What Have We Learned? A Look at Games 10-12

Twelve games into the season, the New York Rangers have accumulated eight points and a 3-7-2 record. After so many changes to this roster this offseason, which included subtracting two integral pieces of their core, this wasn’t the start the Rangers expected. But once the season started, it became clear that there were issues, and week by week, it’s only become more apparent.

The Rangers started this week with at home against the San Jose Sharks, where they deployed 11 forwards and seven defensemen. At that point in the season, both of their victories came with this lineup tactic, so on the surface it seemed like this strategy had been successful. In Monday’s 4-1 loss, it was evident that these wins came despite this lineup choice, not because of it.

Fourth-liner Pavel Buchnevich was finally moved up in the lineup on Monday, and subsequently he assisted on the Rangers only goal from Mika Zibanejad. Unfortunately, this lineup change came far too late in this lopsided game. When the Rangers are desperate for goal scoring, their best forwards have to be deployed. But somehow, this lesson hasn’t been learned yet this season.

Buchnevich had one assist against the Sharks in his 15:37 ice time, 5:08 of which game on the power play. This was a game filled with special teams, so it makes sense that his power play time was that high, but it doesn’t excuse his low 5-on-5 ice time. Fast forward to the game against the Coyotes, Buchnevich scored two goals in his 12:04 minutes of even-strength ice time. Absurdly, he was still utilized as a fourth liner and finished with the second lowest 5-on-5 ice time on the team.

In the last three games, Buchnevich has scored three goals and two assists. Only one of those points (a goal against Montreal) was on the power play, yet he hasn’t earned more even-strength ice time. And overall this season, at 5-on-5, his scoring rate of 1.97 points per 60 – all of which have been primary – is noteworthy, as is his 51.88 Corsi for percentage (ranking fourth on the team, second on offense) and his team-leading expected goals for percentage of 61.71. In hockey, according to most coaches, it comes down to the tangible results. Buchnevich’s results are pretty impressive: a 55.56 goals for percentage that is plus-13.45 relative to his teammates. Additionally, his dynamic play could help enhance the play of some of their top players, as evidenced by his positive influence on Zibanejad’s performance. Instead, he remains on the fourth line, either as a demotion or in an effort to boost Michael Grabner’s play, which still doesn’t make sense.

For Thursday’s game against the Coyotes, Boo Nieves was recalled and he skated alongside Grabner and Buchnevich. This allowed the Rangers to finally roll four lines, which is a strategy that actually gives them their best chance at success. In his two games, Nieves has earned three assists, even though he received the lowest ice time on Thursday and second lowest on Saturday. It’s not clear if Nieves is the answer long-term, but for right now, having a fourth center to help balance this lineup is the right answer. And based on his first two games, he’s earned his place on this roster, at least for the time being.

Nieves entering the lineup wasn’t the only change for Thursday’s game. Tony DeAngelo was taken out of the lineup, as he was demoted to the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack. This was a puzzling decision, as his play didn’t merit the demotion by any means – especially when considering the play of his replacement, Nick Holden. This mishandling of a young asset only magnified the shortcomings of the Derek Stepan trade, especially as the Rangers were preparing to face off against the Coyotes of all teams.

Holden appeared in all three games this week, often alongside Skjei, although he did get a look with Marc Staal against Montreal – in a 4-4 tie game in the third period. A goal against was allowed with this pair on the ice. The more that costly decisions like this are made, the more it seems like this coaching staff has not learned from the mistakes that cost them their chance at the Stanley Cup last season. And for some reason, management is inexplicably allowing it.

As the season progresses, the question that keeps re-emerging is whether there is a disconnect between management and coaches. So much work was put into renovating this defense to remedy the problems of last season, yet they’re constantly reappearing. Young talent isn’t getting a fair chance as the coaches are favoring veterans – but these veterans aren’t being held to the same accountability standard.

After a few games on the first pair with Ryan McDonagh, Staal has been deployed most often on the third pair with Kevin Shattenkirk. While Staal’s game has clearly declined, he received a chance to bounce back this year. Despite some lapses on Saturday in Montreal, his play has generally improved this season, and he’s earned his place in the lineup – albeit in a sheltered third-pair role.

