I have a confession to make. I haven’t really been watching much of the Rangers lately. A combination of a hectic work schedule and early deficits have conspired to dilute my commitment to watching this group. It’s tough to keep it locked to MSG when they are already down 4-1 six minutes into the second. Despite this, I have obviously read every wonderful article the BSB crew has churned out and scrolled through the ol’ Twitter feed to see the wreckage the morning after games. The weirdest part is my liquor cabinet hasn’t needed refilling as often. Strange.
What this little break has allowed me to do is take a step back and assess the big picture with this club. The only consistent thing this season has been inconsistency. They have been embarrassed by mediocre teams like the Flames and Oilers, but have put on clinics against talent-stacked squads in Tampa, Dallas and St. Louis. It’s maddening. What I have determined during my sabbatical is that the organization is facing a litany of crossroad decisions as the Rangers enter the back half of Henrik Lundqvist’s prime window.
The most challenging aspect of the current state of the club is the barely rising salary cap. If the Canadian dollar had not all of a sudden turned into Monopoly money, the cap should be somewhere around $80 million for next season. That would have given the Rangers an awful lot more cap space to work with for the off-season. The other effect that a steadily rising cap has is to create market inflation in free agency. Maybe all of a sudden, when (insert mediocre defenseman here) signs a 7-year/$49 million contract, the cap hits for Staal and Girardi look a little more attractive.
The reality is, though, that the cap is creeping up slowly. It is what it is. Now the Rangers have to manage it. There are several RFA’s coming due, a certain, very valuable puck-moving defenseman hitting UFA this July, and many unanswered questions from a long-term personnel standpoint. The front office needs to really determine this offseason (maybe trade deadline) what is truly has in Chris Kreider, JT Miller and Kevin Hayes. Are they are truly long-term pieces to build around, or are they are plugging important spots in the lineup without the production to match?
The team also needs to look at whether a market actually exists for Staal or Girardi. This is not to say the club doesn’t engage in this type of diligence every day, but the $11.2 million made between these two players is choking the cap management. Forget the NMC’s for a minute, and just find out. Is there a club who values the zone coverage, suppression-style defensive skill sets of either of them? Let’s not forget that Girardi is incredible durable and has proven adept at low-zone, shot blocking systems. I’m not even worrying about a potential expansion draft at the moment, because the epic war that will be between the NHLPA and the League on that issue will be a sight to behold.
Back to Girardi and Staal for a minute. Their deployment and systems usage has become a big part of the problem, as well. If you take the offensive counter-point to what has happened, people would lose their minds. What if all of a sudden, Jon Cooper decided that the Triplets needed to become a dump and chase, grind it out on the boards and create traffic in front type of offensive unit. It makes no sense. What if AV told Zuccarello he was a shot blocking, defensive forward? It’s a complete misuse of an established skill set. Sure, it was a valiant try to get 28 year-old Dan Girardi and a 26 year-old Marc Staal to try and adapt to a hybrid man coverage/zone overload, but AV needs to realize that is not a long-term strategy with these two.
Up until this year, Staal had exceled at shot suppression, but not puck possession. Chasing down wingers and transitioning the puck up ice was never his strong suit. Girardi is best situated shutting down static net crashers and slot skaters, not pivoting off into no man’s land to pick up a winger’s coverage. They were bad at it when they were not in decline. Why would the results change now?
Which brings us to AV, in general. The Suit wrote a fantastic piece the other day about this. AV is in his third year as the coach of this team. There is no question he has done a tremendous job and that he is an extremely talented coach. The issue is, as Suit brought up, that the third year is crucial for a coach’s message and style to cement itself as the culture of the club. If guys start tuning him out, he is not long for the bench. AV strikes me as a guy who trusts his gut with his decisions if he feels that certain players just need to work through it. As we have seen, however, he has an unnatural attachment to certain veterans (and not just Tanner Glass) and can be stubborn when making adjustments if he feels that the process is sound.
At this point, though, there are real reasons to question whether the process of deployment and systems are sound. Weaknesses are being exploited and players are not being put in the best position to succeed. After the Tortorella era of offensive repression, it made sense that AV needed his players to adapt to his system. The club wasn’t going to overhaul its roster, so that was the way it had to go. Now the question becomes, in the face of waning effectiveness, can AV adapt his systems to his personnel? The success of this season may depend on it.
The Rangers face many questions the remainder of the season and well into the summer. Some of those answers may shape the next few years of the success or failure of this club’s expectations. Some of those questions aren’t even in view yet; is Pavel Buchnevich the guy to take over 2W? Is Brady Skjei a long-term answer in the top-4? How about the success of some of the goalies in developing a succession plan to Henrik Lundqvist? But, right now, the club faces more pressing decisions.