No Simple Solutions for the Rangers

Wait until Thanksgiving. That is typically the rule of thumb for evaluating a team as it gives them 20 to 25 games to find themselves, sort out any problems, and set a course for the rest of the season. However, when you’re the New York Rangers, a team that year-after-year expects to not only make the playoffs but also to challenge for the Stanley Cup, you don’t get as much leeway – especially when you just signed the summer’s biggest free agent. So let’s just say we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving a little early this year.

At the time of this writing, the Rangers are in 28th place, sitting on a 2-6-2 record. They’ve got themselves a pitiful minus-11 goal differential due to the fact they’ve given up 3.50 goals per game (23rd) and they’ve only scored 2.50 goals per game (27th). Oh, they’ve also killed 77.8% of their penalties (22nd). But there’s not much to worry about because there’s plenty of time left in the season, right?! Well…

In other words, the Rangers need to play at the level they did last season in order to just barely make it into the playoffs, assuming playoff point projections are correct. It doesn’t sound wholly unreasonable to think that can happen. But, what about the first 10 games makes you believe the Rangers can “flip the switch” and play at a 103-point pace rather than the 25-point pace they’ve been playing at?

Assuming they manage to squeeze into the playoff picture, they would likely be in the first or second wild card, facing a top Eastern Conference team in the first round. At which point they are staring down the barrel of another 2015-16-like debacle in which they face a powerhouse team in the first round and get absolutely embarrassed.

So, where do we go from here? Well, there are a few options, but few if any will actually enact meaningful change that would result in a successful season. Let’s discuss a few of those options:

Firing Alain Vigneault

This is one of the most requested moves the Rangers could make, and it seems like the obvious one. The old adage is, “You can’t fire the players, but you can fire the coach,” so it stands to reason that AV’s head is on the block before anyone else’s. However, firing Vigneault leads to an opening that most believe will be filled by assistant coach Lindy Ruff.

Ruff was brought in during the off-season to head up the defense and so far, the results have been poor. The Rangers, on many occasions, look completely lost in the defensive zone. Opposing teams are regularly able to skate right into the slot or skate around a flat-footed defender. In fact, the Rangers have given up the third most scoring chances against at 5-on-5 – 234 in 10 games. This is a trend that’s followed him from Dallas, where in his four season tenure, the Stars gave up the fifth most scoring chances against at 5-on-5. Is that the kind of head coach the Rangers need right now?

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Further, firing Vigneault does nothing for the construction of this team. Greg Wyshinski of ESPN broke down the Rangers’ roster woes very well: 

On the larger scale, “this situation” isn’t one created by Vigneault, but by Rangers management, who traded 27-year-old Derek Stepan

Long term, this could turn out to be a shrewd decision, especially when Rangers GM Jeff Gorton isn’t tethered to that cap hit on a player with trade protection while chasing another player via trade or free agency. Short term, it meant that the Rangers went to war this season with a lineup that’s a doughnut: tasty on the outside, not much in the middle.

They have Mika Zibanejad, an established top-six center, and the hopes and dreams that either Kevin Hayes or David Desharnais can become a serviceable No. 2. It’s a stopgap decision, as the next wave of Rangers centers — the potentially brilliant 18-year-old Filip Chytil and 19-year-old Lias Andersson, who was acquired with the pick from that Stepan trade and is now playing overseas — weren’t quite ready for the show.

The Rangers are weak down the middle, and Vigneault has already tried a number of Band-Aids to patch that weakness. Vigneault went from declaring J.T. Miller a center in training camp to moving him to wing before the regular season started, then to center, and finally back to wing (mostly). He also has, for the last few games, run seven defensemen so that one of Hayes, Zibanejad, or Miller could rotate in double shifts on the fourth line. Vigneault even used waiver pickup Adam Cracknell briefly as the fourth line center before he was waived again after just four games in the Rangers lineup. The latest solution is calling up Boo Nieves from the Hartford Wolfpack to give him a shot at centering the fourth line.

And that’s just at center. The defense has been struggling mightily as well. Nick Holden, Steve Kampfer, and Tony DeAngelo have all popped in and out of the lineup at various points of the season thus far. DeAngelo, who has played eight games with the Rangers (the most bewteen Holden Kampfer and himself), has just been re-assigned to Hartford. Further, the defensive pairings have changed a multitude of times since the start of the season. Obviously, the coaching staff isn’t sure how to get the most out of their roster just yet, and firing Vigneault won’t magically solve that problem.

Making A Trade

Trade what? For who? On the back end, I’m not aware of any team that is offering to trade a defenseman that wouldn’t just be added to the revolving door of Holden and Kampfer. Any trade at this point would be a lateral move at best. To address the center issue, it is well known that Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche and Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens are available. But both teams are going to be looking for a king’s ransom for these players – especially Duchene.

First, the Rangers should absolutely not be in the business of trading draft picks right now. Despite a good 2017 draft, the prospect cupboards are still bare due to the “win now” nature of the past four seasons that saw the Rangers pick only four times in the first two rounds in that span. As of now, the Rangers have a 2018 draft pick in each of the first six rounds and any additional picks they can stock up on would be extremely valuable.

Second, the Rangers don’t have much from their roster to give at the moment. None of their players—save for Miller, Zibanejad, and Zuccarello—are having particularly productive seasons so far. A player like Michael Grabner would have netted you a lot more in an offseason trade than right now, what with his one goal and one assist through the first ten games of the year. Zibanejad is a center, so it makes no sense to trade him. Zuccarello and Miller are key pieces and producers on this team. In dealing either of them, all you end up doing is creating one hole to fill another.

Perhaps a player like Chris Kreider could prove to be a useful trade chip. He’s off to a slow start this season with one goal and three assists in ten games, but perhaps the Rangers could sell him on his career year with 28 goals and 25 assists last season as well as his reasonable $4.625 million cap hit. But, again, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. Kreider brings a great deal to the Rangers lineup with his speed and size on the forecheck and his net front presence on the powerplay. Few players in the league have his combination of speed and size and his cap hit is one of the fairest on the team.

Finally, it would be an absolute travesty if the Rangers were to trade either Filip Chytil or Lias Andersson in an effort to save this season. They have both proven themselves to be valuable prospects at a very young age—something the Rangers have only a handful of at best —and they should be handled with great care. With any luck, they will be part of the future of this Rangers organization.

Staying the Course

This is the safest but least attractive option as a fan. Basically, the Rangers have dug themselves a great hole this season with their poor start. It would take a monumental effort just to make the playoffs, as detailed above. And, given the specific weaknesses of this team—particularly the inability to keep the puck out of their net in any situation—it’s hard to see them turning it around on a dime. Realistically, let’s say they begin to play better and, over the 14 games in the next month, post a 7-7-0 record. After that, they would have to play at a ridiculous 108-point pace for the rest of the season just to hit 96 points. There’s very little room for error. They need to turn it around now. To use another adage, “You can’t make the playoffs in October, but you can certain miss them.”

So, if they stay the course, what we’ll likely see is the Rangers spin their tires and miss out on the playoffs this year. This outcome allows them to restock the cupboards with the draft picks that they have and any further draft picks they acquire throughout the season. Unfortunately, though, it also means another failed season for Henrik Lundqvist who, as his play indicates, is not getting any younger. Also, it’s a wasted year of Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract, who is only signed for four years. And with a relatively empty prospect pool, most of all, it means another year in which hope for a swift change must come at great cost—whether it’s through a trade or free agency.

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