Young, Cheap Talent The Key To Sustained Contention for Rangers
The hockey community tends to tunnel in on star players when it comes to the playoffs, but it's the Rangers young depth that is making a difference and has enabled them to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years.
Star players usually become the focus of attention during the NHL playoffs. Whenever a team fails to win the Stanley Cup, you can safely bet that the star player will be blamed nine times out of ten. Even in a series in which Alex Ovechkin was the best player on the ice, he gets blamed for the Capitals' failure to advance. And you can rest assured that a failure to win the Stanley Cup this year will spark a number of strong opinions on Henrik Lundqvist regardless of how many times he stands on his head.
The reality of the playoffs, however, is that depth is very often what will make or break a team. Virtually every team that makes the playoffs, and especially that makes the second round, has a few star players. Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith versus Zach Parise and Ryan Suter or Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom versus Rick Nash and Lundqvist are pragmatically even in impact. Save for the occasional miserable performance from a star player - like Malkin against the Rangers - scapegoating the star player for a team failure is generally laziness. While the shock jocks are screaming about Ovechkin, others might observe that the Capitals did not get a single goal from a defenseman during the Rangers' series, or that Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Curtis Glencross, and Marcus Johansson combined for all of three goals during the entire playoffs. Or that Andre Burakovsky was the only forward outside of the top line to be a positive in possession in the second round.
For the Rangers, depth prevailed. And much of that depth comes in the form of youngsters. J.T Miller is not technically a rookie, but this is really the first season in which he's been given a full-time spot in the lineup. The basic stats for Miller are pretty nondescript; three assists in 12 games during the playoffs. His secondary assist on Dan Boyle's game-winner in Game Six was the result of a good individual effort. His most recent assist was quite easily the most important of his career; a perfect setup to Kevin Hayes on the power play as the Rangers leveled the score in Game Seven against Washington. Outside of that, though, he's been very good. A combination of playing on the fourth line and an unlucky PDO of 97.55 has limited his ability to produce points, but he's doing just about everything else well. A 52.5% in possession and +3.7% in Corsi Rel this postseason, Miller has done a phenomenal job of creating offense for the Rangers while limiting the opposition's time with the puck. This is particularly impressive given the less-than-ideal role he's been thrown into now on the bottom line. It's not surprising that the first line played its best in Game Seven when St. Louis was benched and Miller was moved up. It's safe to say that Miller probably deserves a bigger role and has some good fortune coming his way soon.
Kevin Hayes struggled mightily in his first few playoff games, but ever since has returned the being the player he was in the second half of the regular season. His two goals this postseason were about as big as they come; a Game Four overtime winner against Pittsburgh and the previously mentioned tying goal against Washington. Hayes has suffered even worse puck luck, with a 94.2 PDO. Against Washington, Hayes was a 53.2% in possession and seems poised to make an even bigger offensive contribution going forward.
Perhaps a bit of an upset, the best of the bunch has been Jesper Fast. Fast has been a defensive stalwart as usual, but has upped his offensive production big-time. A goal and three assists to his name, he's been on the ice for every overtime goal and has played a big role in all of them. I already went over his massive role in McDonagh's overtime winner, and in Game Seven it was he who beat everyone to the loose puck off of the faceoff and nudged it back to Yandle, setting up Stepan's goal.
At face value, all three of these players have contributed to the Rangers' playoff run and have been part of that depth that has separated the Rangers from Pittsburgh and Washington. Their presence is even more important when put in context. Contending for one season is hard enough, but in a salary cap league, sustained competitiveness is impossible without the ability to cycle in fresh talent on cheap contracts. The Rangers lost some important depth forwards last summer. Having three forwards who can be trusted to contribute in important situation at a combined cap hit of $2.6 million is invaluable to a team that needed every penny the salary cap allows in order to build a team to compete for the Stanley Cup once again.
And as the Rangers face a similar cap crunch going forward, having these three under team control for the foreseeable future will prove to be a major asset. Some of the Rangers' most important players right now - Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, etc. - were similarly the cheap young depth just a few years ago. It could be as soon as this summer, but certainly in the next few years that Glen Sather is going to have some tough decisions to make, and the Rangers won't be able to retain every player. The Rangers' window to win the Stanley Cup is right now, and in that regard Miller, Hayes, and Fast are doing their part. But their window shouldn't necessarily be right now exclusively. There's a heavy prioritization of "playoff experience" and "veteran attitude" in hockey culture, but reality is that the philosophy of building a long-term contender as it once existed has become obsolete; loading the back-end of your roster with expensive veterans such as Sergei Nemchinov, Glenn Anderson, and Craig MacTavish like Neil Smith did in 1994 is no longer financially possible. The dynamic has changed, and teams must now prioritize development even while contending. Yes, a team's high-end players are vitally important to winning a Stanley Cup; nobody would debate otherwise. But it's cheap talent at the bottom of the roster that will afford the Rangers the financial elasticity to keep as many of the team's key players as possible.
It's a lesson that hopefully the Rangers take to heart this summer with what looks to be yet another season in which they'll be battling the salary cap. Miller, Hayes, and Fast will all be prepared to take on bigger roles next season and will continue to be bargains at their cap hits. The team possesses a handful of prospects who are knocking on the door of NHL-readiness including - but not limited to - Oscar Lindberg, Ryan Bourque, and Brady Skjei; young players on cheap contracts who have the potential the similarly be that frugal depth in the next few seasons. The Rangers have a chance to make history this season, but that potential largely lies in the developing and trusting of the team's top young prospects the last five years. The likes of Kreider, Stepan, and Hagelin are a result of that trust in 2012. Miller, Hayes, and Fast are the current crop. And it's imperative they continue this trend moving forward. While people in our nation's capital are screaming at each other about Ovechkin, Rangers' management must be cognizant of the fact that it's not Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, but rather the team's cluster of young, cheap, and productive depth that helps separate them from the likes of Washington, Pittsburgh, and most of the other teams that were dealt an early playoff exit.