by Paul West
The New York Rangers can be one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. They still have the team speed, and collective skill level, to make them a flurry of goals waiting to happen. After a disastrous start to the season, punctuated by poor play in most areas, they’re 7-3-3 in December, finding ways to win as they’ve climbed back into the playoff race. Unfortunately, despite flashes of what made them a perennial elite for several seasons, many of their wins are of the false-positive variety–and the Rangers don’t yet seem complete enough to pose a Stanley Cup threat.
For most of the season, the Rangers have resembled a high-flying Western Conference team from the early 80s: speed, skill, spectacular goaltending, and one mystifying defensive lapse after another. No lead feels safe in a Rangers game, regardless of which team holds it or where the game’s being played. If not for the spectacular play of Henrik Lundqvist–whose decline was once again prematurely declared by many–the Rangers could easily be giving up four or five goals a game.
For a team with elite talent and depth, the Rangers look hesitant and disjointed on offense; their reliance on the video-game pass leads them to pass up open shot opportunities, often from as close as the faceoff circle. Rather than pepper the goalie, or do anything to create defensive uncertainty, the Rangers resort to high-risk, high-reward play: if it works, it’s a highlight reel, and if it doesn’t, it’s a scramble drill to prevent an odd-man break the other way.
In the defensive zone, the Rangers often look like a pickup team. Efforts to clear the puck seem to alternate between risky cross-ice outlet attempts and jittery, hot-potato shovels to unsuspecting teammates. Auxiliary-forward defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has exemplified their troubles in all three zones, alternating between moments of brilliance on the attack and mystifying turnovers in the neutral and defensive zones. This is partly the result of coach Alain Vigneault‘s frequent, at times excessive, line-shuffling, which has interrupted the team’s chemistry and fluidity.
Fortunately, there are many reasons for hope. The Rangers are in the NHL’s top ten in goals for and goals against, and third in penalty kill percentage; and this last statistic reminds us that they are, in fact, capable of defending their own zone and the front of their net, while the first two suggest that they’re capable of the balanced play which fueled their 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Finals and made them look like they’d contend for years to come. Their underperforming power play, 18th in the league, can be fixed by the same things which will cure their offensive inconsistency: shooting the puck, rather than always looking for the perfect goal. Mats Zuccarello has finally begun shooting the puck again, complementing his extraordinary passing vision and knack for puck pursuit with a wrist shot he seems to forget about too often. Rick Nash has been excellent in all three zones and on special teams, using his size and speed to force-multiply whomever Vigneault decides his line mates are for the day. Ryan McDonagh has been resurgent as he’s returned to health, reasserting himself as a quarterback on offense (surprisingly, he hasn’t found the net yet, but his 18 assists are tied for second on the team behind Zuccarello’s 21), while still blocking shots and throwing his weight around on defense. Michael Grabner‘s explosiveness in transition has led to 17 goals on the season, enhanced by a remarkable knack for scoring on empty nets. Newcomers like Jimmy Vesey and JT Miller are playing well in all three zones, while roleplayers like Boo Nieves are providing energy to fuel the comebacks which are still all too necessary from game to game. Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich–a combined 46 years of age–have emerged as legitimate scoring and playmaking threats.
The keys to the Rangers turning the corner are well within their grasp. They’ve got to play more organically and cohesively in all three zones, rather than relying on moments of individual or two-man brilliance. They’ve got to stop spotting teams early leads, and relying on their Hall of Fame goalie to perform constant acrobatics to keep them in games–because while great, he’s still human, and will eventually either slump again, or just flat-out fatigue from constant hockey heroics in front of a turnover-prone defense. Vigneault has got to give their groupings time to gel, so they look less like a pickup team–which should, in turn, help them cut down on jittery defensive play and risky guess-passes which lead to turnovers. Last but not least, they’ve got to shoot the puck more often and play with greater emphasis on the front of each net. These are all things which this core has done, and can do again.
The Rangers have youth, experience, depth, and an elite goaltender; and despite their lingering flaws, this December they’ve also proven they can win games in which they’re outplayed for a full period or more. They still have months left to synthesize, and if they do, they’ll return to being one of the most dangerous teams in the league.