The first half of the 2015-2016 season for the Rangers can only be described as a roller coaster. They stormed out of the gate with three quick wins before going 0-2-1 to level expectations. Then came the run that no one could have predicted, going 13-1-1 over the next 15 games to start the season at 16-3-2, a team record. Then came the fall, as the Rangers went 3-9-2 over their next 14, literally crashing down to Earth.
The process was terrible throughout, but the recent games from the end of December through January have been cause for hope. The process is improving, and the team has started to turn it around, going 6-3-1 in their last ten games. But like every team not based in Washington D.C., there are a few questions that the Rangers will need to find answers for heading into the second half of the season.
Is J.T. Miller a top-six forward?
Perhaps the most glaring need on the Rangers is a top-six forward. Neither Miller nor Kevin Hayes grasped that role. Compounding the issue is the struggles of Chris Kreider, leaving the Rangers with a need for secondary scoring. But Miller has really turned it on of late, and seems to have finally turned that corner into top-six talent. If he is indeed a top-six forward, then perhaps the Rangers look at a middle-six forward –potentially cheaper– as opposed to a top-six forward. But Miller’s continued progression could ease a lot of the scoring woes.
What are they going to do with Keith Yandle?
The blue line has a major problem on their hands. Aside from the obvious –and honestly, beaten to death– issues with Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, the club needs to figure out what they are going to do with Yandle. Yandle has had by far the most positive impact on his teammates, but he’s been completely wasted in his usage until very recently. If they hold on to him, they better make sure they use him properly. If they are to trade him, they will need something back that is not only inexpensive, but can fill the hole left behind by Yandle. That won’t be easy to do.
Will ice time start getting shifted?
The most frustrating aspect of the first half of the season was that ice time hasn’t been shifted to those performing better. Again, we can look at the obvious ice-time issues of Girardi and Staal, but it’s important to note that the fourth line is getting a good number of shifts while trailing in the third period. There are other things to consider, like back-to-backs and keeping guys fresh, but at some point there should be a shorter bench when a goal is needed.
Also, at some point, Yandle needs to be the powerplay workhorse. Nothing else is working consistently.
What story will the trade deadline tell?
This coming trade deadline is the most important in recent memory for this club, perhaps the most important since the 2004 firesale. Saddled with bad contracts for declining players, Jeff Gorton has his work cut out for him. Does he sacrifice more future for one last shot at the Cup? Does he repeat the same mistakes of his predecessor? Does he have the stones to re-tool and deal these popular, but declining players? Some of these questions won’t be answered until the draft, but this is a significant crossroads for the club.
The second half of the season picks up tomorrow for the Rangers, and at that point we will see answers to all four questions. This could be another roller coaster ride through the second half of the season. Hang tight, Rangers fans.