The Ups and Downs of a New Season with a Lot of Changes: The NY Rangers

by Deb Seymour

By all published accounts, the NY Rangers were supposed to make the playoffs last season. At least, according to reports of what ownership was hoping for from the youngest team in the league. But they did not. And the replacement of key front office personnel and some of the coaching staff, including the head coach, ultimately was a clear indication that expectations for the team’s performance weren’t met.

And thus Chris Drury, now president and general manager of the NY Rangers, replaced several players via trade, signed a couple of new players, and extended several others (see “Forecheck, Backcheck, Crosscheck: The New Look New York Rangers,” this blog, at https://wordpress.com/post/bigapplebitesports.com/470). He also hired Gerard Gallant, well known and respected former head coach of the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights — and career hockey man with an impressive resume — as the new head coach of the Rangers.

This all on the heels of a very feeble attempt by the Rangers in their play-in series in the Toronto postseason bubble of fall 2020.

In many ways, in their worst games of both the 2020-2021 season and 2021-2022 season to date, despite all the personnel changes both on and off the ice, the Rangers have looked very much like that team who played an infinitely forgettable series in the Toronto bubble, engaging in an elaborate game that skews toward attempting to mentally defeat the opponent rather than physically or technically defeating them. You wouldn’t expect to see an odd man rush out of that team, nor even many breakaways down the ice toward the opposing net — and that’s a result, at least in part, of a lack of focus on the forecheck and on consistently imposing their own offensive game upon that of the other team. NHL teams these days win playoff games by aggressive play in the offensive zone; and relying on their defense to keep the opponent out of their own zone. Spending too much time in the neutral zone looks indecisive, and your opponent senses that and capitalizes. The key here is to be hockey aggressive — and not just by physically beating up on the other team (which at times seems to have been mistaken by the Rangers’ front office as a substitute for doing the things that help you score goals).

Some of the things the Rangers have done right so far this season: Number one has to be goaltending, even though that rests in the hands, sticks, and bodies of only two current members of the team; most outstandingly Igor Shestyorkin and secondarily Alexandar Georgiev, whom after a rusty-looking season opener against the Washington Capitals has followed up, to date, with some reliability in the crease. Following on the goaltending is penalty killing. It’s not such a wonderful attribute to have to rely on successful penalty kills, since it obviously indicates that team members are taking way too many (sloppy) penalties. But putting that aside for the moment, the penalty kill has been high percentage of late for the Rangers — and they’ve certainly needed it. Next up is the power play, which is still low percentage so far this season for the Rangers — but is picking up steam, and there are goals starting to be scored more regularly on the power play.

And yet, are you sensing a pattern here? Because I certainly am. What’s working? Special teams are working. And that’s all fine and good, except what you’re primarily looking for is successful five-on-five play. And that’s where the weaknesses lie.

Source: https://twitter.com/hayyyshayyy/status/1455755510595129347 from @hayyyshayyy on Twitter

The heat map shown here represents five-on-five play from the November 2nd game the Rangers played against the Vancouver Canucks. But it’s not dissimilar from the heat maps of many periods the Rangers have played so far this season, with thinly spaced shot attempts and no strong critical mass of shots on goal. A resounding theme has been lack of offense from the top six — although we’re slowly starting to see Artemiy Panarin and Mika Zibanejad emerge, along with Chris Kreider who’s been the most productive top sixer so far. To be fair to Kaapo Kakko and Ryan Strome, both missed time on IR. And Barclay Goodrow was only moved up to the top line a couple of games ago. Given all this, we have to hope it’s still a work in progress. Which brings us to another critical factor in the Rangers’ game so far this season: a new head coach.

The common wisdom is that David Quinn, prior head coach of the New York Rangers with primarily college coaching experience, was brought in to help cultivate and mature a young, inexperienced team that was in rebuilding mode for several years (after the Rangers traded away and/or didn’t extend a number of players key to their last playoff run in the mid 20-teens). It seems Quinn was supposed to help the team become a playoff team by the most recent year of his Rangers’ tenure, and yet wasn’t successful in that endeavor. Gerard Gallant, a coach with NHL playoff experience, was brought in to help reformulate how the Rangers play their game and make them “a contender.” It’s not clear that Stanley Cup expectations yet exist for this team; but they are expected to contend and make the playoffs this year. One weakness that we’ve seen over and over in Rangers’ games since the David Quinn era began is the lack of ability to play a consistent 60 minutes to the level of their abilities. Gallant has already commented on this several times this young season; and one of his primary goals is to coach the team to have not just one or two good period(s) a game, but to have three good periods — in most games.

New York’s own Adam Fox, Norris Trophy winner after the last season and newly extended by the Rangers, consistently has the most time on ice of any Ranger player. He is, arguably, the best player on the Rangers — and some would assert, also developing into one of the best players in the league. Fox does both the big things and the little things right. He totaled only 14 minutes of penalty time all last season while averaging about 20-25 minutes of ice time per game. Fox plays on both the power play and penalty kill special teams. He seems to view the entire landscape of what’s happening on the ice and anticipate what’s coming next. He could be the next captain of the Rangers, and no one would be surprised — although he’s certainly not the most senior nor experienced Ranger. What the rest of the Rangers need to do, as simplistic as this sounds, is be more like Adam Fox. They do not each need 25 minutes of ice time per game. And some will take more penalties than he does. And some may have more advanced stick work technique than he does. But they need to bring Fox’s big picture view and anticipation and consistency to their game. And they need to do it for 60 minutes, every game, and even in overtime periods.

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