Last Tuesday night's loss versus Boston marked the Rangers 21st game of the season, giving us more than one reason to drink besides the '13-'14 campaign coming of age. Over 25 percent of the way through the season, the Rangers are below .500, where they've found themselves for the majority of the season. The pretty good news for the team? The new Metropolitan Division has underperformed as a whole, and if the playoffs started today, the Rangers would find themselves in them. Will that be the case if this keeps up for another 61 games?
In the third part of our report card, we examine the Rangers top six forwards, who, while now healthy, need to find the back of the net more frequently. Keep in mind this report card is only grading player's performance through game number 21.
Chris Kreider, A-
The 6-foot-3, speedy, freak of a hockey player many were expecting Chris Kreider to be has finally arrived. After a sub-par training camp landed Kreider in Hartford, a lackluster Rangers start gave Kreider a shot at getting consistent NHL playing time. The AHL stint seemed to light a fire under him, as Kreider has been the most visible and arguably best player on the Rangers the season. His speed is a nuisance, and his ability to get in on the forecheck has vastly improved his two-way game. The only keeping Kreider away from an 'A' is his inability to find the back of the net, considering all the chances he and his linemates have generated.
Highlight of the season: Kreider shows his entire skill set, hunting the puck down on the forecheck, before getting the primary assist on the Rangers' prettiest goal of the season.
Brad Richards, B+
Through the early part of the season, Brad Richards was the Rangers offense. With no Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan getting back into the swing of things, and overall inconsistent play, Richards was carrying the team's scoring. He's cooled off since, but he's also come a long way from a player that was destined to be amnestied. He's been a stalwart on an improved power play, and is on pace to tally 20+ goals.
Ryan Callahan, B+
If you needed one guy to captain your team, who else is there to go with other than Ryan Callahan? The Rangers versatile forward has battled through two injuries this season, first coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, and then missing a stretch of time due to a broken thumb. But you wouldn't know it watching Callahan play, as he regularly finishes checks, and makes a physical difference on a nightly basis.
The Rangers do-it-all captain is up to his usual tricks this season, being a leader by example with his "wear-it-on-your-sleeve" style of play. Callahan has found a home in front of the net on the power play, where he is tied for the team lead with four goals. Playing in every situation, Callahan is a leader on the penalty kill, which is seventh-best in the league, at a very efficient 84.5 percent.
Highlight of the season: In a crucial early season victory on the road, Callahan scored this gem, where he showed off his hand-eye coordination.
Derek Stepan, B
After an offseason contract holdout that kept Stepan out of virtually all of training camp, the Rangers top center got off to a bit of a slow start. But after shaking off the rust, Stepan has shown again that he's one the Rangers' premier playmakers. The 23-year-old has registered a team-high 10 assists, and also contributed four goals. His line with Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider has been the Rangers most effective combination all season, and has generated a ton of quality scoring chances with its collective speed and creativity. If Stepan and his linemates continue to operate the way they have been, more goals and better numbers should come.
The biggest thing for Stepan right now is making the next leap. He's still a young player, but this is already his fourth season in the league. His production continues to increase yearly, but has yet to really make that jump to all-star caliber player. Stepan has always been billed as a playmaker (he has 94 career assist and 60 career goals) yet hasn't had consistent linemates in his four seasons with the Rangers. If Stepan and Kreider can continue to build chemistry this season, and moving forward, it could mean a lot for the young center's career.
Highlight of the season: Derek Stepan has two career hat trick: His first career NHL game, and a second in a contest versus Carolina earlier this season.
Mats Zuccarello, B
Prior to being a healthy scratch on October 24, Mats Zuccarello was without a point, and it seemed that Coach Alain Vigneault didn't know what to make of his creative, diminutive left winger. After being a healthy scratch, Zuke returned to the lineup against the Red Wings October 26 and scored a goal, and since that game he's been one of the most productive Rangers forwards. In the 13 games after being scratched, Zuccarello has two goals and eight assists, and has been shooting the puck much more than he was in October.
Rangers' fans understandably would like to see Zuccarello shoot more and pass less. At times he seems to be creative and unselfish to a fault but, in my opinion, he is the best passer on the team by leaps and bounds, and that is really saying something on a team that has Stepan, Richards, and Brassard on it. This is a contract year for Zuccarello, so he's going to need to continue to be productive. I can't imagine how many assists he would have right now if linemate Chris Kreider wasn't as snake-bitten as he currently is.
Highlight of the season: In a dazzling display of touch and creativity, Zuke flips the puck over the Penguins defense and puts the puck in the perfect place to spring Derek Stepan for a highlight reel play.
- Mike Murphy "Dig Deep" (Mike's Grade, B+)
Incomplete: Rick Nash
Read part 1 of the series: Per usual, the Rangers biggest strength has come between the pipes
Read part 2 of the series: Strong in their own end, the Rangers defensemen need to step up to Alain Vigneault's challenge
Read part 3 of the series: With grit, and now depth, the Rangers bottom-six can fill its role better
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