Kreider’s season. Grade: B-
It’s perhaps surprising to see C’s and B’s on a top six forward group that just helped win a President’s trophy but the Rangers had room for more, had a disappointing finish to their year and really, they’ve set these standards for themselves. It’s exciting that there’s so much upside (still) among this group.