Poised for improvement, and yet there’s work to be done

The Rangers’ biggest strength at the outset of the season was their depth at forward. Although their early scoring bonanza turned out to be unsustainable, it certainly showed us what four balanced scoring lines are capable of accomplishing – a complete style of play predicated on quick transitions and overwhelming offensive contributions.

Since then things have tapered off a bit, in large part due to the team’s unsustainable shooting percentage but also due to injuries. Missing Rick Nash, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mika Zibanejad has definitely altered the look of the Rangers lineup leading to a dependence on certain players to carry the team on any given night (think Derek Stepan against the Senators or Chris Kreider more recently against Colorado). Certainly when you consider that Matt Puempel is on the second powerplay unit (all due respect to Matt Puempel), it’s evident that the team’s forward depth has taken a hit.

So things are starting to look up as the Rangers’ three biggest injuries prepare to return to the ice, with Rick Nash all but ready and his latter two comrades skating in non-contact jerseys at practice of late.

Nash in particular will help with the team’s struggles defensively, as he’s one of the squad’s better two-way players and sees time on the penalty kill. Zibanejad will also help with special teams play, given the way his one-timer hasn’t really been able to be replaced on the powerplay. Additionally, his even strength points per 60 minutes (P/60) in the 19 games he played is 2.44 (as compared to Kevin Hayes and Derek Stepan’s 1.66 and 2.11 P/60, respectively in 39 games played). His return will bump Hayes down to the third line and Oscar Lindberg to the fourth. This is likely to bring back offensive mojo and help the team come at opponents in waves as they did earlier in the season. Buchenvich’s return will be simply the icing on the cake, allowing AV to move guys like Grabner and Fast further down the lineup and roll four scoring lines.

Still, even with three of their most important offensive players returning to the lineup, the Rangers need to make some changes. We’ve begun to see some improvement on the defensive side of things at least in terms of coaching, with Dan Girardi’s reduced minutes on the third pair. The next logical step in this regard would be sitting Kevin Klein and playing Adam Clendening in his place, finally making the most of the defensive options available to the coaching staff.

Even with these potential changes though, and even with the forward depth filling out once again, will it be enough? The Rangers had a 47.44 CF% against the Coyotes and a 45.78 CF% against the Avalanche. Both of those teams are out of the playoff picture halfway through the season, and yet the Rangers struggled against them (although to be fair, that Colorado game is likely impacted by score effects, so the 45.78 CF% may not be indicative of overall process).

Now perhaps it’s just a case of the Rangers playing to the level of their competition, which they’re known to do, and perhaps it’s just a coincidence that they played two less than stellar games to close out 2016. I mean sure, maybe their next two will be great games and it’ll all even out. Even so, it makes one wonder about this team, and it underscores the need for a true 1RD to balance out the top pair with Ryan McDonagh. This team is about to see an injection of major offensive talent in the coming weeks with the return of Nash, Buch, and Zibanejad but once that happens we’ll see, for better or for worse, what this team really is as currently constructed.