Awkward place for a stick. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
The Rangers lost Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Artem Anisimov in the offseason via free agency and the Rick Nash trade. What do these players all have in common (other than being dead to us)? All of these players were forwards that the coaching staff frequently used to kill penalties and their departure has left the Rangers with some big shoes to fill. The Rangers have added a big offensive weapon in Rick Nash but do they have the pieces in-house to return to being a top-five penalty-killing team this upcoming season?
The Rangers did manage to acquire a proficient penalty killer this offseason when they signed former Washington Capital Jeff Halpern. Halpern was on the ice killing penalties more than every other Capital forward other than Brooks Laich last year. Halpern averaged 1:44 killing penalties for the Capitals per game, which almost directly replaces Brandon Prust's 1:40 per game last year for the Rangers. The remaining Ranger forwards that departed each averaged a little over 1:00 of SH TOI/G last year. So who will the Rangers use on the penalty kill this upcoming season to replace the minutes that Dubinsky, Fedotenko, and Anisimov killed last season?
Join me for a look at some of the in-house options after the jump...
Thankfully the Rangers can still depend on Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan to play a large portion of the shorthanded minutes. Boyle led Rangers forwards with 1:59 SH TOI/G and Callahan was a close second with 1:48 SH TOI/G. We all know that these guys are outstanding at what they do and are absolutely fearless penalty killers. Ryan Callahan ranked third among forwards in blocked shots last year and Brian Boyle wasn't too far behind, finishing seventh overall among forwards. Between Boyle, Callahan, and Halpern the top three forwards on the penalty kill are more or less obvious. The remaining forwards, however, are anything but sure-things.
Derek Stepan ranked fourth among Ranger forwards in shorthanded ice time per game, averaging 1:17. Will the Rangers use him in this capacity again knowing that he is going to be focusing on his role of a true second line center with the departure of his competition from last year (Dubinsky and Anisimov)? I think that we'll see Derek Stepan killing penalties this season because the coaching staff trusts him and his decision-making on the ice. Stepan may not have the defensive awareness and ability of Artem Anisimov, but he is a player that doesn't quit on plays and makes good decisions with the puck. Perhaps Stepan will be given even more shorthanded minutes this year. Then again, perhaps he will be given less if he is going to be playing top-six minutes and expected to be a major point-producer for the Rangers. Somehow I doubt that the Rangers are going to discourage two-way play in one of their most promising young players. I expect to see Steps on the ice shorthanded.
Taylor Pyatt didn't kill a single second of penalties last year for the Phoenix Coyotes. However, he was used in that capacity almost every year but last year, including eating up 2:17 SH TOI/G in 2008-09 when he was with the Vancouver Canucks. It is safe to say that Pyatt can be an option on the penalty kill and he is almost certainly expected to be, considering he is penciled in to be a third line player and play the role that Ruslan Fedotenko has been playing for the Rangers for the past two years. Pyatt, 31, may not have the same legs that he did four years ago but his defensive game is sound and he should be a player that the Rangers use on the kill.
Another option in-house will be sophomore Carl Hagelin who was used sparingly on the kill last season and postseason. Hagelin is gifted with tremendous speed and a good head for the defensive side of the game. Upon Gaborik's return to the lineup, most of us are expecting that it will be Hagelin who is bumped down to play on the third line, grinding it out with Boyle and Pyatt. Hagelin's speed on the penalty kill might give teams second-thoughts about risky passes that go near him when he is pressuring the point, for that reason alone I love the idea of Hagelin on the ice when the Rangers are down a man. Hagelin, a rookie last year, averaged just under half a minute of shorthanded ice time per game. For the coaching staff to give him any time at all shows that they trust him on the ice. I look for Hagelin to replace some of Dubinsky's and Anismov's minutes and continue to develop into a speedy, two-way player that plays much bigger than his actual size.
Finally, I think the Rangers might want to look to one of the kids out of training camp making a case for a roster spot, especially because the Rangers will have a spot open while Gaborik remains out with an injury. JT Miller is very, very young and Christian Thomas is known much more for his ability to score goals than keep them out of his own net, but the Rangers might want to consider using one of the kids on the kill. Miller's work ethic and two-way game were the reasons that the Rangers drafted him 15th overall in 2011, when he does make the team he will almost certainly be a player that is on the ice when the other team has the man advantage. Thomas might benefit a great deal from a little bit of shorthanded ice time to encourage him to round out his game, but I would be a little bit surprised (and worried) if we saw him killing penalties.
It's true that the Rangers used Brad Richards in shorthanded situations last year and Rick Nash was also used at times by the Blue Jackets but that doesn't mean we should be penciling them in as solid options to eat up shorthanded minutes. We should let players like Richards, Gaborik, and Nash focus on the offensive side of the game and get their Special Teams ice time when the Rangers are the ones on the powerplay.
Who knows, maybe the Rangers will add another forward before all is said and done and that player will be a great option for the team shorthanded, but I have a feeling that any further additions to the roster are going to be made with scoring goals as the objective. At the end of the day the Rangers will almost always have their best penalty killer on the ice to make up for any growing pains or inconsistencies while the team works to find roles for its new and younger players. Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to make a patchwork penalty killing unit look more than passable because he is Henrik Lundqivst. Still, I hope and pray that we don't see Asham and/or Rupp out there... please lord anything but that.
So what do you guys think? Who might we see killing penalties for the Rangers this upcoming season?