A shutout victory against a very good team can mask a lot of deficiencies but the Rangers won’t win the Stanley Cup the way they’re currently playing – I think all Rangers fans know this. The top line can dominate all they want but they can’t play sixty minutes every game and Henrik Lundqvist can win the Vezina by a landslide but even he needs support. There is no way Lundqvist can continue this stretch of excellence unless the team start to play better in front of him.
The Rangers are winning games but they aren’t playing consistently well at either end of the rink – a handful of players aside. If it wasn’t for a potentially career year from Mats Zuccarello and Lundqvist’s sustained brilliance, what would this team’s record be? A lot closer to .500 hockey for sure.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons for optimism. The vast majority of the roster can play better, the defense certainly has the ability and collective track record to suggest they can (and will?) offer Lundqvist more protection and if team-wide discipline improves (it must) then the Rangers would spend less time in the penalty box surely resulting in more offense by default.
So With that all said, one of the major areas requiring surgery is the Rangers problematic fourth line. It has an awkward looking composition. Alain Vigneault likes to roll four lines but he can’t do it with any great confidence right now. The fourth line has been a revolving door of players both in and out of the line-up and in and out of different positions. Jarrett Stoll, Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore, Jesper Fast, Emerson Etem and even JT Miller have all spent time – to varying degrees – on the fourth line. Amongst others. Yet Vigneault still doesn’t have a combination that has served him well. No one benefits from the way the line has become a carousel roster parts.
Some of the issue rests with a recent Ranger acquisition. The Rangers made a mistake when they signed Jarrett Stoll. Not because the player can’t help the Rangers (his playoff experience, penalty killing ability and faceoff skills are certainly assets to be used) but because it meant that the Rangers were always going to be compromising the makeup of their bottom line. They didn’t need Stoll. He was a luxury acquisition.
They didn’t sign Stoll to sit in the press box but then again, Dominic Moore has proven too valuable a veteran to be out of the line-up as well. Did they need both? All of a sudden at least one square peg is going into a round hole. Neither veteran is an ideal solution on the flank. Did the Rangers obsess too much over Stoll’s winning pedigree? A better acquisition would have been a legitimate upgrade over Tanner Glass.
The Rangers have too many moving parts in the trenches. The fourth line would be best served with two natural wingers. With three players with defined roles however restricted or set in stone they may be. Right now, the fourth line looks incapable of being what the Rangers need it to be. Players are having to adapt, having to accommodate other players tendencies when the focus should be on fulfilling a fourth line role – zone time, defensive draws, reliable physical presence and establishing a consistent forecheck. Andrew Gross recently wrote that Moore and Stoll talk a lot about each others on ice needs due to, in part, Moore’s uneasiness on the wing. Credit Moore for trying to make it work but criticise Vigneault for trying to force it.
The Ranger are a better, more dangerous team when their depth is working to the team’s advantage. When they can actually roll all four lines and get good shift after good shift. The Rangers aren’t getting that kind of performance at the moment and part of it is Vigneault’s inability to develop an effective fourth line. Can the Rangers outlast the Canadiens, the Lightning and Washington come playoff time? Certainly in the case of the Caps and Canadiens, their line-ups look more in sync than the Rangers’ does while Tampa has more natural talent to fall back on; it’s a nice advantage they have.
If the Rangers are going to get back to the Stanley Cup finals and go one step further than two seasons ago it’ll be – in part – because their depth has played a major role in getting them there. It’s how this team needs to be built. Top to bottom and from the net out. Alan Vigneault needs to remedy his depth issue(s) while the season is still early and while mistakes aren’t costly. Thanks to Lundqvist and Zuccarello, Vigneault has some room for manoeuvre. That won’t always be the case.