The NY Rangers have a lot of talent. They have three elite level players in Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Adam Fox. They have elite potential in Alexis Lafreniere and possibly Igor Shesterkin. There is no denying that the top of the Rangers lineup is up there with the best. But you’re only as good as your weakest link. And the worst on the Rangers are some of the worst in the entire NHL.
This presents a problem for the Rangers. We’ve seen elite players carry teams to the promised land, but those teams didn’t have the anchors the Rangers have. We know who the worst of the worst are, and those players are going to have to at least tread water and not be *as* bad as they usually are.
Limiting Ice Time
The best way to ensure the worst can’t hold you back are simply not playing them. The four biggest offenders last season were Jack Johnson, Kaapo Kakko, and Brett Howden. The Rangers aren’t going to simply give up on the kids, so they are going to have to be better. Putting them in a position to succeed is important, and that might mean sheltering them.
The good news is that Kakko already showed signs of life in August. Kakko was notably better, and perhaps one of the better Rangers forwards in that short sweep. There’s a good argument to be made that he simply didn’t belong in the NHL last year. That’s fine. Now he needs to not be as bad while playing with Panarin.
As for Howden, well this might be a make-or-break season. He’s already penciled in for the 4C role, down two lines from last season. There’s little confidence in Howden, but he can only get better at this point. Perhaps the fourth line is the best spot for him in sheltered offensive zone opportunities.
Simply Not Play Them
When it comes to Jack Johnson, the Rangers are best off not playing him. There was hope when the Rangers traded Marc Staal. Then they pulled a Rangers and signed one of the only defensemen in the league worse than him.
The good news is that Johnson may be a taxi squad guy. The Rangers have a bunch of defensemen in camp, and all are better than him. The question isn’t about who’s better, but whether or not some kids are ready to take the next step.
Libor Hajek, K’Andre Miller, and Tarmo Reunanen are the names to watch. Hajek was miscast on the top pair last year, but he didn’t really have a strong loan in Extraliga. He might already be on the outside looking in. Expect one of Miller or Reunanen to break camp, which might push Johnson out of the lineup.
On a related note, Brendan Smith is ok as the 3RD. He will be fine in that role.
Other Areas Need Improvement
For the Rangers to limit ice time –or remove it completely– for their bad players, then other players need to continue to step up. This applies more to the middle of the lineup. Players like Filip Chytil and Ryan Lindgren need to continue to improve. They are two youthful NY Rangers with talent that should take the next step. Otherwise, we may see their ice time taken by Howden and Johnson.
It’s not just Chytil and Lindgren. Brendan Lemieux needs to add to his ability to draw penalties. He has the potential to be a Sean Avery-lite, but he needs more consistent offensive consistency. He is a solid net-front presence, so there is some room for more production from him.
The Rangers also need to get lucky with Julien Gauthier. He’s got the skill and moves pretty well, but he hasn’t put it all together yet. Gauthier is penciled in as the 3RW, but he will get competition from Howden and perhaps Morgan Barron (who was on the RW at practice the other day).
The NY Rangers are loaded with talent at the top of their lineup. But the saying goes: You’re only as strong as your weakest link. The weakest links on the Rangers are notably bad. For them to be successful, the weakest links need to be better.