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The New York Rangers Have Work To Do If They Want To Be A Playoff Team

The Rangers want to take steps forward, but are needlessly taking steps back.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

At this point in time it is fair to question if the New York Rangers have lost the plot, coming off the heels of an NHL Draft weekend in which Pavel Buchnevich was cast off for pennies on the dollar, and Jack Eichel remained a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

Following the departure of former team president John Davidson, general manager Jeff Gorton, and eventually head coach David Quinn, it was clear that change was coming. That was evident to the players too in the exit meetings, with Ryan Strome clearly stating, “that message has been sent and received {...} we’ve just got to get into the playoffs.”

The Rangers last made in the playoffs in 2016-17, falling to the Ottawa Senators in six games during the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Since then, they’ve signed a Hart Trophy caliber player in Artemiy Panarin, traded for a Norris winning defenseman in Adam Fox, transitioned from Henrik Lundqvist to Igor Shesterkin, had Mika Zibanejad lead the league in goals per game, and landed back-to-back picks in the draft lottery in Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière. There were also savvy moves like moving up to draft K’Andre Miller, and taking Nils Lundkvist with a pick acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Ryan McDonagh trade.

Progress was being made along the way as what needed changing was identifiable and relatively mild. Yes, roster upgrades were needed — including not playing Brett Howden in a prominent role, deploying Jack Johnson on the third pair, and finding more time on ice for the kids, mostly on the power play — but for the most part a lot of the major pieces have been found, and put in place.

They had a top-line left wing in Panarin, a top-line center in Zibanejad, and a top-line right wing in Buchnevich. Behind that, they had top-six talent in Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider, Filip Chytil too although he was used in a bottom-six role, and two very promising kids in Lafrenière and Kakko.

Then there was 2018 first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov who was finally part of the main club after bouncing back around between Hartford and the KHL. After that things were a little dicey, but rounding out the third line and beyond is supposed to be the easy part, as there are more of those types of players than there are jobs for them in the NHL.

This is not to say the Rangers shouldn’t have considered an upgrade of Strome, and figuring out how to address Zibanejad’s looming contract extension which may or not make sense given how they proceed, but more on that later. On that note, Elliotte Friedman recently listed Seattle, Vegas or Ottawa as a potential landing place for Strome, but we’ll see what happens.

On defense the Rangers have a very good top pair with Fox and Ryan Lindgren. Behind them, there’s K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba, who both played very well in 2020-21. The third pair needed addressing, but the Rangers were well positioned to accomplish that with a combination of internal upgrades and depth targets via trade and free agency. In goal Shesterkin will need a new contract, which shouldn’t be that hard, and if they weren’t able to trade Alexandar Georgiev, he’d be fine for another season as a backup. I say not hard, because he’s in the same spot contractually as Lundqvist was when he entered the league, and while Igor is good, he’s no Hank.

2021 IIHF World Championship, Final: Finland 2 - 3 Canada Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images

The biggest upgrade to be made was behind the bench, and while it was nice to see them try something different with David Quinn, it didn’t work out as expected which happens from time to time. By hiring Gerard Gallant the Rangers added someone with a good track record of getting good results, and that alone was bound to have an impact on the roster. It presented an opportunity for some good players to become great players, and also gave a fresh slate for those struggling. His systems and processes, which emphasis defense and forechecking, create a survival of the fittest environment, and it would become clear who was or wasn’t able to deliver what was needed. That would also create a chance for some kids from Hartford like Morgan Barron.

At a bare minimum the Rangers simply needed not to fuck up or overreact. Simply sticking to the plan laid out, addressing the clear holes, and seeing what a new coach could get out of the existing roster would have been fine. While there were changes in the front office for a reason, there were ways Drury could have gone about moving the plan forward while also calming whatever fears James Dolan had.

The promise of adding Eichel to the roster certainly was appealing given the team’s lack of quality center depth, but the Rangers would have been in good shape running back the majority of the roster.