Staal isn’t the problem on this blue line, it’s the usage of Holden. And deploying him with Staal in what ultimately were the most pivotal moments of the game Saturday simply shouldn’t have happened given their history together.

So far, Holden has played eight games – the same number as DeAngelo – but he’s accumulated 102 5-on-5 minutes in those games; DeAngelo only saw 73.67. And this week, his mistakes would have been even more costly for the Rangers had it not been for their goaltenders. Regardless of how many goals against he’s on the ice for, how many giveaways he’s guilty of, or how much of an overall liability he has been on defense, he’s somehow managed to earn ice time that his play just hasn’t merited, while DeAngelo is in the AHL.

Holden isn’t the only defenseman that’s struggled this week. Kevin Shattenkirk hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype to start the season at least at 5-on-5, as his power play contributions have elevated their first unit already. Here’s the difference between Holden and Shattenkirk though: Shattenkirk has shown throughout his career just how strong his play could be. That play is what inspired the Rangers to pursue and sign him this offseason. Holden is a known commodity at this point in New York, and what they’ve seen isn’t encouraging.

With Shattenkirk’s acquisition, the idea was to have him play with McDonagh to create a stellar top pair – except they’ve only played 35.25 5-on-5 minutes together, that time together has been inconsistent at best, and as a result, they haven’t had the chance to develop chemistry. As much as Shattenkirk needs to improve his game, the coaches haven’t given him the best chance to succeed. This week only reinforced that.

Defensive breakdowns have been a problem throughout the Rangers’ season thus far, and it’s put a lot of pressure on the goaltenders to be the game-changers each night. Henrik Lundqvist has been that; it’s not to say that he’s been without fault on some goals, but he’s helped keep most games within reach. So to believe that him not playing Thursday and Saturday was an indictment of his early season performance is just short-sighted.

For one, there’s a chance Lundqvist was injured on Monday against the Sharks. If that was the case, it wasn’t worth exacerbating it against the struggling Coyotes and Canadiens. Instead, Ondrej Pavelec started in net on Thursday and stopped 27 out of 29 shots. Any win is noteworthy for the Rangers right now, as they’re few and far between, but it’s not as if Pavelec’s play was inspiring enough to earn him another start on Saturday. Yes, he helped the Rangers win, but it was against the Coyotes – a team that has yet to win in 11 games this season, so it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Pavelec starting two consecutive games could have meant that the Rangers were giving Lundqvist time to heal if injured. Alternatively, this could have been a way to rest Lundqvist after playing so much to start the season. That could make sense, especially since these games, in theory, were less challenging matchups on the schedule.

So here’s what we learned: rolling 12 forwards and six defensemen is a much better lineup tactic for this team. It allows the defensemen to play in more consistent pairs with more consistent deployment. Having four centers and four capable lines is also key to the Rangers’ success. That tactic was a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot that still needs refinement.

The loss against the Sharks was discouraging, but the Rangers rebounded on Thursday versus the Coyotes. While any win should be celebrated by the Rangers, the weaknesses in those games nevertheless must be analyzed and remedied in order to have sustained success – which the Rangers haven’t had all season.

On Thursday, there were a number of flaws in the Rangers’ game that could have been more costly had they faced a stronger opponent. And ending the week on Saturday, the Rangers added another loss to their record, and a number of issues that have plagued their season appeared yet again.

At a certain point, it’s going to be time to panic about this dismal start. That time is swiftly approaching, and it’s still unclear how the Rangers will try to address that. There’s a chance they try to over-correct with another trade, but further dismantling this core doesn’t seem like the right answer. General manager Jeff Gorton retooled this team in a way that should have kept them competitive in front of Lundqvist, but it hasn’t shown yet. Changing this roster isn’t the solution to the team’s problems, especially since the coaches don’t correctly utilize the players on this team.

If the Rangers want to find themselves back in the win column and actually have a chance at the playoffs – a chance that is dwindling with each loss they collect – changes are necessary, but before disintegrating this core any further, Gorton needs to take a long, hard look behind the bench.

There’s only one game left for the Rangers in October. If changes are going to come, they’re likely to come soon. But will they be the right ones? The question stands: what have the Rangers learned so far this season, and can they find a way to fix it?

*5v5 data courtesy of Corsica.hockey