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Five Rangers Thoughts During the Break

Vegas Golden Knights v New York Rangers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Between their “bye week” and the All-Star break, the New York Rangers will go nine days between games. This long layoff has provided a chance to reflect on some storylines as the club gets ready for the stretch run of the regular season and (hopefully) into the playoffs.

Here are five thoughts on the Rangers.

1. Ben Harpur is Not the Answer

Having just signed a two-year contract extension with the Rangers, defenseman Ben Harpur has clearly earned the trust of both the coaching staff and the front office. We consistently hear words like “steady” and “size” when it comes to Harpur holding down a spot on the third defensive pair with Braden Schneider. He is also, by all indications, a good locker room guy with a cool story of perseverance.

Still, if the Rangers have aspirations to make a deep playoff run this season, I have to think they’ll need someone more reliable in that sixth-defenseman role. It still doesn’t have to be anyone flashy, but maybe someone who won’t get caved in on shot and chance share while he’s on the ice. The heroics of Igor Shesterkin can mask a lot when it comes to Harpur’s actual impact, which features a bevy of high-quality chances against and almost no offense to speak of.

Via Hockey Viz
Via Hockey Viz

Plus, as the grind of the season resumes and continues through April and, presumably, into the playoffs, what if there’s an injury on the backend? Are the Rangers really ready to roll with a defense corps where two of the six players in the lineup are Harpur and Libor Hajek? New York needs to view the March 3 trade deadline as a chance to add some insurance there, especially if they’re not going to give Zac Jones another chance this season.

2. Just Say No to Patrick Kane

Speaking of the trade deadline, the more obvious need is a right winger who could slot into the top six. Such a player would not only make the Rangers more potent, but would also improve their depth by allowing players like Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow to play in more natural bottom-six roles. That would also help fix the currently putrid fourth line, where waiver-wire pickup Jake Leschyshyn has immediately supplanted Jonny Brodzinski because...reasons.

Anyway, the name that we’ve all heard ad nauseam as a potential Rangers trade target is Patrick Kane. Yes, his prior chemistry with Artemiy Panarin while the Breadman was with the Chicago Blackhawks is intriguing. But Kane is 34 and not the productive player he once was, be it because of aging, a nagging injury, or the fact that the Blackhawks are a cellar dweller. He has 34 points (nine goals and 25 assists) in 45 games, with about half of those coming on the power play. There’s the ongoing concern of whether or not he needs hip surgery; even if he doesn’t, the nagging injury is likely a hindrance to his overall play. There’s the speculative notion of him possibly wanting a contract extension when traded, which means A) the Blackhawks could raise their asking price, as Kane would not be just a rental, and B) the cap-strapped Rangers would have another hefty contract on the books — the last thing they need.

Beyond the hockey-specific concerns, for everyone who lauds “character” players, Kane’s history of run-ins with the law make him a less desirable target as well. This is not the type of player for whom the Rangers should even think about parting with Kaapo Kakko or Alexis Lafrenière. Doing so would remind me of the dark ages of 1998-2004, which gave me a solid baseline of pessimism and disappointment with respect to this team.

3. Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller are Organizational Success Stories

Let me offer a reprieve from this run of pessimism with something positive. For all the complaints and concerns over how the Rangers seem to struggle with developing their high-end forward prospects, the emergence of Filip Chytil after several years of mostly low and flat NHL production is extremely exciting and encouraging.

The Rangers selected Chytil 21st overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, and the 22-year-old has finally risen up as a consistent scorer. It started with a hot run during the 2022 postseason, and has carried over into this season. Chytil is third on the team with 16 goals, and that’s without getting the significant power-play time that team leaders Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider do. He’s also added 13 assists for a total of 29 points in 41 games. Over a full 82-game season, that would equate to 32 goals and 26 assists. Chytil’s development after several years in the NHL offers some hope for Kakko and Lafreniere to eventually become more consistently productive players.

Meanwhile, while not a forward, another first-round pick, K’Andre Miller, seems to have become the team’s second-best defenseman, only behind the brilliant Adam Fox. After a slow start offensively, the points have started to come for Miller, who is up to five goals and 20 assists in 49 games, already giving him a career high in points. His offensive ability combined with his speed, range, and reach on defense have him primed to become one of the game’s better two-way blueliners.