But that wasn’t in the cards for the front office, and in pursuit of making the team “tougher to play against” they’ve created some holes that will be tough to fill. While it is fair to say that the team as constructed — which has been described as “more skill than will” — could use more balance, it is equally fair to question if the team is making those additions in response to some bad losses against the New York Islanders, in which Dolan was in attendance, and everything that happened between Tom Wilson and Artemiy Panarin.

While they aren’t pugilistic heavyweights, it’s been lost in the noise that when the Tom Wilson stuff went down the Rangers were without Chris Kreider, Jacob Trouba, and Ryan Lindgren. This is not to say they are best suited to deal with Wilson, but each are tough players who play with an edge.

Brendan Smith, who will not return to the team, ended up fighting Wilson, and Buchnevich ended up cross-checking Anthony Mantha in the face during a scrum and he was eventually suspended for that “act of violence”. It is a bit interesting that the two players who emotionally reacted are both no longer on the roster, although in the case of Smith it is understandable given that there are a handful of better options to be had when free agency opens up on Wednesday.

As for matching up against the Islanders, the argument can be made that the Rangers’ lineup could use some bottom-six players who can make the pace and tone their rivals play with. However, that shouldn’t come at the expense of skill. It’s also worth noting that the schedule had an impact on the look and feel of these games, and because the teams played more times last season as a result of COVID scheduling, they were nastier and more physical than usual.

There’s still a lot of time left in the offseason, but early on it looks like the moves made are an overreaction.

Overreacting can sometimes be the worst thing a team can do, and I can only imagine how history would have been different had the Tampa Bay Lightning taken an axe to their team after getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. For context, here are how the Lightning had finished their seasons up to this point in time.

The Lightning were coming off an 128-point season, and given their recent run of seasons it would have been justifiable to completely change up the mix because clearly something was preventing them from getting the job done in the playoffs.

But instead of going scorched earth, like trading Nikita Kucherov who was an RFA in line for a big contract and got suspended in the Columbus series or someone else from the core, the Lightning made a savvy signing of Kevin Shattenkirk (bought out by Rangers) in the offseason, and traded a first-round pick for Barclay Goodrow at the deadline, and dealt a conditional first-round pick plus prospect Nolan Foote for Blake Coleman.

Goodrow and Coleman joined Yanni Gourde to create a tremendous third line, and Shattenkirk was spectacular rotating with Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. They also added Pat Maroon who served a purpose in the bottom six, and all of these moves were in addition to what Tampa had, and not at the expense of anything major.

This is just an example — and not to say the Rangers are anywhere near being the Tampa Bay Lightning — but rather an example of the types of moves the Rangers should be making. It also should go without saying that Tampa’s draft and development of players in Syracuse has played a role in their success, which is something the Rangers should continue to be mindful of.

The year the Rangers announced their rebuild they finished with 77 points in 82 games. Here’s how things have gone since.

  • 2018-19 — 32-36-14, 78 points
  • 2019-20 — 37-28-5, 79 points in 70 games (91-point pace)
  • 2020-21 — 27-23-6, 60 points in 56 games (88-point pace)

The 60 points could have been even better when considering that Panarin took a leave of absence, Shesterkin missed some time with an injury, and the fact that there was a condensed interdivision schedule as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But ultimately James Dolan wanted a change, feeling the team had enough talent but was missing something. Via the New York Post:

Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup. I’m sure we can always do better and add more, and I will tell you that both JD and Jeff did a good job of putting talent into this organization, and we also got lucky along the way too [with lottery victories the last two years].

But other owners, other general managers have been telling me for a year that they can’t believe how stocked we are with talent, but talent alone doesn’t do it. We’re missing this piece and we need it. And when I looked at our organization, I felt that we need to change the whole organization and change the culture.

It was something he noticed midway during the season saying:

I started thinking about it 20 or 25 games ago at a time when the team really needed to show heart and we had key games — I won’t be specific — where we had to show up and had to come out strong, and even if we lost, it had to be our best effort. And we clearly had nowhere close to our best effort.

Heart and effort certainly is something that can be seen as a reasoning behind signing Barclay Goodrow and acquiring Sammy Blais, and while there’s nothing wrong with either player filling that role, it ultimately comes down to cost. A player like Blais is not hard to come by, and should cost less than a bona fide top-line winger.

