Tonight’s game marks the halfway point of the 2016-2017 season. The Rangers are in prime playoff position, with an 11-point cushion separating them from the wild card cutoff line. But despite a successful campaign thus far, things haven’t gone perfectly on Broadway. Here’s a recap of where the Rangers stand halfway through the year.
What’s gone according to plan
– A bounce back season for the penalty kill. When asked about the team’s plans for the summer, GM Jeff Gorton said, “you can probably look at our roster and pick that apart and figure out what we need to do.” While many of us believed he was referring to the defense, Gorton’s subsequent moves made it very clear that he was dead set on improving a penalty kill unit that ranked 26th last season after three top-six finishes in the previous four years. So far, Gorton’s makeover has paid major dividends. Thanks to acquisitions like Michael Grabner and the development of youngsters like J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes who have often tilted the ice in the Rangers’ favor even when they’ve been shorthanded, New York currently ranks ninth in the league.
– An improved power play. Combine the aforementioned PK transformation with the team’s most potent power play since the Jagr era, and it’s easy to see how the Blueshirts have remained in the thick of the playoff hunt despite a leaky defense and some brutal injuries. The Rangers are red-hot right now and rank fourth in the NHL despite letting PPQB Keith Yandle walk as a free agent. There isn’t one man responsible for this unit’s success – 12 players have scored power play goals and eight have tallied at least five points on the man advantage. That’s an indication of an overall upgrade in skill, which has been evident in the quick puck movement we’ve witnessed for most of the season.
– Forward depth. The Rangers had as many as 20 NHL bodies going into training camp. While several – like Max Lapierre and Nathan Gerbe – disappeared without making a ripple, other late signings like Brandon Pirri and midseason acquisitions like Matt Puempel have becoming regular contributors. There was an obvious shift in philosophy by the front office to stockpile as much pure offensive talent as possible – rather than dime a dozen checkers – and its been critical as top-six forwards Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich have missed huge chunks of the season.
– Rick Nash’s resurgence. Though Nash has missed time due to groin injuries, he’s been New York’s best player all year. Nash looked like potential trade bait in the offseason, but instead Gorton and co. stuck by the veteran forward and have been rewarded. Nash has been the catalyst for the offense and has displayed a rediscovered commitment to driving to the net, which has always been his most effective playing style.
– The offseason trades. The swap for Nick Holden at the draft seemed like nothing more than a depth move designed to provide insurance for the bottom pairing. Instead, Holden has been steady all season and is tied for 14th in scoring amongst defensemen, with more points than the likes of Yandle, Roman Josi, Tyson Barrie, John Carlson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty, Shayne Gostisbehere, John Klingberg, P.K. Subban, Sami Vatanen and Mark Giordano. The trade for Zibanejad cost New York fan favorite Derick Brassard, but it immediately became clear that the deal was a coup. Zibanejad has all the tools to be a top-line center for the next decade and he’s a significantly better two-way player than Brassard. The financial breathing room the deal gave the Blueshirts and the added second-round pick were just gravy.
– Youth development. New York has consistently iced one of the youngest rosters in the league, with early-20s players blossoming before our very eyes. Brady Skjei has been terrific and demonstrated far greater passing ability than anyone expected. He’s helped hold the defense together. Up front, Hayes, Miller and Chris Kreider have all taken major steps forward, while Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg have provided solid depth.
– Bounce back seasons for Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Staal has been OK for the most part, and if he were the worst of the defense’s problems, then the Rangers would probably be just fine. But the problem is exacerbated by Girardi’s presence on the top pair, where he simply doesn’t belong anymore, and the rapid downfall of Kevin Klein, which has given New York three glaring holes along the blueline.
– Puzzling coaching decisions. There’s no perfect solution to that problem, but Alain Vigneault’s steadfast refusal to play Dylan McIlrath (before he was traded) and Adam Clendening (despite abundant evidence that he’d be an upgrade) has been extremely frustrating. And even without inserting either into the lineup, Vigneault has still stubbornly refused to cut the icetime of his struggling veterans by either moving them down to lower pairs or resting them occasionally. Only in the last three games has Girardi seen a reduction in minutes. The defense is a problem identified by fans, media and statistical gurus league-wide that the coaching staff still refuses to acknowledge.
– Failure to trade for defensive help. Perhaps Gorton was wise to hold off on packaging valuable assets for the big-name defensemen like Jacob Trouba and Hampus Lindholm that were thought to be available. While a splashy trade like that might have hurt more than helped, there was certainly some level of expectation that a move like that would come if the defense struggled out of the gate. But there’s been no reinforcements brought in whatsoever, even on a cheaper scale. Several intriguing options have been available on the trade market – from Ryan Murphy to Michael Stone – and New York has turned a blind eye.
– Metro Division dominance. It’s not a surprise that Pittsburgh and Washington are in the thick of the playoff hunt, but the performances by both Columbus and Philadelphia have turned this division into the most competitive in hockey. New York’s +35 goal differential is third-best in the league and its 53 points would be enough to lead any other division, but instead the Rangers have fallen to third place in the Metro with the potential to drop down even more given all the team’s extra games played.
– Injuries. For the most part, the Rangers have avoided crippling injuries in recent years. But the extended absences of Zibanejad and Buchnevich, plus Nash’s lingering groin issues, have turned an early-season juggernaut into a team struggling to stay above water. It looks like that may be resolved in mid-January, but the story of the campaign thus far must include a chapter about all the key man-games lost.