When you finish the regular season with over 100 points and advance to the second round of the playoffs, that would be a successful season for plenty of teams around the NHL. However, the New York Rangers are not your average team. With an aging core constructed to win now, and a bevy of players on their second professional contracts who have yet to cash in on big money deals, the clock is ticking on Jeff Gorton, Alain Vigneault, and the rest of the organization. As such, any season that ends on the wrong side of a handshake line will do down as a failure, and the 16-17 season is no different.
Despite icing a team that was largely the same as the one that got laughed out of the playoffs in 2016, New York had a legitimate shot at taking home their second Eastern Conference Championship in four seasons and playing for the greatest trophy in sports. Due to the NHL’s fantastic (read: abominable) playoff format, the Rangers crossed over into the Atlantic Division’s bracket, and drew the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. After dispatching them, the team opened up the second round as favorites against a mediocre Ottawa Senators squad. However, after six games, New York’s season had come to a close, and they had to watch the Senators push the Pittsburgh Penguins to a double overtime period in Game 7. So close, and yet so far.
With that being said, there was a little bit of good and a little bit of bad to take away from New York’s 75th season without a championship out of the last 76. Today, we’ll focus on some of the low points from the Blueshirts season:
#5: The Brandon Pirri Experiment
When the dog days of summer roll around and weeks go by without a meaningful piece of news in the hockey world, any trade or signing can draw a fanbase’s attention to it. That happened to be the case when Jeff Gorton inked Brandon Pirri to a one year, $1.1 Million contract on August 25th. The move appeared to be a head scratcher from the moment news broke. New York’s forward corps was already stacked with competent NHLer’s, and the team had a handful of NHL-ready prospects looking to get their chance to break into the league.
Through the first month of the season, the Pirri acquisition appeared to be a smashing success. Playing the role of a versatile scoring forward who can play anywhere in the lineup, Pirri suited up on a regular basis, and posted five goals and five assists through the first 17 games. However, his scoring proved to be unsustainable, and Pirri tallied three goals and three assists over his next 31 contests, proving to be a detriment most of the time he hopped over the boards. Alain Vigneault’s decision to stick with Pirri kept Pavel Buchnevich in the press box most nights, while also preventing useful depth players like Marek Hrivik and Nicklas Jensen from holding onto their spot in New York.
After that 31 game dry spell, the Rangers’ bench boss had seen enough. From that point on, Pirri only appeared in 12 of New York’s final 35 regular season games, and watched all 12 playoff games from the press box. But the damage had already been done. The only time Pirri was one of the team’s twelve best forwards was during the early portion of the season when the Rangers were ravaged by injuries. Other than that, Pirri was ineffective, unnecessary, and just overall forgettable. Or in a word, awful.
#4: Tanner Glass’ Recall
One of the players Pirri beat out for a roster spot out of training camp was the team’s most polarizing player, Tanner Glass. After a brief stint in Hartford the previous season, the writing seemed to be on the wall throughout pre-season. With a bevy of skill forwards at his disposal, Alain Vigneault and Jeff Gorton elected to cut Glass towards the end of camp, and most of Rangerstown rejoiced. When the team called up Boo Nieves, Marek Hrivik, and Nicklas Jensen at various points to plug holes depleted by injuries, it appeared that Glass would be left to toil in the insurance capital of the world for the remainder of his contract.
Predictably, it was too good to be true. On March 5th, Jeff Gorton revealed his true colors by recalling Glass (along with Steven Kampfer). There’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said before, but every game Tanner Glass was in the lineup, it was at the expense of a better skater. Every day he was on the NHL roster, it was at the expense of a better, cheaper, and younger player. Despite not being as terrible as he usually is during the playoffs, the fact Glass earned a single second of playoff ice time is an embarrassment. With his contract expiring in less than three weeks, it finally looks like the Tanner Glass era in New York has come to an end.
#3: Pavel Buchnevich’s Wild Ride
Coming into the season, Pavel Buchnevich was expected to leave a mark on the NHL as he made his North American debut. Buchnevich’s statistical similarities to players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Artemi Panarin had been well-documented before he arrived. As such, the expectations were sky high for Buchnevich to burst onto the scene and become a household name. After scoring eight points in his first ten NHL games, it seemed like Buchnevich was set to meet those expectations. In addition to his overall solid play, New York’s star rookie flashed his elite offensive skills with this highlight-reel goal against the Winnipeg Jets.
Unfortunately, health issues plagued Buchnevich throughout the season, as he missed two months in order to undergo a conditioning program to strengthen his core from November to January. After returning from his initial injury, the rookie sensation was unable to find the form he displayed to start the year. Between other minor injuries, an ever-changing carousel of linemates, and the semi regular night in the press box, Buchnevich was never able to find his groove.