Dallas Stars v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The only downside (sorry, back to pessimism) to these players’ strong performances is that they’ll command big contracts this offseason, as they both hit RFA status (with Chytil having arbitration rights). Miller seems certain to remain a long-term fixture, but Chytil’s status is murkier. Still, general manager Chris Drury cannot afford another Pavel Buchnevich situation, where he loses a young player for almost nothing after that player finally developed into the impactful, productive scorer they always wanted him to be. He needs to find a way to retain Chytil.

4. Please Tweak the Power Play

Last season, the Rangers’ power play was extremely dangerous, and was a critical part of their success, along with Shesterkin. They finished fourth in the league with a conversion rate of 25.2 percent.

This season, they have struggled with the man-advantage of late, dipping down to 21.6 percent (17th in the league). Kreider, who had a whopping 26 power-play goals last year, has only four in 2022-23. The Blueshirts have become stagnant and predictable, as they typically try to set up Zibanejad for a one-timer from the left circle. Kreider seems to be factoring into their setups less and less, in addition to seeing a personal shooting rate regression after last year’s bender.

Despite all of his even-strength line shuffling, head coach Gerard Gallant does not seem to want to touch the power play. The time to do that, however, would certainly appear to be now. A tweak in personnel could add back a layer of unpredictability and make it harder for opponents to prepare for defending the Rangers’ power play. Adding another lefty on the top unit (possibly the aforementioned Chytil in place of Trocheck) and changing the overall orientation could give the Rangers a one-time shooting threat from each circle. Chytil is not afraid to shoot, unlike too many other Rangers, so defenses would have something else to worry about besides Zibanejad’s shot.

The Rangers could also look to split time more evenly between their two units — with or without shuffling the personnel on each one. This would again add some difficulty to opponents’ scouting and preparation; right now, their main focus really only has to be on the first unit, as the second unity typically doesn’t get more than the last 30 seconds of a power play, much of which is spent retrieving the puck after a clear and line change.

5. The Rangers Need to Own up to the Pride Night Debacle

Lastly, while this isn’t about game action or roster moves, I’d be remiss to not touch on a recent situation that has cast the organization in a negative light and has been bothering me and countless others. That, of course, would be what happened (or didn’t happen) during the Rangers’ Jan. 27 Pride Night for their game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Our own Tom Urtz Jr., has already detailed the issue and offered his thoughts here (which I agree with wholeheartedly); it came down to the team not wearing Pride-themed jerseys or using Pride-themed stick tape during pregame warmups after advertising that as a major part of the event.

If nothing else, this is false advertising, which is bad enough on its own. But of course, it’s more than that. Presumably, many fans paid for tickets to this game thinking they’d see the Rangers warm up in Pride-themed jerseys — something that might not seem meaningful to some but could mean the world to members of the marginalized LGBTQ+ community who want to see support from their favorite hockey team. For the Rangers to renege on that sends a bad message that this is not an important initiative to them, and leaves LGBTQ+ fans understandably feeling angry, confused, hurt, and excluded.

It certainly seems like no coincidence that this happened after the Philadelphia Flyers’ Ivan Provorov refused to participate in his team’s Pride Night a couple of weeks ago, citing his religion. That became a huge story with a lot of criticism directed at Provorov and the Flyers. With the revelation that there were apparently no Rangers player discussions about not wearing the jerseys, as well as confirmation from the league that it did not intervene, all evidence points to the issue starting from someone higher up in the Rangers’ organization — presumably as a preemptive tactic to try to avoid a Provorov-type situation.

Of course, what the Rangers have done in trying to avoid drama and attention is create exactly that, while implicitly indicating that they care more about avoiding bad PR (which they’ve failed to do) than about truly supporting marginalized communities.

They’ve since released a nothing-burger of a statement, which only further calls for them to truly own up to the issue. They need to do better. They owe their fans and the greater LGBTQ+ community a real explanation as to why they failed to fulfill their promise, and they then need to make up for it with meaningful action.