It cannot be easy as a professional athlete to enter a season knowing you’re going to lose.
The New York Rangers lost this year ... a lot. Not just in terms of ROW (of which they had the least of any team in the NHL), but also in terms of not being bad enough to bottom out in the lottery rankings. As of tonight’s drawing, the team will have the 6th best lottery odds in the NHL — with the three points they grabbed in the final two games of the year pushing them up from 5th.
All year the team took steps both forward and backward. Now that the dust has settled, well, we still don’t really know what they are. And what’s worse, as we brace ourselves and prepare to move forward, there are questions about what the brass thinks this team is and what it is capable of.
Here’s what we do know, and best it’s to start here: the Rangers were a predictably bad team.
David Quinn installed a no-nonsense, never-say-die attitude that was fun to watch, but also contributed to the team’s inability to bottom out. The Rangers hung in a lot of games you wouldn’t have expected them to, played up to their better opponents, or simply won games on the back of either Henrik Lundqvist or — especially down the stretch — Alexandar Georgiev.
The team played with the right kind of physicality — not looking for toughness so much as wanting to be tough to play against — and late-season acquisition Brendan Lemieux seems to be capable of being a guy who keeps the Rangers away from another Tanner Glass in the foreseeable. Or, at least, one can hope.
Kids got playing time — some way more than others — and guys like Pavel Buchnevich, Anthony DeAngelo, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and Chris Kreider took notable steps forward under Quinn. At the same time, players like Neal Pionk, Jimmy Vesey, and Brett Howden never really moved forward despite the opportunities, and the new head coach hesitated to take opportunities away from them.
Still, as we have been demanding for years, if you’re going to take on the role of “learn to swim” you do it with younger guys rather than with veterans who have already proven they don’t have what it takes. Players like Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson both had somewhat stagnant seasons — although there’s a fair case to be made that the coach did neither player any favors in terms of usage. Which is something I bet Quinn would tell you if you asked him. It’s also worth saying that both former 1st round picks are very young and their experience this year could help them moving forward.
The defense was the predictable disaster we all thought it was, only it appears that the man at the helm of it is somehow safe. In a way, that’s almost as Rangers as it gets: be shown a major problem with the team, assume one small tweak will fix it despite a mountain of evidence proving otherwise, and bury your head in the sand until next year. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Quinn, it should be noted, got a lot out of this lineup, and seemed to develop very genuine relationships with the kids under his tutelage. Players were given a clear and precise message when they found their way into his doghouse. Furthermore, Quinn allowed players who made mistakes with good intentions to avoid punishment at times. From all accounts, there wasn’t a contentious environment in the locker room, everyone was held to the same standard.
The problem? The Rangers don’t ever seem to get out of their own way. Jesper Fast played for months with a thumb injury that required surgery. The Rangers let Chris Kreider play through an injury so substantial that his production post-deadline dried up at an alarming rate after it looked like he was a lock to set career highs in points and goals. All the while, guys like Chytil and Andersson toiled away with smaller roles and minuscule minutes while injured players hit the ice and soaked up precious ice time.
The team played to win every game — even down the stretch. It’s hard to take issue with that philosophy from a development standpoint and a coaching and player standpoint, but lineup decisions could have been made much sooner to serve the big picture. John Gilmour, despite a dominant AHL season that will assuredly see him get a look in the NHL elsewhere next season, played just five NHL games. Ryan Lindgren played in just five games all year, and got a call-up the last game of the season. Libor Hajek got called up after the trade deadline, but an injury derailed him from playing more.
Rather than giving guys like Chytil and Andersson bigger roles down the stretch, Quinn continued to use an injured and struggling Kreider both at evens and on the power play. Guys like Vlad Namestnikov and Ryan Strome — who, to be fair, was shooting out of his head — kept getting reps over them, too.
Everyone has to earn ice time. Of course. But when you and everyone else knows the team’s best interest is to lose games, and you have kids who can use the ice time, there should be some flexibility there, especially in the final two weeks of the season.
I questioned Quinn’s tough love on everyone strategy before Buchnevich exploded, and he seemed to prove me wrong there. DeAngelo clearly took a step forward because of it — and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Quinn might have saved the young man’s NHL career. Chytil and Andersson represent different equations, though. And while you can easily pass Chytil’s up-and-down season off on him being 19-years-old (seriously, he won’t be 20 until September), it’s hard to understand why he didn’t get more special teams time or a bigger role, especially post-deadline. In regards to Andersson: he probably shouldn’t have been called up if they didn’t intend to use him all that much. But he was, and that’s on Gorton.
There were emotional pulls, too.
Lundqvist let the season wear on him, admitting that once it was clear they weren’t playing for anything it took a mental toll on him. Georgiev did well when given the opportunity, but neither man could hold back the flood alone — and with the defense in front of them not a man alive could have, either.
Decisions are going to have to come here in regards to Lundqvist’s future — and that will start with Henrik. With a full NMC he can opt in for another two years of this, but I also believe (and argued on Ep. 135 of the podcast) that he already earned all the accolades he wants in New York, and I don’t think anyone would blame him for wanting out. That said, anointing Georgiev the starter for next season based on 33 games this year probably isn’t the most logical move. Nor is giving it directly to Igor Shestyorkin despite his KHL dominance.
Moving forward, there are a lot of questions in the goal crease.
We know what the Rangers were last year. They were bad, but not good enough at being bad to get the best lottery odds. In the end, winning was losing, at least on the surface. We’re here now, the season is over, and you hope the team has something nice to show for it.
Tonight’s lottery will determine that. And, once again, the Rangers weren’t good enough at being bad enough to make those odds as high as possible.