None of this is to say that he had a bad rookie season. Buchenevich’s underlying metrics were sparkling across the board, and he led the team with 2.13 Points/60 at 5 on 5. But between the injuries he suffered and the times Alain Vigneault elected to sit him in favor of inferior players, his rookie season was somewhat of a disappointment for reasons out of his control. With a full summer to train for his sophomore campaign, and a whole season’s worth of experience under his belt, look for Buchnevich to emerge as one of New York’s best forwards next season.
#2: The Goalie “Controversy”
While the top moment on this list may be the most painful one to reminisce on, the goalie “controversy” that erupted was far and away the most frustrating one. After Henrik Lundqvist was going through a slump by his lofty standards, Alain Vigneault decided to start Antti Raanta for the Rangers’ December 8th contest in Winnipeg against the Jets. Since Raanta had only played twice in the previous eleven contests, it was a reasonable decision to give Lundqvist’s Finnish understudy some live action. After earning the victory with a respectable 17 save performance, that’s where things started to go off the rails.
With the Rangers set to turn around and take on the Chicago Blackhawks the next night, Vigneault made the curious decision to start Raanta for the second consecutive game. It’s been proven that goaltenders should rarely, if ever, play on back to back nights. But Vigneault’s gamble payed off in the form of a 26 save shutout from Raanta, and a 1-0 victory for the Rangers. With another solid performance, rumblings of another Alain Vigneault Goalie Controversy™ started to emerge. After christening Raanta as the starter for third consecutive game, New York’s bench boss offered up this gem of a soundbite:
"Hank's like all our players: team-first attitude," Vigneault said Sunday morning. "And right now there's no doubt that Antti's playing real well and deserves to play. I love Hank, but I love the team more and right now Antti is on top of his game."
“I love Hank, but I love the team more.....”
For all of the memorable quotes Vigneault has had throughout his time in New York, that one just might top the list. Raanta would go on to shutout the Devils en route to earning a fourth consecutive start, at which point he finally lost his next game and ceded the crease back to Henrik Lundqvist. Despite only lasting a week, the hot takes flying around the team made it one of the most unbearable times of the season. Thankfully, Lundqvist came back and reminded Rangerstown why he will go down as the greatest Ranger of all time by returning to form and helping drag the Rangers back to the playoffs.
#1: Game 2 against the Ottawa Senators
Realistically, the entire playoff series against Ottawa probably belongs in the spot. But if there was one game that was significantly more painful than the others, it was Game 2 by a long shot. All of the obvious things that happened on April 29th in Ottawa are enough to vault it to the top of the list without any competition. The blown two goal lead with the clock winding down in the third, the atrocious player deployment (specifically Brady Skjei’s usage), and giving up four goals to one player is enough to make any coach burn the film and move on.
(DISCLAIMER: The next two paragraphs are me venting about the stupid circumstances that led to me having to watch them blow the lead, and then not even get to watch the end of the game because of the aforementioned stupid circumstances. If you don’t care about the aggravating things I have to deal with at work, skip the next bit of the article. I’ll put another block of bold to indicate the end of my rant.)
For me personally, Game 2 has one thing the rest of series didn’t have. So at work, my schedule worked out that I was in and out in time to get home and watch the game in it’s entirety. Unfortunately, the night time front-end manager (I work in a grocery store) had called out of work that day, and there was nobody else who could be called in for reasons unknown. Me, being stupid, decided to bite the bullet and agree to come back and work 6-10, when the game would have been over had it ended in regulation. Obviously that didn’t happen. So the clock’s winding down and I’m all jacked up because the Rangers are going to win, and I’m going to strut back into work in my jersey and I’m all happy and bubbly, and there’s not a thing that anyone in the world can do to screw my mood up.
And then it was 5-4, and I’m thinking “Welp, they never do make it easy do they?”. And then as I was getting ready to leave it was 5-5. And then I said bad things, and heaved things around my room, and was just not a pleasant person to be around at the time. At that point there was nothing I could do, so I just got in my car and went back to work. Eventually I saw that Pageau potted his fourth goal to win the game, and I was just numb at that point. So as if all the other fun stuff about Game 2 wasn’t enough, I got to watch the Rangers take the lead, blow it, and immediately go back to work to finish the last four of a ten hour work day that shouldn’t have even happened. Good times.
(That’s the end of my personal anecdote/rant. Enjoy the rest of the article.)
Rather than breakdown the how’s and why’s of New York’s collapse that afternoon, it’s easier to just move on. Nobody wants to revisit that monstrosity of a performance for a good reason. Given the stakes, it was far and away the lowest point of the Rangers’ season, and it could even be argued that it dashed their hopes of winning the series.
PAGEAU, PAGEAU, PAGEAU, PAGEAU! pic.twitter.com/ZEwRMhwWxe— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) April 29, 2017
With any luck, Alain Vigneault, Jeff Gorton, and the rest of the organization can take something positive from these moments and use them building blocks into next season. If they can’t, then the 2017-18 season will end the same way it usually does. Thanks for reading, and stick around for a more positive spin on New York’s season as I relive the five best experiences from the last season.