Shutdown Center The Root Cause of Many Problems for Rangers
The Rangers’ 1-3-0 start isn’t particularly bothersome; every team is going to have multiple streaks like that this season, and that record looks very different if Semyon Varlamov and Carter Hutton have ordinary performances. However, out of the gate there are some areas of struggle. The Rangers really only have one line clicking at even strength, and have been overly reliant on getting goals from the top power play unit. They have let in 13 non-empty net goals in four games, and the penalty kill is conceding often. There is still 95 percent of the season left to play, and some of this will definitely self-correct over time. But there are some internal problems that need fixing.
In a Jenga tower, there are a number of pieces working in symbiosis. Individual pieces combine in a way that creates sufficient tension and compression, which allows them all to support each other and hold the entire structure up. Removing only one piece can compromise the entire structure and cause its collapse.
An NHL team is sort of like a Jenga tower. There are a number of individual roles on a team. Each player successfully filling his assigned role allows all other players to excel at their responsibilities, and vice versa. No team, like no Jenga tower, is flawless, but if there’s a big enough problem in filling one role it can negatively influence the efficiency of the entire team.
This is a convoluted way of saying that the Rangers need to add a shutdown center to the roster. This conversation is usually framed around the loss of Derek Stepan, and no doubt that his absence is a part of this void. But truthfully, this is a problem that originated before his departure.
The Rangers had what is pretty much the ideal center structure from 2014 until 2016. Dominic Moore ate a brutal share of defensive minutes; a lot of defensive zone starts against very good players at five-on-five, and first-unit penalty kill minutes. He was very good at it. Derek Stepan took on a true two-way role, often matched against the opposition’s top line. This set things up for Kevin Hayes and Derick Brassard, who could get lots of offensive-zone starts in sheltered minutes and play on the power play. This is equilibrium. Nobody is being asked to do a job he isn’t capable of, and everyone’s minutes are optimized to reflect his skill set.
After Moore left, that structure became sub-optimal. The Rangers did an okay job compensating with Zibanejad and Lindberg, but Hayes saw much tougher minutes.
This past summer, Lindberg was taken by Vegas in the expansion draft and Stepan was traded to Arizona. Only David Desharnais was added to the roster. Here is the Rangers’ center usage through four games.
Alain Vigneault can announce his confidence in Miller’s center ability as much as he wants, but his dramatic sheltering of Miller says otherwise. The result is that everyone else is left to take on a miserable workload. In the case of Zibanejad, that is probably okay. He and his line have certainly handled it thus far. It has been a mess for the other two, though.
Kevin Hayes has grown to a point where he should take on more responsibility than he did in his rookie year, but the attempt at making him a shutdown center has not worked. The inconvenient secret about the Grabner-Hayes-Miller line last season is that they got absolutely buried in shot attempts and benefited from a very fortunate shooting percentage. This year, Hayes is playing on the top penalty kill unit and is getting matched up against tough opponents in defensive minutes.
The consequence is two-fold. First, the Rangers are over-relying on a center who is just okay (at best) in his own zone to be The Man to shut down the opposition. To his credit, he’s done a pretty commendable job given the circumstances, though I’m skeptical it will hold up. The other issue is that it limits his offensive impact. Though he has been a bit unlucky on certain plays, he has zero primary points this season. It doesn’t help his cause that he is not getting any power play time, and it definitely doesn’t help the Rangers, whose second-PP unit has been completely useless so far.
It’s a similar situation for Desharnais, who isn’t helpless in the defensive zone but is also not someone who should be taking on a meaningful defensive load. He also has no primary points through four games, and his line is getting out-attempted 35-to-25. He’s hurt further by the fact that he’s a playmaking center being winged by fringe NHLers who do not complement his game. Adam Cracknell is a decent grinder, but isn’t going to make skilled plays in the offensive zone. Paul Carey is a 29-year-old with two points in 36 career NHL games and is playing out of position. How could Desharnais possibly succeed in this context?
There are certain tweaks the Rangers could make to improve the situation internally. Zibanejad could take on a tougher workload, though there’s only so much he alone can do. They need to cut down on penalties. Obviously, for its own sake, but also because Hayes won’t have to run himself into the ground from so many PK shifts. Jesper Fast’s return will take a massive load off of the penalty kill, play key defensive minutes, and will be a competent hockey player on the fourth line.
But bringing in a center capable of playing shutdown minutes would create a cascade of improvements all the way up the lineup. Assuming the addition is a depth center, It would push Desharnais up to the third line, where he would play a less defensive role alongside wings who can complement him offensively. It would push JT Miller to the wing, where his usage wouldn’t force harder minutes for every other line and where he can best chip in offensively.
And it would take a huge load off of Kevin Hayes; the Rangers wouldn’t have to shoehorn their best offensive center into a shutdown role that he is not suited for. Reduced responsibility, particularly on the penalty kill, would allow him to move onto the second power play unit.
Options for filling this role are limited now that the season has started. Boo Nieves and Vinni Lettieri are both capable of playing defensive minutes at center. While both are far from guaranteed to succeed in the role, I don’t see how giving them a chance could be a worse idea than trying to make Paul Carey a defensive winger in the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings, who are going nowhere fast and need to open up cap space, are likely open to trading Riley Sheahan.
During the preseason I was convinced that the Rangers could manage this problem until players become available around the trading deadline. Now, I am not as certain. The Metropolitan Division is a bloodbath, and a few more bad results in a home game-filled October would significantly reduce the team’s margin for error. There are issues at forward throughout the lineup so far this season, and the lack of a shutdown center appears to be the rotten apple that is spoiling the entire bunch.