When Henrik Lundqivst was announced out with a vascular injury, my immediate response was to scour the internet for AHL and free agent goalies, in hopes that the Rangers would be doing the same. Alas, the Rangers decided to call up Mackenzie Skapski and use Cam Talbot as the starter full time, and that has not worked out badly at all. The Rangers are 8-2-2 with Talbot in net, which is more than acceptable given his struggles.
The issue with Talbot is that many expected him to play like a .940 save percentage goaltender like he was when he was backing up Lundqvist, but unfortunately that is not how sports work. Talbot was never a .940% goalie, even in the minors, but took advantage of limited playing time against bad teams with the team playing flawless hockey in front of him. Talbot filled his role of the backup that just needed to not get hurt and make the saves he's supposed to make perfectly.
That role changed when Lundqvist got hurt, and the Rangers banked on Talbot being able to fill his new role: starting goalie for a playoff team. The good news for the Rangers is that they began a stretch of scoring nearly four goals a game when Lundqvist got hurt, but the bad news is that Talbot himself struggled mightily since the increase in playing time. Talbot has a .906 save percentage since taking over as starter, mostly against poor offensive teams.
Luckily for the Rangers Talbot has kept the team in the games while the team has scored at will, but the question remains if the offense can keep up the scoring. Going into a five game stretch against the Predators, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Islanders, and Capitals, Talbot will be expected to keep the Rangers in the games while having already started 12 out of the last 13.
Switching from a back-up role to a starters role is not easy, and the Rangers have done Talbot no favors by not sitting him against easier teams like the Coyotes or the heavily-injured Blue Jackets. Now the team will go into the toughest five game stretch of the season with the question of if Talbot will fatigue and if he can handle the increased role continuing moving forward, while still fighting for the top spot in the division.
While the team did get lucky with the increased scoring, it was short-sighted from the start to believe Talbot could handle the increased role with a major increase in playing time and not struggle. The 8-2-2 record is fantastic, but the team could be in for a major wake up call against some of the leagues best.
Talbot is not the only example of a Ranger being placed in the wrong role, as Alain Vigneault has kept up Dan Girardi: power-play point man. In this case, however, the Rangers made a move, acquiring Keith Yandle from the Coyotes. One of the benefits of the Yandle trade not being talked about is that it relieves a lot of pressure from Girardi-both offensively and defensively-and allows the Rangers to hopefully decrease Girardi's playing time, especially on the power play. The hope here is that the Rangers finally understand that Ryan McDonagh is a 25 minute per game first pair defenseman, but Dan Girardi is nothing close to that. Perhaps Girardi could improve with a move down to the third pair and playing against teams' third and fourth lines, rather than their first lines.
Similar to Dan Girardi and the Keith Yandle acquisition, the James Sheppard acquisition may allow the Rangers to take Tanner Glass off the ice and have a real fourth line like in last seasons Cup run. Last year the Rangers were able to put their fourth line on the ice with a one goal lead in the Conference Finals, but this season thanks to Tanner Glass I am in fear if the fourth line is on the ice with a three goal lead in a game in February. Simply put, Tanner Glass' role should be healthy scratch and good character guy in the locker room on practice days. Perhaps the Sheppard acquisition is an indication that the team understands that Jesper Fast is the player for the third fourth line spot, not Tanner Glass.
The Rangers are not completely clueless when it comes to player roles however, as they have handled Kevin Hayes excellently this season. Yes, Hayes did start off scratched a couple of games, but as the season went on his playing time increased, he found himself on the power play some, and eventually he found himself on the penalty kill as well. Vigneault did not hesitate to put Hayes on the first line when Rick Nash went down for a game, showing that the coach understands that Hayes has played above and beyond expectations. The increased role for Hayes has allowed other players to thrive in their lesser roles, like J.T. Miller not being relied on as an offensive force, but instead an all around player.
Now that the Rangers have acquired Yandle and Sheppard, it appears the team has four set lines in:
Rick Nash/Derick Brassard/Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider/Derek Stepan/Martin St. Louis
Carl Hagelin/Kevin Hayes/J.T. Miller
James Sheppard/Dominic Moore/Jesper Fast
With those lines no one is in a role they cannot handle, and the Rangers look like they have the depth to take on any team in the league.