Rangers’ Incoherence Starts at the Top
The New York Rangers are now 2-6-2, having lost 6 of their 8 home games so far, with the possibility of losing 8 of 10 total home games within the month of October looming. These are dire times for the Rangers, as these mounting losses mean that a playoff spot can only be secured by winning at a breakneck pace from here to the end of the season.
While you certainly can't rule it out, given that this team has talent on the roster and Henrik Lundqvist on the back end, it's looking as though this season may turn out to be more of a bummer than even the most pessimistic among us of could have predicted. The Rangers are a team beset not by a lack of talent, but by a near total incoherence that starts at the top and spills out onto the ice to be seen night after night, loss after loss.
As an organization, the Rangers simply don't know what they are. We're past the point of ooo-ing and ah-ing about Filip Chytil's slick, highlight reel moves; the wisdom of Jeff Gorton's "rebuild on the fly" is now firmly within the realm of questionability.
While the jury may still be out on both Lias Andersson and Anthony DeAngelo, the reactionary quality of the trade that brought them to New York is plain for all to see. The Rangers are in sore need of a two-way center, and unfortunately for them, they traded one away because he turned 27 and had a no trade clause kicking in. You might think that the trade was fair enough on the merits, but the context here is key – the Rangers dumped a present day asset for futures (albeit near-futures) at the same time as they allegedly plan to contend for a Cup.
Now, part of what was supposed to make this trade palatable was that DeAngelo was an NHL ready prospect who would help speed up the transition based offense, which would be great except that under head coach Alain Vigneault he's seen his icetime dwindle at even strength. Because it turns out AV, and presumably Gorton, have decided that maybe he isn't quite so NHL ready at all. Oops.
Of course, what's on everybody's minds isn't the rather-ill-timed-but-maybe-it'll-work-out-eventually trade that the general manager made last summer, it's the coaching. AV has been juggling the line combinations and defensive pairs constantly, seemingly unaware that the time to do so was preseason. Still unsure of what his "shut down pair" is, he's played Ryan McDonagh with almost everyone but Kevin Shattenkirk. The latter defenseman has found himself stapled to Marc Staal, who despite somewhat improved play since last year, remains the weak link on the blueline. On offense, AV opted to break up the productive and entertaining KZB line, dropping Buchnevich to the fourth line or rotating him during the games he's only deployed 11 forwards.
It's a bizarre way to coach – breaking apart and minimizing the effectiveness of your most productive players and spreading the, uh, well you know, all over the lineup. With AV mixing up the depth chart as much as he has been, it's no wonder the Rangers are executing poorly.
With their execution, the Rangers are an example of good ideas gone bad. How many times have we seen a long stretch pass to the winger posted up at the blue line looking to chip it in, only to have the team go for a line change instead of bum rushing the opposing team and setting up chances while riding that wave of blue? How many times have we seen the team spring an odd-man situation through the neutral zone, only to over pass and put it in a guy's skates?
What used to be a team that forced turnovers in its own end and quickly hopped on the counterattack is now one that steals the puck away and tosses it immediately into no man's land, or worse, puts it right back to the tape of an opposing player. It all points to the idea that the players know they need to do something, they just don't know what. That's where coaching comes in: a unified theory of hockey that players come back to without even realizing it, a blueprint for any scenario a skater may find themselves in.
AV and his staff are supposed to put the players in a mindset where their instincts are the right instincts, helping them rewire their own reflexive nature so that when they have less than a split second to make a decision, they make the right ones. The fact that those blink-of-an-eye decisions seem to keep going haywire points to that fact that there's no electrician working behind the scenes, the players are simply each trying to do their own thing instead of playing as a team.
This can lead to exceptional individual efforts though, as we've seen from Kevin Hayes lately, and Mika Zibanejad earlier in the season. But it also means some not so great things, like Mats Zuccarello hauling back down the ice as Joe Thornton set up Joonas Donskoi's goal Monday night, or Michael Grabner all alone in the slot against Martin Jones ripping a frustration laced slapshot that went everywhere but on net.
Right now, we're watching five individuals play hockey at a time, and not a team. The Rangers might have some coherence if the coaching staff helped teach them, and the coaching staff might understand coherence if management led by example and showed them what that means. Right now, the New York Rangers need to decide what kind of team they are – one that’s rebuilding or one that’s contending, one that’s a collective unit playing high-speed hockey or just a group of guys who are each skating fast in different directions. Someone, whether it’s Jeff Gorton, Alain Vigneault, or a new coach altogether, needs to unify this team around a central idea and stick to it, or else this season could go from bad to worse in a heartbeat.