Before I begin, I’d just like to say thanks to the readers and my fellow BSB writers for the warm welcome. Like the rest of the staff here, I’m just a devoted fan with thoughts about the team, and I appreciate the opportunity to share some of those thoughts with you.
My weekly post is going to follow a theme, where I highlight one reason for optimism, along with one cause for concern. Let’s dive right in:
Reason for Optimism: the playoffs are (almost) here, and the Rangers are healthy.
After a long six-month season, the Rangers are back in the playoffs for the 11th time in the 12 seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout. This itself is remarkable, even in a league that allows more than half of its teams into the postseason, given the salary cap restrictions and the relative role of luck involved in getting there in the first place. The one constant throughout those dozen years has been Henrik Lundqvist, who has returned to the Rangers after missing two and a half weeks with a hip injury.
Lundqvist was the most recent in a string of injuries that befell the Rangers throughout the the season. Of course, injuries are a part of hockey and every team deals with them, but consider that the following players from the opening night roster have missed at least 5 games because of injury this year: Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, Dan Girardi, Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, Kevin Klein, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Antti Raanta and Marc Staal (thanks to nhlinjuryviz.com for the data).
Due to the Rangers piling up enough points early in the year, they’ve been able to rest some players and be cautious with others to make sure they’re healthy for the playoffs. And while it’s fair to question management and the head coach as it pertains to lines, pairs and allocation of minutes, they should go into the playoffs with a full complement of players. If deployed correctly, the Rangers can be a dangerous team in the postseason.
Of course, that deployment issue is a huge caveat, which leads me to my counterpoint:
Cause for Concern: The Rangers have stopped playing “The Right Way”
In the early part of this season, the Rangers were an offensive juggernaut. It seemed as though they could score at will, able to put up up 4 goals on an “off-night” and 6 if they were really feeling it. Of course this isn’t the 1980’s and that was never going to last, but it was clear that the Rangers could overwhelm their opponents with four lines of skill and speed.
More importantly, the team employed a specific style that enabled them to create so many scoring chances. Compensating for their glaring limitations on defense, the Rangers forechecked and backchecked with gusto, turned teams over in the neutral zone with regularity, and prioritized possession of the puck while crossing both the offensive and defensive blue lines.
It was because of the way they deployed their personnel that they were able to play this way, and the results came quickly. You could say that for the 2016-2017 Rangers, this constituted “The Right Way” to play (h/t Torts!). And while the Rangers were never going to be an upper echelon team in terms of raw possession, they regularly bested their opponents in terms of high-danger scoring chances and expected goals.
Unfortunately, a variety of factors sparked changes to this style, and the results have recently flipped. Sure, the opposition adjusted. Injuries (as mentioned above) happened. But Alain Vigneault also lost the plot with his lineup choices, and the Rangers have (by the eye test, at least) regressed stylistically. They aimlessly dump the puck a lot, as opposed to carrying it in and looking to make plays. They often get trapped in their own end for long stretches of time and are forced to chip the puck out and change, only to repeat the cycle on the next shift.
Players have spoken ad nauseum about the need to “play simple” and “in straight lines”, but those sentiments are often contradictory to what made the Rangers such a handful for opponents in the first place. They are not built to dump the puck in and shoot frequently from the point. Though this may ruffle some feathers, if the Rangers seem to be “over-passing”, that’s probably a good indicator that they’re playing “their” game.
“The Right Way” means different things to different teams, but ultimately that’s just hockey parlance for: a team should play to its identity. The Rangers have stopped doing that. If they don’t correct it soon, this season will likely end up like last year.