The NHL is back for the weird, truncated, and super risky 2020-21 season and with a solid handful of games under their belt, now is as good a time as any to check in with everyone’s favorite hockey club, the New York Rangers. We’re gonna take a look, periodically, at some of the bright and not so bright points of the season as it goes along and because we’re still under the 10 game threshold that it usually takes for the underlying stats to stabilized, keep in mind that we working with short sample sizes here.
The Record: 2-4-1
The record definitely isn’t what any expected for the Blueshirts out of the gate. The Rangers started the season by getting their doors blown off by the Islanders in a 4-0 shellacking in the season opener, only to turn around in game two to put up a 5-0 drubbing of the Isles. From there, though, the Rangers have dropped 4 straight one goal games to the New Jersey Devils, the Pittsburgh Penguins twice (one of which was in the shootout), and the Buffalo Sabres. It isn’t all doom and gloom though, as the Rangers have, for the most part, looked pretty good in the early going as they’ve put up a 53.09 CF%, good for 6th in the NHL, and a 53.31 xGF% which has them just outside top ten in the league at 12th overall (numbers courtesy of Evolving-Hockey). So while the results haven’t been there for the Rangers, there are reasons to be optimistic, now let’s take a look at the roster and see who’s shone through for the right, or wrong, reasons.
The Kids Are, For The Most Part, Alright
One of the big things everyone talked about coming into this season was the continuation of the Rangers’ youth movement. The team is the youngest in the NHL and, while it shows at times, there have some major bright spots for the baby Blueshirts in the early going. The “veteran” of the group, Czech center Filip Chytil, had easily been the best Rangers forward with two goals and three points through five games before he broke his collarbone in an unfortunate collision against the Penguins last weekend. The 21 year old Chytil was locked into the Rangers’ third line center spot to start the season and was stapled to fellow youngster Kaapo Kakko.
Once winger Phil DiGiuseppe joined the duo, the Rangers third line quickly became the most exciting line to watch and was driving play in the right direction. Speaking of Kakko, the 19-year-old’s rookie season was one to forget and in the early going, Kakko’s looked much better and seems to be gaining confidence on a game by game basis. While there are still things the Finnish forward needs to work on, he’s progressing and heading in the right direction. Finally, we have Alexis Lafrenière getting his first taste of NHL action. While it took until Thursday vs. the Buffalo Sabres for the young winger to score, it wasn’t because of a lack of trying, as the 19-year-old winger played himself onto the top line and has looked the part in the early going. You could definitely see the weight lifted off his shoulders after scoring his first career goal against the Sabres last night.
K’Andre Miller and Adam Fox
While I could have included the Rangers’ two young defensemen in the above category, I think their play so far needs it own special mention. Adam Fox was a revelation last season for the Rangers and quickly cemented himself as a definite top four defenseman in the NHL and in the early going this season, Adam Fox looks to have elevated his play. His role has grown early in the campaign as Fox has been trusted with top power play time and has played 23:55 a game this season as the Rangers’ top right-handed defender. While it is still early, Adam Fox has been incredible for the Rangers in a way that the team, nor the fans, have seen in a long, long time.
While there was some questions as to who would get the top pairing minutes coming into the season, Fox’s play has made David Quinn and his staff’s decision there very easy as the 22 year old has answered every question the Rangers have put to him. Similarly, K’Andre Miller was a surprise addition to the Rangers’ opening roster, and game after game has proven that he belongs. While the 21 year old had some understandable opening night jitters, Miller has been phenomenal since the initial loss to the Islanders as he’s gone up against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jack Eichel and shut them down for the most part.
While the focus so far has been on the youngest and least experienced Rangers, there is one of the more experienced Blueshirts that has really stood out in a positive way and its the Russian forward everyone expected to have a great start...Pavel Buchnevich. Coming into the 2020-21 season there were a lot of questions surrounding Buchnevich and his impending future with the Rangers. The 25-year-old forward is looking at a potential big contract extension this coming offseason and the Rangers are gonna have to make big decisions around him and the younger forwards coming along. Well, Buchnevich is making the Rangers decision that much harder as the season gets underway as he’s been one of the best Rangers’ forwards in the early going, especially since his two running mates, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, have gotten off to rougher starts. He’s second in team scoring, with five of his six points coming 5v5. Buchnevich has been aggressive on and off the puck, in all three zones, and has pushed play on every line he’s been on to start things off. He’s also being utilized as a penalty killer by the Rangers, which is a testament to how his defensive game has grown.
While it would be easier to just write about the third pairing as a whole in the “Downs” section, we all knew what the Rangers were getting in Jack Johnson when they signed him for some reason. There were much higher expectations for DeAngelo coming off of a 53 point 2019-20 season and he was expected to step up this season after promising to stay off social media and improve his defensive play. This is probably not the start that DeAngelo nor the Rangers expected as DeAngelo has been exposed defensively in the early going and just can’t seem to get away from social media, even when he throws very public temper tantrums...on social media.
While the defensive issues were carried over from last season, the dip in offensive play has been startling as well as DeAngelo lost his spot on the top power play to Adam Fox and has yet to crack the scoresheet. At 5v5 he’s got a GF% of 26.87 (1.81 GF/60 | 4.92 GA/60) and when he isn’t contributing offensively the defensive lapses become more evident. In fairness, he does have an xGF% of 61.22 in five games, so it is possible things turn around soon. The Rangers have some defenders knocking on the door, and DeAngelo needs to give the front office a reason to prefer him over the likes of Nils Lundkvist going forward.
The Top Six
For all the positives coming from the future of the Rangers, their present leaves much to be desired. Artemiy Panarin has eight points in seven games (only three points 5v5) but it’s taken him a little while to really get flowing. Thursday was much better vs. Buffalo, and it was like one of those games we all marveled at last season. Ryan Strome, on the other hand, has been lost on numerous occasions in the offensive zone, tossing passes and shots all around the zone but nowhere quite near the net. Mika Zibanejad hasn’t quite hit that gear we know he has, though that could be from his still recovering from COVID-19, and Chris Kreider is still looking for some consistency on a game to game basis. Keep in mind, it is still just seven games into the season and the odds are good that all of these guys will bounce back into form but, in the early going, the Rangers have been asking a lot of their younger, more inexperienced players and it is something that is not a recipe for success.
Yeah, it’s kind of weird isn’t it? This is the first season in the post-Henrik Lundqvist era and both Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev have had their bumps along the way to get things started. Now, again to be clear, it’s still very early in the season and even if both goalies haven’t looked like world-beaters just yet, they’ve still been pretty good. It will take a few games for both Shesterkin, who is still a rookie this season, and Georgiev to really find their grooves this season, I think this is a lesson in taking Henrik Lundqvist for granted that we are all learning in real time. Shesterkin and Georgiev are going to be fine, it’s just going to take a while to not getting Hall of Fame-caliber goaltending night in and night out.
So, that’s it then. The first installment of Ups and Downs of the season, all in all I think the Rangers have been better than expected but just haven’t gotten the results for one reason or another. Once the top guys turn the corner and the goaltending tightens up, things could get rather interesting on Broadway. In the meantime, who do you think has stood out in a good or bad way to start the season? Oh and no, you can’t say Jack Johnson. That’s too easy.