What Might Hold The Rangers Back
For the most part, the offseason’s gone very well for the Rangers so far. Dan Girardi was finally cast aside and replaced with Kevin Shattenkirk (arguably the best free agent available) on a very reasonable deal. Brendan Smith was resigned after a stellar playoffs and Mika Zibanejad was given a long-term deal that will keep him in New York for the next five years.
The Rangers did what they set out to accomplish this offseason: fix the defense. It was no secret that the Rangers’ defense was their Achilles heel last year and heading into this season, it looks remarkably better. A top-four of Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith can contend with any team and newest-addition Anthony DeAngelo promises to provide a nice offensive spark on the third-pairing. And now AV can’t even overplay Girardi because he isn’t on the team anymore! For the first time in what seems like a while, there’s a reason to be excited about the Rangers’ defense.
But with all the attention being placed on the defense, it seems like nobody’s talking a lot about the forward group. Yes, the issue regarding center depth has been talked about, but I think there might be a bigger problem that hasn’t been brought up a lot. Let’s look at what the Rangers lineup will probably be like at the beginning of the year.
Nash – Zibanejad – Zuccarello
Kreider – Hayes – Buchnevich
Grabner – Miller – Vesey
Puempel – Desharnais – Fast
It’s not bad. It could definitely be worse, but I wonder how much of a trouble scoring goals will be next season. Now, there’s a reason not many people have really talked about this (or probably even worried about it). Last season, the Rangers had the fourth most goals in the league with 253 and had four 20+ goal scorers. Their offense looked rejuvenated, carried by their impressive forward depth and breakout campaigns by players like J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. But it’s dangerous banking on another almost 30-goal season from Grabner. As a 23-year-old with the New York Islanders, Grabner showed great promise with an impressive 34-goal season. However, his goal totals would decline in every season after that for the next four years, going from 34 to 20 to 16 to 12 to 8. Grabner’s a solid forward but he’s probably not going to score anywhere near 30 goals again next season. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that he shot 16.7% last season! Even in his one 30+ goal season he didn’t have a shooting percentage that high.
And speaking of high shooting percentages, guess who was the only other Rangers player to have a shooting percentage over 16%? J.T. Miller, who had the exact same shooting percentage as Grabner (Puempel technically had a shooting percentage of 18.8% but he only played in 27 games. You get my point). This is actually the second season in a row Miller’s had a shooting percentage above 16% but now he’s being penciled in as the third-line center where he’ll have more defensive responsibilities. Him regressing or even struggling in a full-time center role is always a possibility.
There’s also the issue of losing the offensive depth that made the Rangers attack so potent, as New York’s lines don’t look nearly as strong as they did last season. Derek Stepan and his 55 points were traded while Brandon Pirri and Oscar Lindberg aren’t with the club anymore.
But the point of this article isn’t to say that the Rangers offense is bad. It’s not, and while I just outlined a few things that could wrong, there are things that went wrong last year that could easily go right. Zuccarello will probably score more than 15 goals next year and full seasons from Nash, Zibanejad, and Buchnevich will help put pucks in the net. But what’s the offense supposed to be this season? Is it supposed to be a scoring-by-committee offense or more of a traditional top-six focused group that does the heavy-lifting? I think the Rangers find themselves in a dangerous middle ground where they’re not fully either.
It’d be nice if the Rangers repeated the 253 goal season they had last year but when it comes down to it, I don’t think you could look at this lineup and be 100% confident in it come playoff time. The Rangers are still missing that top offensive guy that can carry the offense on his back in the important moments. I still hope Kreider can be that guy but when you look at all the past cup winners and teams that have had a lot of success, they’ve had the difference makers up top. Just in the Metro alone you have Crosby and the Penguins, Ovechkin and the Capitals, Tavares and the Islanders. Even the Blue Jackets just added the player with the seventh most points over the past two years to their roster.
Just a few days ago I wrote about the possibility of the Rangers acquiring Duchene and while it’s unrealistic, I do think the Rangers are missing something up top. What made the Rangers so successful last year was their depth and strength down the entire lineup and this offseason they’ve deviated from that. There are too many question marks to rely on that kind of strategy again this season and the Rangers are only one Mika Zibanejad injury away from being thrown into all sorts of disarray. And with a completely healthy lineup, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thrilled with Puempel having a locked in spot in the bottom six.
All this isn’t to say that the Rangers are bad or won’t even make the playoffs; they’re a good team who will probably once again qualify for the postseason. The issue is that, once again, it looks like they’re missing something and are a notch below the true contenders. When push comes to shove, I’d still take the Penguins or maybe even the Capitals in a seven game series because of the Rangers forward group. I’m still hoping that GM Jeff Gorton has at least one more move up his sleeve because right now, I’m not too confident in the Rangers forward group. And that may hold them back from a legitimate chance at a cup this season.