What Have We Learned: A Look at Games 51-56

Week after week, the New York Rangers’ playoff hopes have been dwindling because their flaws continue to show through their game. But week after week, what’s plaguing their season isn’t remedied – or really, even acknowledged.

At least, not until this last week.

We last left off just after the 2018 All-Star break when the Rangers went 1-3 on their western road trip. Apparently, those four games weren’t indicative enough of this team’s struggles. Their last string of six games picked up after the break and the results were not pretty. First, they dropped a home game to the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-0 and Pavel Buchnevich sustained a concussion. Next the Rangers went back on the road and failed to bounce back as they fell 5-2 in Nashville. It wasn’t a good effort from the team or the officials, as both Jimmy Vesey and Marc Staal were lost to injury on undisciplined plays. The Rangers… and top members of the Hartford Wolf Pack… continued on to Dallas where they took another loss.

Back home, the Rangers faced off against a team trending in the opposite direction – the Boston Bruins, and the Bruins showed exactly why they were the team trending up by dominating New York to a decisive 6-1 win.

That’s when things changed. Management held a press conference to explain their intentions at the trade deadline and moving forward. The Rangers wouldn’t be moving assets for one more Stanley Cup push. Instead they announced a new focus, one emphasizing a commitment toward rebuilding in order to lay the groundwork of a contender that would compete for years to come.

Even though management stressed how this team wasn’t playing well enough to hoist a Stanley Cup this year, the team still had to get back on the ice and play hockey. The Rangers still had season to complete, even as their hopes of winning were shrinking.

So they picked up where they left off, with a tilt against the Calgary Flames back on home ice. And to great surprise, they won despite the fact that it was announced that Ryan McDonagh would be sidelined due to a nagging injury and that they lost Ondrej Pavelec to injury after the first period. Then they made it two in a row in Winnipeg with a 3-1 win over the Jets on Sunday in which Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head for the umpteenth time this season

So what have we learned?

We learned that the organization is finally being honest about what this team is. General manager Jeff Gorton made it clear that the front office doesn’t believe this team has been playing well enough to make an impact in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That recognition from the front office was crucial, as it shows that they’re not blinded by the close standings or games where the Rangers were just squeaking by. Instead of prolonging the inevitable of an early elimination after a short-sighted investment in a Stanley Cup run, they’re rebuilding to be more competitive in the long-run.

Alain Vigneault has made it clear that it’s still his goal to lead his team to the playoffs this season. Obviously the coaches and players are still going to do whatever in their power to compete as they should, it’s just that there hasn’t been any accountability behind the bench, and there still isn’t even after this.

Management is right saying that this team hasn’t been playing well enough, yet the coaches rarely acknowledge that – not after a 4-0 loss, 5-2 loss, or even a 6-1 loss in this stretch – once again, sparking the question of whether there is a disconnect between management and the coaches.

The penalty kill has had its shortcomings. The team is bleeding shots against on a consistent basis. Their transition game has been costly at times. Anything along these lines would show that the coaches understand that this team needs to improve certain areas. But that’s scarcely happened. Not to the media and clearly not enough to the team, as adjustments that were necessary when the season opened still haven’t been addressed.

But as much as the coaches say they’re doing everything to win, their handling of the team hasn’t exactly matched that.

One of the latest examples includes Cody McLeod. For whatever reason, Vigneault wanted to claim McLeod off waivers. While they were losing at the time and needed a boost, it was an offensive boost, preferably one with a right-handed shot. Instead, McLeod, a left-handed enforcer-type player that doesn’t check off any of the boxes of need was claimed, and has been in the lineup since.

The Rangers on average at 5v5 were hit 19.8 times per game through their first 50 games; since McLeod’s been in the lineup, they’ve only been hit 19 times per game on average. So, 0.8 hits fewer per game doesn’t exactly show how he’s deterring opponents from hitting his players. And his presence didn’t stop Alexei Emelin’s or Filip Forsberg’s hits against the Rangers, that injured two players in one game.

Now with Vesey returned from injury, McLeod’s taken Carey’s place in the lineup. While Carey could be the right option to pull if say, Buchnevich or Chris Kreider were returning, he’s much more productive than his replacement. It’s not as if McLeod really protected his teammates, or has facilitated their play on either side of the ice, so how does this help the team move forward?

McLeod is one of the many questionable lineup decisions that’s diminished the Rangers chances this season. Those other questionable lineup decisions include how he’s handled younger players. Yes, the young players are playing now, but it’s not exactly if there’s other options. The Rangers are hurting and their injury list continues to grow on a daily basis. They’re still without Kevin Shattenkirk and Kreider, while the rest were injured over this last stretch. Vesey’s already returned, but they’re missing Buchnevich, Staal, McDonagh, Pavelec, and now Steven Kampfer.

But according to the coach, the Rangers are a “goaltender getting on a roll here to being back in the hunt and back into the playoffs.” It’s just unfortunate that he has to rely on the goaltending that was “a little inconsistent” to start the year.

It’s not the fact that the team faces the second-highest rate of shot attempts against in the league, at 61.79 per 60 minutes (via Corsica.hockey). It’s not the league-high 2.73 goals per 60 that are expected to be scored against the Rangers (while only 2.59 per 60 have actually been scored against), either. Those aren’t areas that have to improve to get to the playoffs, despite sophisticated statistics indicating those as the problem areas.

It must be that Henrik Lundqvist, their 35-year-old goaltender who has faced the third-highest number of high-danger shots this season, who has been beyond overused, and who – despite all that – still has a plus-4.61 goals saved above average at 5v5.

The Rangers did win both of their games since the declaration of a rebuild. As encouraging as those two wins are, especially against two teams that may be playoff bound while deploying a lineup without a number of roster players, it doesn’t change how management will proceed – and it shouldn’t. How the Rangers play between now and February 26th should not change their intentions to rebuild, even though there’s still time for the Rangers to make the playoffs. Lundqvist could stand on his head to propel his team up from the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and into the playoffs. But as his career has shown, it takes more than just Lundqvist to win a Stanley Cup.

Management recognized the Rangers were once again destined to end up in the same position as seasons past and it was identified before another disheartening playoff loss. The goal now isn’t to miss the playoffs, it’s just to avoid risking their future just to crack the postseason. And it’s about time that they learned it.