Rangers Are Structurally Close To, Yet Philosophically Far From Glory

About two-and-a-half months ago, as the trading deadline approached, I made the argument that 2018 was the Rangers’ best chance at making a Stanley Cup run. Today still, that belief remains. In terms of the team’s makeup, things look very good. This is a team that can roll four lines. That the Rangers were able to average 2.83 goals in the playoffs with many of their top forwards MIA is no small feat.

Yes, there will be some required turnover on offense. Either the salary cap or, more likely, the expansion draft seem likely to cost the team one of Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, or Michael Grabner. Rick Nash too might be a salary cap sacrifice. And if things get crazy, perhaps Derek Stepan could be moved for a much-needed defenseman. But one would expect that another year will make the team’s gluttony of young forwards better than ever, and able to sufficiently fill the cracks. The best is yet to come from Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich, and so on.

“The defense is a problem,” is a sentence not even worth writing by now. Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei do give the team a strong foundation to start with, though, and much of the dead weight surrounding them isn’t hard to trade; the remainder largely solved by either a buyout or sheltered minutes. Though the economics of it aren’t scratch-free, there’s nothing systematically or fiscally that is in the way of the Rangers performing a slash-and-burn to the defense. As a hypothetical, trading away Kevin Klein and Nick Holden, while buying out Marc Staal, would open up $8.1M in cap space. That’s absolutely enough room for two defensive additions in the summer, plus one at the trading deadline. Under these circumstances, the Rangers would absolutely be a Cup contender so long as Lundqvist still had some magic.

Just a few moves change the outlook and makes the team as good as almost anyone in the NHL. Yet, that scenario feels like it might as well be in Narnia. The Rangers have made emotionally tough decisions before. Within the last few years, they’ve bought out Brad Richards, traded Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin, and let Martin St. Louis walk. Those decisions derived from accounting and logistics more than anything. We’d like to keep you, but we don’t have room for everyone and you’re the path of least resistance. Thanks and good luck!

The changes that need to be made on defense are not simply clerical. They require the Rangers’ management to completely overhaul their philosophical understanding of what a productive defense looks like in 2017. While the salary cap and expansion draft might force out one defenseman, they are not going to have their hand forced on the whole. Moving on from two, ideally three defensemen isn’t going to be a fact of life like other sacrifices they’ve had to make in the past. In this instance, change will only come if they decide they need it.

Even if the Rangers do successfully drain the swamp, there are plenty of traps out there which will put them in the same situation. Karl Alzner, Dmitri Kulikov, Michael Stone, and Kris Russell are all unrestricted free agents, and all represent more of the same; slow defensemen who can’t move the puck. Again, this isn’t a problem of numbers, nor is it a problem of swapping bodies in itself. The change on defense requires a change in thinking of what defense needs to be. It’s not good enough to recognize that Girardi and Staal need replacing. The Rangers need to altogether abandon the idea that players of that ilk are minute-eating warriors who make space for a Ryan McDonagh or Keith Yandle. They need to not just trim the fat of Kevin Klein, but recognize that their previous idea of “steady” depth defensemen - ones who can’t skate nor move the puck - does not line up with what the best defensive units are showing.

Ultimately, it won’t matter what changes are made to the roster if the coaching staff continues to live and die by sub-optimal usage. The Chicago Blackhawks had abysmal third-pairing options in 2015 that consisted of Trevor van Riemsdyk, Kyle Cumiskey, and a barely functioning Kimmo Timmonen. Nonetheless, Head Coach Joel Quenneville was cognizant of where his strengths lied. He limited their minutes and gave them easier matchups whenever he could, while he rode his top-four into the ground. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup that year not because the defense was perfect, but because they did a fantastic job of leaning on their top players while putting lesser players in spots they could succeed.

As much weakness as there was on the Rangers’ defense the last few seasons, the presence of the team’s worst performers in big minutes was often not fait accompli, but rather a conscious decision by the coaches. No matter what wizardry General Manager Jeff Gorton pulls off with the roster, there will inevitably be some defensemen who are better than others. The seemingly arbitrary system by which Alain Vigneault picks “his guys” and then stubbornly sticks by them no matter how many times they fail needs to be a fixture of the past.

The Rangers have only a few moves to make in reorganizing and optimizing the team for its most serious Stanley Cup run since 2014. Those seemingly small-to-moderate moves will require a colossal reconstruction of the team’s attitude towards defense. Whether they make that mental adjustment will be the difference between rekindling the flame of contention or enduring another few years of early, mindless playoff exits.