The Rangers Have a Pivotal Decision to Make Up Front

To say the New York Rangers have had a rough start to the season would be an understatement. Currently, the Rangers sit at 3-6-2 through eleven games this season and at times have looked absolutely hopeless. The fans are beginning to get more and more frustrated in the team’s performance and if you thought the record was bad, the underlying numbers are even worse.

At 5-on-5, the Rangers are 25th in CF%, 27th in GF%, and 16th in xGF%. Their only slight glimmer of hope is that they also have the 4th worst PDO, meaning that while they have been bad, they’ve also been really unlucky to start the season, a rare feat indeed. Obviously there is something wrong with the Rangers and there are things that need to change.

This is a team that bought out long time Ranger Dan Girardi and replaced him with free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. The team also sent top line center Derek Stepan and backup goalie Antti Raanta to Arizona for the 7th overall pick, which later became Lias Andersson, and talented but problematic defensive prospect Tony DeAngelo with the idea being that the Rangers were “rebuilding on the fly.” The Rangers were supposed to be a younger, faster team, focusing on playing their younger forwards in prime roles with a quicker, more uptempo defense all being backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist.

Ten games into the season and things have fallen apart for the Rangers. Head coach Alain Vigneault has stubbornly refused to embrace this youth movement. He’s barely played stud winger Pavel Buchnevich more than 10 minutes a night while being anchored by Michael Grabner – whose sh% is plunging back to earth like a Space Shuttle on re-entry – while less talented wingers like Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Fast play up in the lineup. Tony DeAngelo started on the third pair for the Rangers before being rotated out of the lineup for sentient traffic cones Nick Holden and Steve Kampfer before being sent down to the AHL. As for the Rangers prized offseason acquisition? Kevin Shattenkirk started with Ryan McDonagh; they looked like a very good pairing that needed some time to work together and develop chemistry. Now Shattenkirk is skating with Marc Staal and getting third pair minutes – but at least the power play looks better!

Now, how do the Rangers go about fixing these holes and turn the season around? The simple solution is to fire the coach. While AV has more than earned getting sent to the unemployment office, the team would still be left with a massive hole in the roster. See, while the Rangers may have traded Derek Stepan with the idea of getting younger, the front office either forgot to add another center or their offers in both the trade and free agency market weren’t up to snuff and the Rangers were left scrambling to fill that void.

David Desharnais was brought in, Filip Chytil (drafted 21st overall in 2017) made the opening night roster, and J.T. Miller was thrown into the center mix. But those plans haven’t worked out either. David Desharnais is a fine center, but he’s playing in a top six offensive minded role where he’s clearly out of his element. Filip Chytil is getting playing time up in Hartford now, which is good, but Alain Vigneault barely gave him a chance to prove himself at the NHL level, and J.T. Miller is still floating somewhere between the wing and center. Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad, big question marks in their own right, have actually been really good so far this season. Hayes has gotten away from Michael Grabner and massive defensive zone starts, and looked like the big, skilled center that he is, while Zibanejad has smoothly climbed into that 1C spot left behind by Stepan.

The Rangers need another center and if the losing continues it appears that a trade will come before a change behind the bench, but who exactly should or could the Rangers go after?

A couple of options have presented themselves recently, one who’s been in the rumor mill since the offseason and another who is stuck in a really weird situation out west.

The Montreal Canadiens have done a massive disservice to Alex Galchenyuk. Since drafting him 3rd overall in 2012, the Canadiens have always been moving him around their lineup, and never really gave him a chance to get comfortable in a set role with set linemates.

It’s gotten so bad in Montreal for the 23-year-old forward that Galchenyuk has been playing as the Canadiens’ 4C as he tries to climb out of a sh% slump, while the Montreal media continues to put undue pressure on the young player. With his value at an all time low, the Rangers shouldn’t have to send too much to Marc Bergevin to acquire the Wisconsin native, and his offensive talent could fit seamlessly into the lineup.

Out west, the Vegas Golden Knights are keeping arguably their most talented player off the ice. Vadim Shipachyov signed a two year, $9 million contract with Vegas in the offseason after dominating in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg, with the idea being that he would be the flashy offensive center that Vegas can build around not just on the ice but off of it as well. Because of poor management, Shipachyov spent the beginning of the season in Chicago with the AHL Wolves and has reportedly been given permission by the Golden Knights to seek out a trade.

This is another huge bargain just waiting for the Rangers to jump on. Shipachyov is a legitimate top six offensive talent who has been mishandled by the management of the Golden Knights. He would also be a great fit in New York since he and Pavel Buchnevich were linemates two years ago in St. Petersburg.

Now for the massive caveat: the Rangers coaching staff and front office. While trading for either of these players would be great moves for the Rangers to make, does anyone trust the front office (re: Jeff Gorton) to 1) recognize the deals in front of him and 2) understand the value in both the players being offered and the players he responds with? Also, should the Rangers trade for these players, does anyone think Alain Vigneault will deploy them in a manner that puts them in a position to succeed?

The recent evidence tells us that no matter what moves the Rangers make these questions will always be at the forefront of every decision, and until evidence to the contrary proves otherwise, these questions are not unwarranted. The Rangers need to make changes both behind the bench and to the roster, but those changes need to be carefully pulled off and actually implemented.