The Rangers have cooled off somewhat from their hot streak, and we’re once again seeing the flaws inherent in the structure of this team and the execution of their game. Although the loss against Columbus was primarily due to Sergei Bobrovsky’s phenomenal night, the previous game against Chicago had a lot to do with their inability to play a full 60 minutes. Whether it’s due to the players in the lineup, the coach who sends them out onto the ice, or the GM who put together the lineup the Rangers are headed towards a serious predicament: the dreaded middle.
See, if there’s one thing you don’t want to be in today’s NHL, especially considering the top tier talent available in the early picks of next year’s draft, it’s just ok. If you’re good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to contend, then you just miss out on a better draft pick. Similarly, if you’re bad enough to miss the playoffs but not all that bad compared to the rest of the early golf crowd, then the draft pick you end up getting won’t move the needle too terribly much. From a fan perspective too it’s kind of disappointing – at least if you’re watching your team lose a lot of games you know that somewhere down the line, and maybe as soon as the following year, you’ll be watching something good. Nobody wants to be the Carolina Hurricanes (sorry Canes fam, you’re still my second team anyways), good enough to make people say “next year should be fun” but bad enough that that next year actually isn’t.
As I wrote a few weeks back for NHLNumbers, the Rangers, even at the depths of their woeful October home stand, were not quite bad enough to make it all the way down to that first overall pick zone. Similarly, we’re not quite within comfortable playoff range – as it stands we’d be lucky to secure a wildcard spot.
We’re going precisely where no team wants to go, and while you might say “but the LA Kings snuck into the playoffs at the last minute that one year and they won the Cup” I would challenge you to examine their underlying numbers a bit more – their CF% was second in the league, their xGF% was 6th, and their shooting percentage during the regular season was the league’s worst. They were primed to breakout, and they did so at just the right time, but this New York Rangers team, right now, is not in that position at all.
So what’s a team in this position to do? Well, for starters, we’ve got to see what this team, in its maximum hockey playing capacity, can do. That means we need a little bit more from Jeff Gorton, from Alain Vigneault, and from the players themselves. GMJG needs to tighten things up in terms of roster construction by taking away AV’s island of misfit toys by finding some long-term solutions to Steven Kampfer, Nick Holden, and Marc Staal.
That’s easier said than done of course, but if we had a roster that was as good as it could be then we’d at least begin to know what this team is capable of. Might that mean Filip Chytil in the lineup? Well, given the way he’s tearing up the AHL it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question. The point is that in terms of the players on the ice compared to the players that are available, we don’t know what the best possible combination looks like yet, and that’d a problem.
As far as the coach is concerned, he needs to well, cut it out. That means holding guys accountable when they legitimately screw up, and doing so in a consistent and productive manner. Benching a promising rookie like Pavel Buchnevich after one stupid penalty but allowing a guy like Kampfer to get burned defensively time and time again has got to go. Juggling the lines, especially breaking up what’s one of the best in the league in the KZB line, is another no-no. These seem like basic things a coach should just instinctively do, but for whatever reason our coach is just not doing them. If the Rangers want to go from the realm of mediocrity to being legit contenders once again, Vigneault is going to need to do a better job across the board.
And of course the players have to be better – a little finishing on the offensive end of things and a little bit more defensive sensibility would do this team a world of good. The Rangers have a bad habit of not shooting the puck when they’ve got a grade A chance, or on the flip side of things, just throwing empty shots at the net in the hopes that something’ll work itself out.
They’ve done a good job setting up and executing productive plays on the powerplay, and while it’s obviously easier to do that when you’re up a man it shouldn’t be quite as hard as the Rangers make it to enter the zone cleanly and set up shop. Perhaps a lot of this has to do with AV’s rush-based system; if guys only know how to play in odd-man situations they’re probably not going to be great at sustained zone time.
Their defensive issues tie into this as well – because they’re not making simple plays out of the defensive zone consistently, they’re not getting clean zone entries going the other way. This means a lot of time wasted in the neutral zone trying to fix broken plays, hitting the reset button, or hoping to force a turnover and catch the other team flatfooted.
All of these things tie into each other of course, with a hockey team being a unified machine with logical flow to it from top to bottom (or illogical flow, as the case happens to be here). The solutions however, lie with one man only: Jeff Gorton. He can make the decision now to replace the coach, make a savvy trade, or burn it all down and look forward to next year, but one way or another he has to act. Otherwise the Rangers will stay as they are – a good team sometimes, a bad team other times, and probably a first round out in the playoffs if they even make it.
It’s an unenviable position to be in for sure, with Gorton having one of the toughest jobs in hockey right now trying to bring home a Stanley Cup after years of almost-there contention and an aging superstar goaltender (not to mention some other big roster decisions looming – McDonagh, Nash, and a handful of forwards who are going to need long-term deals). I’m still of the opinion that with the right moves this team can get right back in it, but it’ll require some finesse on the part of the big boss to make it happen. Whether he has it in him remains to be seen, but if the Rangers stay where they are right now then we’ll know that he doesn’t.