Rangers Musings: Blueshirts Facing Critical Inflection Point

Some thoughts on the Rangers, who have struggled to generate consistency this season and are providing more and more reasons to be legitimately concerned about both the short-term and the long-term.

The New York Rangers have completed just over a quarter of their season, and the results have been underwhelming, to the tune of a 10-8-4 record that has them on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture — albeit with the majority of the season still to be played.

I have expressed optimism regarding the team’s improved overall play this season, and belief in the notion that their bad luck would turn, and the results would soon take care of themselves over a larger sample. Now, however, with 22 games in the books, it is becoming more and more difficult to expect a sudden change, and more and more likely that this might just be what the Rangers are this season. Having just dropped consecutive games to the lowly Anaheim Ducks and then to the Edmonton Oilers after inexcusably blowing a three-goal third-period lead, the Rangers find themselves at a fairly critical tipping point already. If they don’t find some consistency and string together some wins soon, they could find themselves fighting late in the season just to qualify for the playoffs.

With that, here are some thoughts on what’s been a frustrating, inconsistent season for the Blueshirts to this point, as well as some higher-level concerns. (I apologize if this reads like the sky is falling, but it basically is for me and my personal sports interests.)

  • As I alluded to, it’s hard to argue that bad luck is not a significant factor in the Rangers’ underwhelming record to this point. But with November just about over, it’s becoming more evident that there might be more to it than that. Yes, the Rangers do rank well in terms of expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%) and high-danger chances generated, but their lack of consistent scoring this far into the season suggests that more factors are at play. While difficult to quickly and easily quantify, it sure seems like the Rangers generate few rush chances, which are cleaner looks than scrambles from close range. They also don’t have much overall team speed, so they need to sustain forechecks to create more offense. While it’s good to be good at that, their attack seems to lack multiple dimensions; more speed would help with that.
  • The numbers also don’t look as good lately. One reason for that might be head coach Gerard Gallant’s inexplicable (but sadly not surprising) line combinations in recent games, which have featured two depth players (Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow) in the top-six. This overreaction to a bad period against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 6 has had ramifications that are still in effect. The reconfigured lines have remained in place for far too long, at the expense of combinations that were performing better overall. It does seem that we’ll see some tweaked lines in tonight’s game, but the alleged changes still don’t feel like enough./
  • Speaking of Gallant, how frustrating is it that he’s become another in a long line of Rangers coaches who can’t help themselves from inhibiting young talent? Remember Alain Vigneualt regularly scratching a young Pavel Buchnevich, often in favor of Tanner Glass? Well, not much has changed.Gallant’s continued scratching of Vitali Kravtsov is maddening, as is the flip-flopping of the promising Zac Jones and the unpromising Libor Hajek. It’s nonsensical to continue to bench youngsters with high ceilings in favor of mediocre-to-downright-ineffective veterans whose low ceilings are a known quantity.
  • To add on to the Kravtsov situation, here’s a player the Rangers already mismanaged to the point that he requested a trade last year. The organization, to its credit, was apparently able to clean up its own mess and mend the relationship enough to get Kravtsov under contract and on the roster for this season. Like the team, Kravtsov has had his own string of bad luck, in the form of varous injuries and maladies. Now, however, he is healthy but not getting any game action. The Rangers are not exactly taking advantage of a rectified situation! Gallant has said that he likes the current lineup. Oh, you mean the lineup that has lost the last two games, which were both extremely winnable? You mean you like Sammy Blais and Ryan Carpenter in the lineup instead of a highly skilled, ninth overall draft pick from 2018? Getting Kravtsov back into the lineup and adjusting the lines properly (i.e., breaking up the Kid Line) would provide more offensive upside for a team that needs to put the puck in the net with more regularity. It would also allow grinders like Vesey and Goodrow to slide back into the bottom six where they’ll be more effective — especially more so than Carpenter or Blais.
  • No, I’m not done talking about Kravtsov yet. At a higher level, the Rangers have mended the situation. So, either you give the kid a chance to show what he can do and see if he can help your team, or you trade him. Either way, he needs to play. If you want to trade him, don’t you want to do so when his value is high? Healthy-scratching him every night is going to tank his value. But again, the Rangers are choosing mediocre veteran depth players over an intriguing, young, skilled player. Asset Mismanagement 101./
  • The Rangers facing off against the red-hot New Jersey Devils tonight highlights frustrations with how the Rangers have managed their young talent. The Devils are winning at an incredibly high clip, and it’s their highly-drafted youngsters (e.g., Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier) and other young, speedy, skilled players (e.g., Jesper Bratt) who are leading the way. The Rangers also have highly drafted young, skilled players, but those players are relegated to either secondary roles (and negligible power-play time) or the press box (Kravtsov). I remember hearing narratives about how Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko were coming into a good situation given the veteran stars on the Rangers, which would mean they wouldn’t have the pressure of driving the bus. But on the contrary, not being given those opportunities has stifled their development, and has hampered New York’s original rebuilding plan that began several years ago. Look at how much the Devils’ patience and long leashes for their youngsters have benefited them; they appear to be a contender that will not go away anytime soon.
  • On that note, winning the Stanley Cup requires a great team and some luck, so the goal is contention year after year to maximize your chances of cashing in on at least one of those years. The Rangers won’t get to consistent contention if they don’t properly manage and develop their young talent.
  • On the ice, the Rangers need to avoid the momentary lapses they’ve had in recent games, and they need to learn how to lock down a lead. The devastating loss to the Oilers was another blown lead on home ice this season, adding to the Nov. 6 loss to the Red Wings and the Nov. 8 debacle against the New York Islanders. While I generally prefer to look towards tangible, quantifiable components of play, it’s hard not to question the team leadership — both in terms of the coaching staff and the players, who are led by new captain Jacob Trouba and the alternates. Gallant, in particular, never seems to have an answer when things start to go south. If he can’t show any growth in this area or with respect to personnel and lineup management, it might be time for him to pack it up. (Sorry, I mostly just wanted to link to that video.) In any event, someone needs to step up to help rally the troops and keep this season from unraveling, because the team should be better than this./