Goodrow certainly adds something different to the mix — he’s a forward who plays center but has spent the last two years on the wing with the Tampa Bay Lightning — but the decision to give him six years at $3.6 million looks even more questionable given the fact the Drury is now espousing the concept of cap space and there being so much time on ice to go around.

Some might say that the move to add Goodrow was made independent of the eventual Buchnevich trade, but given the fact that there wasn’t another shoe to drop by virtue of the Rangers and Sabres never getting close on an Eichel trade or anything else for that matter, it certainly looks like Goodrow was signed to take Buchnevich’s roster spot.

Buffalo reportedly wanted one of Braden Schneider/Nils Lundkvist, and some top young players already on the roster. While specifics weren’t given, it is fair to say that could have included Vitali Kravtsov, Kaapo Kakko, and/or maybe even K’Andre Miller. In either respect, the Rangers weren’t willing to budge, and without knowing the exact package I can’t say whether or not that was the right decision.

If the deal was Schneider, Kravtsov, a draft pick and something else, you consider it. But obviously if Buffalo wanted both Schneider, Lundkvist, Kravtsov and something else, then you can see why Drury held the line.

But I can say that running it back with Buchnevich for one year, even if it required an arbitration case, would have been better than what they did. It is possible that he still ends up getting traded down the line, and it is fair to say that the return at the next trade deadline would have yielded more than Blais and a 2022 second-round pick.

For now Goodrow has taken Buchnevich’s spot on the roster. Not his role in the lineup, but just a place on the 23-man roster. I don’t believe Goodrow was added to replace Brett Howden, more than likely that will be Morgan Barron or someone signed in free agency. Furthermore, I don’t think he’s replacing Colin Blackwell either, as that vacancy could be filled by Julien Gauthier for the time being.

As currently constructed — I say that because things can change — the Rangers are a worse team than they were at the end of the season. Per Evolving-Hockey, Buchnevich has an expected worth of 7.8 Goals Above Replacement for 2021-22, Blackwell, now a member of the Kraken, has an expected worth of 3.6, Goodrow has an expected worth of 2.3, and Blais has an expected worth of 0.9. That’s 11 Goals Above Replacement out, 3.2 in, or a net loss of 7.8 Goals Above Replacement.

It appears that the Rangers overlooked who Pavel Buchnevich was as a player, and don’t understand what he brings to the lineup, and therefore weren’t all that committed to signing him, and finding a way to make it work. He was a player they drafted 75th overall in 2013, a pick acquired in the Rick Nash trade, and as of this season he’s been the 11th best skater from that draft with 35.5 Goals Above Replacement.

For all the hemming and hawing about ice time, cap space, and opportunity, what good are all three if they are used on inferior players or nothing at all?

Because truthfully a good team would have kept Buchnevich, and done whatever it took to find the space when needed. He’s the exact player you use cap space on, as opposed to wasting in overpaying someone over the hill in free agency. Or, at the very least, he’d be moved for a more valuable piece.

While he’s a promising prospect with some good upside, Vitali Kravtsov should not be gifted a spot over Buchnevich. If the team is going to win a Stanley Cup, and it very much appears that the team is looking to do that soon, they are going to need him to be someone like Buchnevich. It’s the classic example of taking a boat or taking the mystery box. Yes the mystery box can be anything, but sometimes you want the sure thing. Buchnevich was the sure thing. He was going to cost the team money, but they could have paid him and dealt with it later.

If ended up with the team having to use a sweetener to get someone to take Kreider’s contract after convincing him to move his NMC that would have been a preferable outcome. That deal was less than ideal the minute it was signed, and looks even worse now that Buchnevich is gone. Kreider has been a great player for the Rangers, and someone who deserved to get paid, but the contract may ultimately put a limit on what this team is able to accomplish. Kreider was worth a career high 5.6 standing points above replacement in 18-19, dropped to 2.6 in 19-20, and 2.3 in 20-21. If you break it down by rate to account for the drop in games played, it factors out to 0.242, 0.143, and 0.161 respectively, and it will be bad news if these numbers continue to drop.

