This summer was the first true summer of change in New York since Alain Vigneault took over. That’s not a shot at the bench boss, either; it’s just the beginning of the current era, is all.
Oh sure, Glen Sather stepped down and Jeff Gorton came in. Yes, the Rangers hired, fired, then re-hired a slew of assistant coaches the past few years. You are correct to tell me there were some changes each summer.
This offseason, however, was the first time Gorton truly started making his mark on the team. He made the necessary and long, long overdue move of buying out Dan Girardi. He brought in the biggest win of free agency in recent memory with Kevin Shattenkirk. He unloaded Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for the 7th overall pick (Lias Andersson) and Anthony DeAngelo in both a cap-clearing move and a needed reload of the system. He landed Filip Chytil 21st overall this summer, and the freshly turned 18-year-old is going to start the year on the opening night roster.
Of all the moves this summer, Shattenkirk was clearly the biggest. But the fallout from the Stepan trade (and then lack of center movement to this point) is going to be what we’re keeping out eye on as the season begins. We know Shattenkirk is going to be a success, but we don’t know how much damage the Rangers will need to deal with by not having a true third line center.
Granted, Chytil can continue his skyrocketing potential and fix this problem himself, but as high as I am on the kid, it doesn’t make good business sense to put his name on the roster in anything but pencil. Let him grab a pen and write it in ink, and if he can’t, then he goes back to the Czech Republic for another year of seasoning. Nothing against him at all, it’s amazing he’s gotten this far as it is, but no need to throw pressure on him and break his knees. Let him prove he can handle it, or let him get a taste and then come back next year twice as hard.
The forwards, as far as I am concerned, are Gorton’s problem. Unless Alain Vigneault finds a way to insert Andrew Desjardins into the lineup consistently (and he might!), the group he has is not his fault. I have a feeling he’s going to be able to make it work if he’s smart about it (having a real top-four on defense helps mitigate some of the sheltering you need for the bottom-six).
The defense, however, is a mixed bag. Gorton left Vigneaut a few of his favorite toys in Marc Staal and Nick Holden. Steven Kampfer represents the “oh I forgot I had that game” mentality you might have had as a kid when rummaging through your closet for something to do. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kampfer is an excellent stopgap, but recently sent down Neal Pionk is a better defenseman both now and in the future. Actually, you can include Staal and Holden in that statement, too.
As we’ve dissected Vigneault for the past four years, the same symptoms appear prior to the team’s overall failures; with the biggest being the continued trust of failing veterans in roles they are not qualified for. Taking away Girardi fixes the biggest of these issues (watch what Ryan McDonagh does this year without him), but leaving the likes of Holden, Staal, and Kampfer represents a test for Vigneault.
Has he changed? Will he do the right thing? Or will he return to his old ways.
As things currently stand, DeAngelo and Holden should be the bottom defensive pair. Holden, for all his struggles, might not thrive in a third-pair role but he should be more than serviceable. Staal shouldn’t touch the ice unless there’s major injuries, and Kampfer should go in first if anyone gets hurt. Holding eight defenseman isn’t ideal, but so long as a kid isn’t sitting who really cares? Staal and Kampfer are what they are. You’re not hurting their development by leaving them in the press box for five or six weeks at a time.
DeAngelo’s existence will push a lot of Vigneault’s hot buttons, as well. He’s weak in his own zone as things currently stand, he can be a hothead, and he’s prone to the occasional boneheaded play. He’s also ridiculously talented and could be a very special player for the Rangers if allowed to spread his wings and grow. These are often the perfect ingredients for a long-term benching for inferior players (see: Buchnevich, Pavel for the most recent example) and the player to not have a clear role. It both hurts development and confidence and makes the team worse as a whole.
Vigneault is going to have a lot of choices this year when it comes to those decisions. Unless Gorton finds a way to ship out Staal or Holden, there’s going to be a question mark surrounding every game until we get a feel for what things are going to look like.
Some things never change.
Until they eventually do.