It’s hard to believe that we’re talking about this at the end of March, in a season where the Rangers have been out of the playoff picture for months and just finished their second straight selloff at the deadline, but here we are.
Just a month removed from the news dropping that Jesper Fast isn’t really practicing and has been playing through an injury for at least two months, we’ve come to find Chris Kreider is going through something similar.
The enormity of such a decision shouldn’t be lost on you. This is a hockey team with no playoff aspirations, who would be better off dropping points wherever they can, and who have been sitting healthy forwards in the press box every night, making a joint decision to keep playing guys like Kreider and Fast even though they’re hurt. This isn’t Ryan McDonagh playing through a broken foot in the Eastern Conference Finals, or Keith Yandle playing through a shoulder injury in the playoffs, this is Kreider and Fast — that we know of — playing for no reason in a lost season.
This isn’t even a new development for this team. Forget the above mentioned Yandle and McDonagh from years ago; Dan Girardi literally was given first-pair minutes and important playing time with a known broken kneecap while a healthy defenseman sat in the press box. Last year the Rangers allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to play through a knee injury that, had it been handled at the start of the year, would have allowed him to finish the season with a healthy knee rather than having the injury cause residual damage that spiraled into a year-long struggle. We also saw Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist play through injuries last season, with Lundqvist’s keeping the notoriously competitive goaltender out of the World Championships. McDonagh played through a hand injury for weeks until the Rangers realized he was going to be traded and put him on the shelf. The Rangers’ medical treatment of McDonagh even got mentioned in a recent article where McDonagh talked about how he’s finally 100 percent with Tampa and that it was a long road to get there. Vladislav Namestnikov topped things off by finishing last year with a shoulder injury himself. This season Kevin Hayes, Zuccarello, and Neal Pionk all played through injuries before hitting the shelf for a longer period of time. And of course, Fast and Kreider have been playing hurt for parts of the season.
Look at how long that paragraph is. Aside from the first sentence, it’s all players who are playing hurt the past two years. These decisions have continued through two coaches, so it’s clearly at the point where it’s either the organization knowing and not caring, or not having enough information about the injuries. Neither is a good alternative.
There is a very large part of “hockey culture” that doesn’t just commend, but literally demands players playing hurt. At the end of each year media members rush to their computers to announce the injuries that are now permitted to be revealed once a season is over. People gather around and use the terminology “warrior,” or “tough as nails,” or “stones as big as the building.” This culture also contributes to the continued issues with mental health and head injuries that the NHL continues to turn a mostly blind eye to. Hockey players play hurt. Hockey player are tough. Period. Full stop.
And we’re all expected to sit and clap about it. I can only imagine what the comments will look like on social media under this article.
Because that is what professional athletes do. They play. They don’t look for ways out of “a lost season.” They play. https://t.co/GRkFhHp9uH— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) March 19, 2019
We look past it in the playoffs. It makes sense. So long as it’s not something that can really get that much worse from playin through or a head injury, we can look past he stupidity and appreciate the toughness.
But even that is dangerous — and the Rangers don’t even have the “playoffs” to fall back on. They’re a bad team with essentially no hope of the playoffs in their future this season, and playing through an injury only risks long-term damage that can affect the rest of their careers moving forward — look no further than Shattenkirk. Explain to me again how letting players play hurt makes any sense again.
Blame the players all you want, this comes down to the front office. Professional athletes are inherently competitive and have a drive that would override the mental logic of sitting out. Some feel the pressure to stay in each game no matter the cost. That’s why the front office needs to take the decision out of their hands, and it’s exactly what the Rangers are, apparently, not doing.
Here’s the bigger business issue: The Rangers didn’t have to put themselves in this situation. The team sits at 43 contracts including the recent addition of Jake Elmer. There was plenty of space and opportunity to pull someone off the waiver wire, even if they just brought someone in to fill time in Hartford while they plucked from their AHL affiliate. Still, that didn’t stop them from sitting healthy players to allow Fast and Kreider to play injured. Read that again: they made forwards like Boo Nieves sit in the press box as a healthy player, to play an injured Kreider and Fast.
What, exactly, is the harm in letting Kreider take a few weeks off? Filip Chytil can be given a longer look in a top-six role, as could Lias Andersson, and Boo Nieves has already been re-signed and solidified himself as a fourth liner next year and could step in for Fast. In the Rangers’ 3-2 regulation loss to Detroit on Tuesday Connor Brickley, Fredrick Claesson, and Boo Nieves were healthy scratches while Smith played a fourth-line winger. Explain to me again why they need to keep these two in the linuep? (Fast, it should be noted, was finally held out on Tuesday.)
It’s not even like the guys are dominating and can’t be pulled. Kreider has a 2-3-5 line the past 15 games. Fast has three points his past 21 games (with reports that he’s been hurt the past two months I looked at March and Feb games only). It’s worth saying Fast’s job isn’t to put up points, but with the role he’s had some offense should be expected, and it went from Fast rocketing toward a career-high pace early in the year to settling into a below-average offensive season.
The Rangers are hurting themselves. We’ve all come to the realization that this season is a wash, and will hopefully soon be relegated to a distant memory — some later than others, and some by force, but we’re all here now. Allowing players like Kreider and Fast, and at this point who knows who else, to play hurt is foolish from top to bottom.
And the Rangers, especially the rebuilding Rangers, should know better.