Thoughts on Thursday: The Leadership Core, Sophomore Slumps, and Expectations

1. One aspect of the New York Rangers’ offseason that may have gone unnoticed is how the team’s leadership core has underdone drastic changes since being upset by the Ottawa Senators back in May. Dan Girardi was bought out and is now playing his trade down in Tampa, while Derek Stepan was shipped off to the hockey hotbed of Glendale, Arizona for 75 cents on the dollar. Of the five players who wore letters for the team last season, two of them have already moved on to greener pastures.

As for the other three, they’ve remained on shaky ground throughout the offseason. Ryan McDonagh’s name was never seriously bandied about in trade discussions, the fact that whispers of his availability were circulating is more than enough to raise some red flags about his position on the team.

Rumors of a Marc Staal buyout were consistently percolating during the summer, but Jeff Gorton allowed for the team’s second buyout window to pass without making a decision. With Brady Skjei seemingly entrenched on the team’s second pair heading into training camp, as well as Skjei’s status as a restricted free agent at the end of the season, it would be nigh impossible for Gorton to justify Staal’s presence on the roster beyond this season. Realistically, the team can’t even justify his spot on the team right now, but Staal is still in New York and will likely stick with the team until next offseason at the very least.

After consecutive summers of smoke surrounding Rick Nash’s inevitable departure from the team, things have been ominously quiet regarding the team’s top scorer since arriving in 2012. With only one year remaining on his contract, both sides seem to content to let the season play out and mutually part ways next July.

Barring complete catastrophe, the Rangers should be in the playoffs after the upcoming season, so the odds of selling Nash at the trade deadline for rentals is slim to none. Perhaps the two sides can come to a contract extension at a cap hit significantly less than Nash’s current number of $7.8 Million, but at age 34, Nash could be looking to cash in one final time before hanging up his skates.

For the first time since 2013, the team team is primed to enter the season with only three players wearing letters on their jerseys. Stepan, Staal, Girardi, and Martin St. Louis wore “A’s” during the 14-15 season, and the former three retained their status as alternate captains after St. Louis’ retirement. Rick Nash donned a letter for the first time since his days as the Blue Jackets’ captain last season.

It will be interesting to see if Alain Vigneault decides to name another captain or two heading into the season to solidify the message that the core has changed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kevin Shattenkirk named an alternate captain, as well as either Chris Kreider or Mats Zuccarello.

2. While some of the Rangers’ former leaders have left the organization, the team opted to retain all of it’s young talent from last season’s roster. After rookie campaigns ranging from mediocre, to inconsistent, to injury riddled, Jimmy Vesey, Brady Skjei, and Pavel Buchnevich will all be looking to take the next step in their careers. Alyssa Naimoli chatted with Vesey to discuss his expectations for his second NHL season, which included avoiding the notorious sophomore slump.

For something that doesn’t actually exist, the dreaded sophomore slump is one of the most talked about events for any rookie coming off their first full season in professional sports. That’s not to say players always get better and never get worse as they head into their second season, but the myth that athletes generally perform worse in their second year is just that, a myth.

Research has been done on the subject in years past, and there has yet to be any conclusive evidence that second year players struggle across the board. Rangers fans might point to high flying rookies like Kevin Hayes, Michael Del Zotto, and Petr Prucha as examples to disprove the fact that sophomore slumps don’t exist, but a quick glance at each of the three players situations can shut down arguments regarding a sophomore slump.

There’s no arguing the fact that Hayes had a rough 15-16 season compared to his stellar 14-15 rookie season, so blaming it on a sophomore slump could have made sense had he came out and had a bounce back season in 16-17. Instead, Hayes was even worse, posting career lows in points/60, Relative Corsi For% and Relative Expected Goals For%. Seeing as how the team’s Boston-born, football savvy center has progressively gotten worse, it’s impossible to argue that his bad sophomore season was directly the result of the “sophomore slump”.

Petr Prucha was in a similar boat as Hayes currently is. Although the analytical metrics used throughout the league today weren’t popular during Prucha’s time in North America, they aren’t necessary to dissect why the rookie sensation fell off a cliff. Prucha shot 23.08% during his rookie season, which was enough to pot thirty goals (sixteen of which were on the power play, which is insane to think about today).

That 23.08 shooting percentage is tied with T.J. Oshie’s 16-17 campaign for the fourth highest single season shooting percentage since the lockout. Only Alex Tanguay, (23.20%, 05-06) Curtis Glencross, (23.64%, 11-12) and Mike Ribeiro (25.23%, 07-08) have had better puck luck in a given season since then. Eventually Prucha came back down to Earth and had an unremarkable career thereafter.

As for Del Zotto, he’s the only one of the three to have any argument of a a sophomore slump. However, between the team’s desire to play him on his off side, and John Tortorella’s notorious treatment of players he wasn’t fond of, it’s difficult to break down what combination of things lead to Del Zotto’s tenure in New York playing out the way it did.

3. Due the massive overhaul Jeff Gorton has given the Blueshirts’ roster this summer, predictions for how the team will perform vary depending on who you ask. On one hand, swapping out Dan Girardi for Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as getting 82 solid games from players like Nash, Buchnevich, and Skjei, would normally be enough to vault a team from mediocrity into Stanley Cup contention.

On the other hand, the team seems to be banking on Lias Andersson being an effective  3rd Line Center from day one, as well as hoping Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes flourish in increased roles. In other words, they have no plan to fix the biggest issue currently plaguing the team, and are crossing their fingers and hoping everything works itself out.

The Rangers could dominate during the regular season en route to a parade down the Canyon of Heroes and it wouldn’t be shocking. With a revamped defense in front of him, Henrik Lundqvist should bounce back from his sub-par season and backstop the team to glory. However, they could also fall flat on their face due to a lack of scoring and find themselves in a dogfight for one of the two Wild Card spots and that wouldn’t be surprising either. Fortunately for New York, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals both got significantly worse over the summer, so even if the Rangers didn’t move the needle too far over in the right direction, it beats what Pittsburgh and Washington did.

The Eastern Conference hasn’t been as wide open as it currently is for a long time. Gone are the days of Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Washington standing head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. Every team has some sort of major flaw that can hold them back from establishing themselves as the top contender.  The Rangers are right there with the rest of the East’s likely playoff teams. If things break their way, they could be the team that rises to the top.