Alternatively, it would have forced the issue at No. 1 center, making the front office decide what it would truly cost for Zibanejad, and if that number were too high than he’d become a trade piece to acquire someone who better fits the team’s long term needs.

There’s no telling what is going to happen next, as Drury seems to be dead set on where things stand with Eichel. Not that Drury is going to say exactly what he’s thinking, but he said that he’s comfortable with the center depth at the NHL level.

As for what happens next? Your guess is as good as mine, although I think Hockey Stat Miner is on the right track.

Zibanejad and Strome are free agents at the end of the season, and Chytil is an RFA who needs a new deal. The fourth line center right now will be Kevin Rooney, or perhaps Morgan Barron, but in any case that’s not a huge deal. Chytil’s deal should be an easy one, it won’t be surprising if the team continues to shop Strome, but Zibanejad’s future isn’t so clear. He’s reportedly looking for a seven to eight-year deal around $10 million a year, and that’s something the Rangers should avoid at all costs. Zibanejad is 29 next April, and a deal that keeps him a Ranger until age till 36 or 37 is way too long.

Which means if Eichel doesn’t come to the Rangers this summer, the team will need to go to the drawing board to address the No. 1 C position long term.

With that said though, the Rangers could be OK this season.

The operative word is could.

There is a lot of talent, and it could be really fun if Kakko continues making the strides he has, Lafrenière generates solid results with better deployment, and Kravtsov is as fun in the NHL as he was in the KHL. But if the kids aren’t ready for a bigger role created by moving Buchnevich, it will put the front office in a position in which they have to fill that role with an external candidate, which could end up costing them similar assets and money had they just re-signed Buchnevich all together.

Here’s an outsider’s perspective on the trade, and what it could mean.

I would be a lot more sympathetic to the cap space issue had they not just signed Goodrow to what amounts to a luxury contract for a player with a third line ceiling. The effect that this move has on New York’s depth chart is not ideal; Buchnevich effectively insulated Kaapo Kakko from a first line role and filled out what looked to be a great top six moving forward. With him gone, Kakko and Vitali Kravstov, a prospect who scored four points in 20 NHL games last year, will essentially constitute a collective question mark on the right side for a team expected to contend for a playoff spot next season.

That’s a lot of upside but not a lot assured, and with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad in their primes (not to mention Adam Fox with only one year remaining on his ELC), frankly the time to compete is a lot sooner than for most teams coming out of rebuilds. The Rangers still have quite a bit of cap space left, and they have the opportunity to compensate for this loss bigtime if they’re able to add a player like Jack Eichel, but it will not be easy to replace Pavel Buchnevich.

How the Rangers approach free agency on Wednesday will give a good indication of how they are going to attempt to further reshape the team. There aren’t a ton of free agents that stand out as amazing fits, but given the direction the team has been moving in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to reunite Goodrow with Blake Coleman. That could be pricey, which would go against Drury’s “there’s only so much cap space and ice time” spiel.

It wouldn’t be shocking if the Rangers pursue David Krejci if he tests the market, although I imagine he tries to stay in Boston. Phillip Danault is an interesting name, but he’s a defense first center bound to get overpaid.

On defense there’s options like Ryan Suter, Alex Edler, Ian Cole, Jake McCabe and much more, but bank on them signing a veteran to eventually pair with one of the kids.

The goal is for the Rangers to become a playoff team not just next year, but for the next couple of years in order to challenge for a Stanley Cup. In order to do that they’ll need to spend some assets, and give out some salary. They already burned one of their top assets in Buchnevich for a lackluster return, and committed $3.6 million in cap space to a bottom-six player who doesn’t move the needle as much as someone at that ticket should.

At this time of year all it takes is a phone call to get trade negotiations moving again. A big move or two could happen, rendering this story obsolete, but at his post-draft press conference was reserved enough to the point where it seemed like he’s still pondering what do. So with some areas to upgrade and a decent amount of cap space, in the words of Hockey Stat Miner... “buckle in.”