The Rangers’ 2015-2016 season was about a team that didn’t necessarily lack enough talent, but certainly had the wrong mix.
That’s not meant to absolve Alain Vigneault. There’s no question the coach deserves a share of the blame for his atrocious deployment – but there was also only so much Vigneault could do to right the ship with faulty personnel.
New York’s major problems were three-fold – and all were hallmarks of previous success that suddenly became glaring warts. The headliner was the disastrous blueline with long-time rocks that crumbled and created a domino effect that directly impacted the club’s other two biggest issues – forechecking and the penalty kill.
We’ve talked about the blueline repeatedly and are in universal agreement that fixing the defense will be priority No. 1 this offseason, so let’s explore the other two dilemmas.
Both St. Louis and Hagelin were vital components to the team’s speed game and their departures created a gaping hole on the forecheck, where both players regularly got behind the defense on the breakout and were sent galloping after the puck on offensive zone retrievals. Watching Rangers blueliners panic in the face of Hagelin’s forechecking pressure in the first round of the playoffs was a good reminder of just how much #62 tilted the ice. Even during his decline, St. Louis had the wheels to do the same.
Stalberg is not lacking for speed himself and at times was among New York’s better players at forcing quick decisions by the opposition’s defense or creating separation with his willingness to bang bodies, but his addition was not enough to overcome the losses, especially with several of the club’s remaining top skating wingers underperforming or injured for much of the season.
Hagelin’s absence was also felt on the penalty kill – but the special teams were mostly decimated by the deterioration of long-time PK horses Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. That left Vigneault with only two effective defenders in those disadvantage situations – Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein.
Vigneault’s reluctance to trust Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle was understandable given the fact neither has been used much on the PK in years. Dylan McIlrath may have made a major difference in this area and that’s a fair critique of Vigneault, but by and large the coach was hamstrung from a personnel standpoint to the point that the club had to import AHLer Danny Paille in January.
Where do we go from here?
Some of the Rangers’ problems could have been predicted before the season and some could not, but it was obvious by December that the existing roster did not have the capability to match the results of recent years. Even when the front office fired its big bullet to acquire Eric Staal at the trade deadline, it was a silly move in hindsight given the team’s real issues. The idea of having a former captain with a penchant for scoring net-front goals sounded like a great “missing piece” heading into the postseason and it may have been just that in recent years. But Staal was a square peg in a round hole – another player whose speed was no longer at the level the Rangers really needed – nor was he the puck-moving defenseman that could shoulder some of the weight on special teams.
So what’s next? There’s still a ton of talent on the roster, but the formula needs tweaking. The Rangers no longer have the identity of a true forechecking speed-demon team, or a lockdown defensive club with a brick wall behind them.
But the pieces are still in place to fix some of these problems rather quickly. Lundqvist is still all-world in goal, so with some competent help, the defensive issues could be mitigated. That starts with addition by subtraction and growth from within, but some fresh blood with puck-moving skills will also likely need to be brought in from outside the organization.
The Penguins just demonstrated that infusing speed into the lineup can be done on the fly with AHLers and a savvy trade (for that same Hagelin…), so long as they’re used properly. Adding Pavel Buchnevich and re-signing Stalberg would be a great start, but there are also some options available through free agency and potentially via trade that could return the team’s giddy-up quite quickly.
And on the PK, New York still has a trio of superb forwards in Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Jesper Fast – so really the club just needs to replace Dominic Moore up front. McDonagh, Klein and playoff revelation Brady Skjei look prepared to be the stalwarts on the back-end going forward, so there may only need to be small cosmetic changes on this unit.
If this all made it sound like the job facing GM Jeff Gorton and co. this offseason should be easy, it’s not. From finding takers for bad contracts, to swallowing loyalty and turning the page, to supplementing the existing roster with affordable talent that actually fits the plan – the front office really has its work cut out.
But it can be done. Maybe not all at once, and maybe not enough to make the Blueshirts the odds-on favorite heading into training camp. But there are enough building blocks and enough of the picture painted of what the Rangers need to be that it’s possible Vigneault will at least have a fighting chance next fall.