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Rangers vs. Blackhawks: Spooner and Namestnikov Have Officially Become a Problem

Detroit Red Wings v New York Rangers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Any attempt scapegoat a few players in pursuit of finding reason for last night’s loss to Chicago is a waste of time. Henrik Lundqvist’s heroics kept it competitive for the first 55 minutes, and a handful of other players had what could at least be described as acceptable showings. Overall, though, it was a pitiful performance from top-to-bottom. The game started with embarrassingly amateur mistakes that afforded Chicago easy odd-man rushes and partial breakaways, and the sloppiness carried over for most of the night.

For most of the season, the Rangers have been competitive and competent, even if imperfect. Still, one regulation win in 10 games tells the story of this team. As in Chicago, there is plenty of blame to go around. Outside of Lundqvist and perhaps Jesper Fast, nobody has consistently played to his ability.

We can - and have - written ad nauseam about the shortcoming of certain veterans. Those problems will be solved with time as the Rangers build and contracts run out. A number of kids have struggled, but that’s the name of the game. And while the likes of Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei, among many others, have had some absolute stinkers, they have also had some very strong performances as well. The Rangers knew what they were getting into this season. Between the overall roster transition as well as adaptation to a new coaching staff, the Rangers are what they expected to be; a competitive and honest, but nonetheless below average hockey team.

For all of those qualifiers, absolutely none can apply to Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov. Sure, they are learning a new system. But these are established, skilled players within striking distance of their prime years. Through 10 games, they have been consistently non-existent at best, and last night’s performance Chicago makes this an unavoidable discussion now. The fourth line got pounded all night, as the Rangers were out-attempted 2-11 when Spooner was on the ice and 4-14 when Namestnikov was. It was against this line that Chicago scored their game-winner. Sure, we can pin some blame on Cody McLeod who, despite doing his best, is a liability. And we can raise an eyebrow at the coaching staff for putting together a line that doesn’t make any sort of cohesive sense.

Ten games does not a season make, but it’s still enough time to conclude that this is not about small sample oddities. Both Spooner and Namestnikov have been given plenty of opportunities in generous circumstances, and both have been pedestrian in their best moments and liabilities at their worst. This is officially “A Problem.”

With Ryan Spooner comes good and bad. He’s always been a defensive liability, and continues to be this season. The Rangers give up a significantly higher number of shot attempts when Spooner is on the ice, and the same holds true for expected goals against (Data via Corsica Hockey and does not include Thursday’s game versus Chicago).

This is a problem, sure. Again, it’s one you accept with Spooner. Typically, he offsets the defensive problems with his play in the offensive zone. He had tremendous puck poise and can make proficient, creative passes; particularly on the power play. Coming into this season, Spooner had averaged about 47 points per 82 games, and he was one of the few bright spots on the Rangers post-deadline last season, registering 14 points through 20 games. This season, however, he has registered just one point through nine games.

(All numbers are at five-on-five)

Spooner’s expected goals for rate is actually higher this season, but the team’s on-ice shooting percentage is bringing him down. So, he is a bit unlucky to have just one point. Still, his Corsi For has taken a massive nosedive. At his best, Spooner can be a useful player who can drive offensive possessions in a sheltered role. This season he is not doing that, though, and so the Rangers are getting hemmed in their defensive end without much to show going the other way.

The opposite appears to be true with Namestnikov. His underlying numbers are actually okay. The Rangers are performing slightly better in underlying metrics with Namestnikov on the ice. Unlike Spooner, though, Namestnikov can not be relied on for much offensively. It is clear by now that his production with Tampa Bay last season was mostly the work of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Where he has excelled, even away from those players, is with a bigger impact from zone-to-zone. Namestnikov used to be a major influencer of possession, tilting the ice in his team’s favor while doing well in terms of creating zone exits. This season, he’s been just okay in that regard.

What’s more, he appears disengaged. Long-time readers of this website know that the scribes here usually roll our eyes at any mention of a lack of effort or competitiveness. Namestnikov genuinely does not appear committed to his checks at times, though. The coaching staff appears to agree, as Namestnikov has averaged under 11 minutes of icetime this season and was even scratched for a game.

This could have served as a segue into a discussion about the trades that brought Namestnikov and Spooner to the Rangers, but that’s old news. It’s more pertinent to discuss what the problems both are creating for the Rangers right now.

Head Coach David Quinn has enough on his plate as is. He and (most of) his assistants are learning how to coach in the NHL on the fly. They are trying to correct a number of awful habits that the players picked up with the previous regime. They are trying to get a handful of extremely young players through growing pains.

Though both players have their flaws, there was absolutely every reason to believe both would serve as capable middle-six forwards this season. Instead, as shown against Chicago, Head Coach David Quinn can not even rely on them to plug some holes for nine minutes as fourth liners. Two players whom Quinn should have been able to rely on to do their jobs are instead the biggest headaches among a roster that already provided him with plenty to occupy himself.

If it continues, it’s also going to create some pretty significant problems for the Rangers down the road. The Rangers handed both players a combined 16 million dollars over the course of two years with the hope of moving them for assets sooner rather than later. With their current performances, no team is going to be eager to add either right now at a $4 million cap hit, or at least no team should be willing to offer much in a trade. The obvious issue there is that the Rangers, a rebuilding team, are set back in the rebuilding process. Not to mention that a failure to move either means both will be lame ducks clogging up NHL roster spots and cap space that the team needs.

A 10-game sample isn’t random noise, but it’s not past the point of fixing, either. If Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are capable of having bad spells, then so too can Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov. What’s more, the shooting percentage gods are unlikely to be this withholding for all 82 games. That all does not change the fact that right now they are hurting the team’s structure, and if both continue like this then David Quinn’s problem will eventually become General Manager Jeff Gorton’s, too.

Some other thoughts from last night’s 4-1 loss against the Blackhawks:

  • Adam McQuaid’s injury, should it be of any substance, will create an opening for Anthony DeAngelo to get into the lineup. If so, it kind of feels like last call.
  • I almost never bother to engage with the Lundqvist doubters because it’s they’re the three-percent of people in surveys who assert their beliefs in Reptile People. It’s a fringe group of crazies so far removed from reality that any sort of rational discourse about the matter is impossible.

But according to our friends at Second City Hockey, Blackhawks TV analyst Adam Burish called Lundqvist the “most overrated goaltender in the last 10 years.” Burish played over 400 NHL games and was part of the Blackhawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup team. This is as good of proof as we’ll ever see that playing in the NHL or winning The Cup does not automatically mean a player is a good evaluator of the game.

  • I mentioned this earlier, but how good has Jesper Fast been? He managed to be positive in shot attempts last night despite the roof caving in. I think the fact that he can “play on any line” says more about the Rangers’ lack of talent than it does Fast; he should not be touching the top-six on a good team. What he can be is the optimal bottom-six forward on a contender. If he plays this way the whole season, then he should be a serious contender for the Selke. And with his contract expiring in 2020, he is no different than Namestnikov, Spooner, Kreider, and so on. Could the right team come calling with an offer too good to turn down? We’ll see.
  • The Rangers struggled to generate offense - both in the form of quality chances as well as sustained offensive zone time - against one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. This is not acceptable, but I do wonder at what point someone within the Rangers’ organization publicly admits an obvious truth; there are no systematic changes nor practice drills that will change the fact that the Rangers lack high-end offensive players. I know the party line for every team to ever play hockey is to talk about ways to improve, but I think it could almost be cathartic for someone to openly state it and take pressure off both prospects and other players who are being asked to punch above their weights.