clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

No Room for Reserves: Rangers and Load Management

Even with a full line up, rest won’t come easy for the Rangers.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NHL: New York Rangers at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After playing with a short bench for the past four games (or five if you count Ryan Lindgren’s early exit against Washington), the New York Rangers will have had four days to recuperate before their next game, and, boy, do they need it. The team looked gassed in its previous two third periods, which is understandable, given the obscene amount of ice-time players have been forced to soak up. The load for the defense has been heavy, especially for Adam Fox, who posted a combined 57:59 over the back-to-back against Philadelphia and Ottawa. The forwards haven’t exactly had it easy, either. Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad each played over 20 minutes for three contests in a row. This break is the longest the Rangers will have for the rest of the regular season, and as Tom D. pointed out yesterday, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Even so, rest ought to be a top priority for the Rangers for the Rangers going forward.

With 19 games to go, the Rangers are essentially locked into position for the playoffs. They’re currently third in the Metro, trailing the Devils by nine points, and while their lead over the resurgent Islanders is a mere five points, the Rangers have three games in hand. With that much of a gap in the standings, their first-round playoff matchup is overwhelmingly likely to be against whichever team finishes second in the Metro, be it the Devils or Hurricanes. All of this is to say that the Rangers are in a pretty comfortable spot. They don’t need to claw for every point to sneak into the playoffs, and it would take a remarkable set of circumstances to leapfrog the two teams in front of them to win the Metro. Therefore, the best things the Rangers can do is to keep their squad as fresh as possible.

Rest and health are important for every team, but the Rangers as constructed could benefit from it greatly. Some of their key players—namely Chris Kreider and Patrick Kane—are players who historically benefited from their explosive skating but are on the wrong side of 30 years old. Kane, 34, has a ton of mileage, as well as a potential hip issue. Others, such as the currently injured Ryan Lindgren and Tyler Motte, play a hard-nosed style that often leaves them continually banged up. Despite the sport’s “warrior” culture, the Rangers would be better off leveraging their stable seeding position to mitigate the risk of injuries come playoff time.

This is especially true because it’s not like the Rangers are flush with options should an injury occur. They’d be forced to sift through a pile AHL players who have underwhelmed in their respective cameos on the fourth line. With all due respect to Jonny Brodzinski, Ryan Carpenter, Jake Leschyshyn they are, uh, not exactly the types of the players one hopes to dress for a playoff game, let alone series. The Rangers have a formidable group of 12 forwards—perhaps the deepest they’ve ever had in the salary-cap era—but if anyone in the top nine gets hurt, things could get dicey. An injury on defense would render Ben Harpur a starter and Libor Hajek as a backup, and that’s not ideal.

That said, Head Coach Gerard Gallant will have to be creative, or at least mindful, to find rest for the team. Because Chris Drury and company pushed the limits of cap management to create a star-studded roster, the Rangers can only afford one reserve player—the aforementioned Ben Harpur—for the remainder of the season. Unless someone gets hurt (or “gets hurt”) to make the Rangers eligible for an emergency call-up, they will be unable to scratch a handful of veterans in the last few games of the season, as contenders typically do.

The solution? Manage ice-time on the fly. The Rangers’ schedule is moderately difficult for the rest of the season, but it’s not without opportunity. They play against Columbus and St. Louis two more times each, in addition to a couple other deadline sellers—namely Washington and Nashville. For most of these games, the Rangers could distribute ice-time as evenly as possible and still be favored to win. Barring a drastic shift in the standings, no forward should be getting 20 minutes against these opponents. Fox, who leads Rangers skaters in ice-time by over 200 minutes, should be spared a yeoman’s workload. These would also be ideal times for Harpur to spell any defender who could benefit from a break. It could also be wise to start Harpur in some of the Rangers three remaining back-to-backs.

Ice-time allotment should also adapt during the game, depending on the circumstance. For instance, in the event of a blowout or significant second-half deficit, they could effectively punt by rolling back five-on-five and PK minutes for their top players. Some players, like Zibanejad and Kreider, see significant ice-time in all situations, making it hard to rest them in competitive games. However, if the game is already out of reach, limiting their defensive minutes, especially on the PK, where a blocked shot could break a bone, mitigates risk and provides no real downside. In the case of a powerplay, sure, put the stars out and see if they can get cooking, but otherwise, let the bottom six clean up. It’s better to take the foot off the gas and coast to defeat than risk an injury to a key player in a game that’s already lost and unlikely to change their playoff fortunes regardless.

There is one more consideration, and that is Tyler Motte’s status. If he is suffering any lingering effects from Auston Watson’s gruesome hit (where the head was definitely not the point of contact, thanks George Parros), the Rangers shouldn’t hesitate to put him in LTIR. He did skate in a non-contact jersey recently, so we could learn more soon.

But if Motte has a concussion or is less than 100 percent in general, every precaution must be taken to ensure that he is okay. Plus, on the pragmatic side, moving him to LTIR would free up the cap space for another actual call-up, which provides more flexibility than emergency call-ups. In the meantime, Brodzinski has been recalled on an emergency basis, so at the very least, they will be able to field a full slate of forwards against the Canadiens on Thursday.

At this point, it’s not clear what plan, if any, the Rangers have for managing their roster down the stretch. They’re in a comfortable spot in the standings, and unless something drastic changes, they can use that to overcome the odd shape of their roster and allow their players to be at their best when the games matter most. I’m not sure if taking the long view is something Gallant does, but it would behoove his team if he did so.

Last year we saw the Rangers run out of gas in the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Conference Final. This is something that needs to be considered, because the Rangers need to enter the playoffs in a position where they can finish series as quickly as possible. There aren’t a ton of great options, but if the Rangers were able to get creative with the salary cap, they can also get creative with a form of “on-ice load management.”