Team USA has predictably struggled in the World Cup Of Hockey. In fact, unless John Tortorella's crew pulls out a victory over Canada tonight, the United States will already be out of medal contention.
There were a lot of reasons to be down on the team from the start. The brass passed over extreme talent (Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel stands out, as does recently former New York Ranger Keith Yandle) for a mix of size, grit, loyalty and "building the right team."
Some fans are using the World Cup as a gentle ascent back into the hockey stratosphere. Many Americans (myself included) jumped off the USA ship before it left port and favored a more skilled (and thus better) team North America. Those who stayed on the USA ship can always grab a life jacket and wait for the actual NHL schedule to start if it comes to that.
For Rangers fans, though, this USA team might be something like looking into a mirror.
Larry Brooks jumped into the fray yesterday, posting a column about how the Rangers defense needs to step up this year or else the team will be in trouble. I agree with this; although I also stand firmly in the "there's a snowball's chance in Hell that the group can improve that much" camp.
Here's where the train derails in the column: “The Rangers moves moot if McDonagh can’t revive the defense.”
Not that the captain shouldn't strive to be better -- or be expected to be better — but not focusing the spotlight on other defenders, as usual, misses the point.
By all accounts the Rangers are done dealing this summer; whether by choice or by force, the reality is this group will be the team come opening night. And while that means we're going to see a younger, faster and better group of forwards; the defense -- last year's enormous hole in the ship -- actually got much worse.
Close your eyes. Are they closed? OK now think about this: Last year's defense, only without their best defenseman, replaced with an average replacement defenseman and a group that will be forced to lean heavily on a promising, but ultimately untested rookie. Oh, and everyone is a year older.
There seems to be a prevailing ideology the long summer and time off will do wonders for the real problems (Dan Girardi and Marc Staal) who have admittedly played a hell of a lot of hockey of late. That sort of misses the point, though, since the wear and tear of the past doesn't go away it just adds up. That’s why players retire in their mid-to-late 30’s more often than not. It also refuses to admit that both Girardi and Staal might improve significantly and still easily drag the defense down to levels that makes success near impossible.
Yandle's departure did a lot of bad things for the Rangers. It made the team worse, first and foremost, but it also puts a significant amount of pressure in two places:
1) Skjei having to be successful right away despite already ridiculous offensive expectations already budding (we talked about this already a little this summer). This doesn’t even take into account the role he’s going to be asked to play on defense.
2) McDonagh having to carry Girardi -- let's be real, that's your top pairing next year -- be stellar in his own zone at even strength, work top penalty kill minutes and now be expected to carry the offense too.
Part of my extensive issues with the way Alain Vigneault misused (read: didn't use) Yandle last year was that he was forcing McDonagh to play big power play, penalty kill and even strength minutes game in and game out. That's not completely unreasonable for elite defenseman, but McDonagh's even strength time was spent chasing the puck with Girardi, and the wear and tear of being THE guy in EVERY situation took too much out of him. Considering how much work he had to do in his own end at even strength, that’s not a knock on McDonagh but more a knock on the coaching staff that never saw that as a problem and adjusted.
That the Rangers looked back at last year and thought "we don't need to pay Yandle but we have to keep paying Girardi" is a decision that will replay over and over again this year as things pan out. I'm assuming this of course, since it hasn't happened yet. But much like the Rangers organization I'm comfortable doubling down on my assessments, only when all is said and done I think I'm going to be right.
That McDonagh hasn't been the Norris McDonagh of "old" can probably be traced back to Girardi's free fall in possession and the team forcing him to be the pillar of the power play, penalty kill and even strength. Putting McDonagh with an actual defensive partner would probably help him conserve energy for his special teams role, but we all know that’s not going to happen because the team, by of their own loyalty or blindness, no longer have that choice.
So, yeah, claiming McDonagh has to lead the charge isn't wrong in the sense that's what the Rangers need him to do. But it's akin to building an upside down pyramid and expecting it to stand. Eventually the top is going to crush the single point of emphasis holding it up.
The Rangers made no moves to their defense. “Moves”, in my mind, being positive events. Letting Yandle walk for meager returns isn’t a “move.” Trading for Nick Holden counts as a move, but that’s the only positive infusion the Rangers have made to the defense. And at best Holden will be a solid bottom half defender who helps soak up the minutes left by Yandle and Dan Boyle’s departure.
That Jeff Gorton couldn’t or didn’t do more to fix the defense isn’t McDonagh’s fault. But already the tea leaves are showing that he’s the guy who is going to be forced to pay for that mistake.
Well, him and everyone who expects better from this team this year.