by Paul West
I think it’s finally safe to say that the Rangers are, in fact, a good team. It could even be argued that they’re as good as their record implies, as their strengths–special teams, goaltending, and raw talent–are enviable. They’re sixth in the league on the power play, sixth in penalty killing, and sixth in goals against; they’ve got arguably a top-five goalie in Igor Shesterkin, and have held serve in his absence thanks to Alexandar Georgiev–one of the league’s top backups. They’ve beaten elite teams, they’ve come back late to win home and road games, and their 19-7-4 record has them second in the Metropolitan Division.
So what’s the worry?
With all their speed, young talent, and never-out-of-a-game scoring punch, the Rangers are an alarming 16th in the league in goals per game. They’re an even more alarming 24th in shots per game (recently, they were as far back as 30th), and 15th in assists. And that’s just the tangible stuff; perhaps most alarming is their tendency toward turnovers, especially in their own zone and in front of their own net, and their frequent struggles to clear their zone. They also struggle to defend the crease at times (though they’re better at it than in recent years), but despite the lack of physicality this might imply, they’re third in the league in penalty minutes.
In short: the Rangers are a talented, fast, and deep team with several of the game’s best players (Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox, and Mika Zibanejad), some of its most promising youngsters (K’Andre Miller, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere), one of its best close-range finishers (Chris Kreider), and one of its best goalie tandems; but they’re turnover prone, can be bullied in their zone, and give up a lot of power plays. These are the kinds of weaknesses that will haunt them, big time, in the later stages of the playoffs–as evidenced by last week’s clock-cleaning handed to them by the Colorado Avalanche, who ran them ragged and put up a full touchdown and extra point.
The good news? Their problems are mostly fixable. You can’t teach the speed, hands, passing skills, and game-stealing goaltending that have carried them to their current record; you can, however, correct bad tendencies like over-passing, risky passing, and lack of assertiveness in your crease.
The solution? It isn’t necessarily line mixups. They have admirable team-wide chemistry and, as mentioned, their special teams are largely keeping them afloat. Three changes in approach are necessary: a commitment to putting pucks on net, a commitment to clearing their crease without taking penalties, and a commitment to clearing the defensive zone as a first order of business–especially when protecting a lead.
The Rangers, as currently constructed, are a title contender; but as they currently are, they’re a team that crushes weak opponents and can pile up wins but is exploitable in a series.