by Deb Seymour
Remember when the goal for this NY Rangers season was to make the playoffs — but not necessarily to make a deep run? And not to play like the team did in the 2020 Toronto bubble in that awful play-in series — but to play at least a notch better? Those days seem like more than just five-six months ago. In fact, by now they feel more like five-six years ago. The 2021-2022 team record halfway through the season’s surprised all of us; the number of games stolen by Igor Shestyorkin’s been a revelation; and the bizarre ways in which some of the wins have occurred just can’t elude the eyes of anyone who’s been watching. So all told, some of it’s been due to the surprising success of special teams; some of it’s been due to squeaking by while actually underperforming; some of it’s been due to unexpected success of “next man up” during IR and Covid-19 stints; some of it’s been due to timely and strategic coaching; and, let’s face it, some of it’s been due to just plain luck.
Well, luck doesn’t win you championships. But, you counter, “this team isn’t supposed to win a Cup yet this year.” That’s true. It was true six months ago, and though it may be hard to remember, it’s still true now. Because the wins are pretty seductive, aren’t they? How long’s it been since the Rangers have led the Metropolitan Division for as many days in half a season as they have this season? How long’s it been since the Rangers have led all of the NHL for as many days as they have so far this season?
One observation about the current roster that wasn’t true for the last few years’ rosters is they’ve learned to come back during games in which they’re down. This season, unless the team’s down by some almost unconquerable number of goals (how many is that?), there’s still always hope. For the last few years, there was not always hope. The Rangers have been some sort of quixotic comeback team this season, and the hope has to be that it’ll continue. Another observation is that the line changes that occur during games this season appear to be less due to a reward-punishment type of maneuvering; and more due to a strategic maneuvering to try to get as much out of the day’s lineup as possible. It’s likely that both of these are attributable to a different style of coaching, and possibly a few player personnel changes during the 2021 offseason. Both bode well for the team’s improvement trajectory, though alone these two evolutions won’t make a huge difference in the team’s path toward a Stanley Cup.
So the Rangers seem to be in that somewhat unmeasurable state of “no longer just a development project” and yet “not quite really a Cup contender.” If all continues the way it has so far this season, they’ll make the playoffs and probably not make a deep run. So that means they’ll have achieved their season’s goal, correct? Well, not really. Because if nothing else changes, the same thing will happen again next season. And that is definitely not the goal.
The team’s system is loaded with prospects, but not all of them will turn out to be NHL quality players. And of the ones who do, not all will be top caliber NHL players. And now here’s where the Rangers’ depth becomes a real issue, even in the immediate: at the moment, they’re playing without Norris Trophy winner defenseman Adam Fox, third line center Filip Chytil, and top line right winger Kaapo Kakko. That’s two forwards and one defenseman. (Sammy Blais’ season-ending injury likely hasn’t helped; but most of the Rangers’ season has had to occur without him in any event.)
Surely most teams have played through worse, and didn’t struggle terribly on either offense or defense — especially in these pandemic times. 20-year-old Braden Schneider, called up from the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, has stepped up on defense at a level that very few could have imagined. And Fox, being the incredible two-way player that he is, would be almost impossible to replace in any event. Hence, it’s the offense that’s taking the hardest hit. And that’s in part because it’s missing two players who haven’t scored a lot of goals nor even claimed that many assists this season. Chytil has 11 points on the season to date, and Kakko has 14.
Here are the Rangers’ recent totals; and recall — this is a team that at times struggles with shots on goal no matter who’s in the lineup:
The shot totals are pretty reminiscent of what they’ve been all season. It’s rare for this Rangers team to exceed 30 shots on goal; they’ve only done it 12 times this season to date, through 46 games played. So the shots they’re making have to count, and they have to mostly reflect high danger chances against their opponent. That’s where the power play units have excelled; which is one reason special teams have put the Rangers in the position they’re in at the moment. So why does it matter so much if two young players are absent from the lineup?
It matters because those two players represent speed (Chytil) and puck management (Kakko). And if their lines depend on them for those two roles, you can keep substituting and substituting — but there’s a degree of chance (or luck) as to whether you’ll get the same results. This isn’t an article weighing the merits of either player’s development to date; nor is it one about whether Chytil should be playing center or wing or be traded. What it is about is having to bring up AHL players over a length of time, and make constant line changes, to substitute for what Chytil and Kakko represent to the Rangers this season, to date. And whether the Rangers’ system is really deep enough to keep having to do that. If two young players haven’t scored top five points on the team but are crucial for digging out the puck at the boards or passing the puck at the right times or leading the occasional odd man rush, for a team that doesn’t create a huge number of high danger chances — that’s a loss.
So the Rangers are deep enough to not have gone through a major skid during this period leading up to the All-Star break; but they’re still shallow enough to not be taking their chances with every line-up change that has to occur when missing two young forwards. You can ask, is the rebuild really over? That seems to be a legitimate question. Because unless you can demonstrate that your next men up are consistent players and likely to succeed over a period of time, you’re only as deep as your ideal starting roster can take you.