The Problem with the Process

John Dundon

Jeff Gorton and Glen Sather

Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

The New York Rangers have managed to stay in the cup conversation despite organizational failures, past and present.

The Blueshirts started out the year strong but wound up limping past the half way mark of the season sporting a modest 26-16-5 record. One cannot but help wonder what the main underlying cause is for the team’s decline in play could possibly be. Not because they are hard-pressed to find issues, which have been plentiful and even overwhelming thus far through the 2015-2016 campaign.

It’s surprising though given the fact that right around this time last season, the Rangers took off. They dominated the league, even in the wake of losing Henrik Lundqvist for an extended period due to a freakish neck injury. Cam Talbot had replaced and even duplicated the edge that Lundqvist gave the Rangers night in and out. The Rangers finished the season on a tear and made a trip to game 7 of the conference final, where injuries eventually caught up to them in a humbling 2-0 loss on home ice. While the decline may be a surprise to some it didn’t sneak up on people who have looked at and made a point of the organizations failures, especially dating back to the offseason after that heartbreaking 4-1 Stanley Cup Final defeat.

The most glaring issue with the Rangers is currently the awful defensive zone coverages. They have uncharacteristically been giving up uncontested chances right in front of Henrik Lundqvist with regularity. While the teams defense as a whole has been playing woefully, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have looked really, really bad at times. This is something that we knew had been coming, especially for a guy like Dan Girardi. There was a time where he was rock solid in the defensive zone. G made a name for himself during John Tortorella’s tenure as head coach. Torts’ system matched Girardi’s fearless, shot blocking game to a tee (Girardi lead the NHL in blocked shots in ’10-’11 and ’12-’13). He often got important penalty kill time and was the team’s go to defenseman defending a late third period lead. The way he played probably took a toll on his body, but the real issue is that he isn’t now and never really was a great skater, or all that good a passer, heck he struggles holding onto the puck. The fact is the new regime plays a system that is not best suited to complement the (lack of) skills that Girardi possesses. Marc Staal has looked slower than ever but has had some bright spots.

This is especially painful for the Rangers and their Stanley Cup aspirations when you consider both Girardi and Staal are barely into similarly terrible expensive, long-term extensions they signed with the club. Especially painful when you consider the team prioritized Girardi and/or Dan Boyle over Anton Stralman, who is currently playing alongside Swedish stud defenseman Victor Hedman on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top pair.

One could argue that the Rangers defensive problems are the result of the incompetence of former General Manager Glen Sather when it came to picking the wrong guy to extend. In fact, I would even try to convince you that not re-signing Anton Stralman who is loved by those in the analytics community (for good reason), could have directly cost the Rangers a chance to play for the Stanley Cup last season! Stralman was key for the Lightning who shut out the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in games 5 and 7. He could have been playing for the Rangers, along their top pair defenseman Ryan McDonagh, or solidified a second pairing with Marc Staal. Instead Steve Yzerman gave Stralman the recognition that Glen Sather did not, and it cost the Rangers dearly both then and now.

The offseason after the Rangers went to the finals they tried to replace high quality bottom six forwards with subpar players, and it did not work at first. The loss of Brian Boyle on the fourth line, while perhaps not the teams fault, was huge and noticeable. Beniot Pouliot signed a massive deal in Edmonton that the Rangers couldn’t and shouldn’t have matched. The Rangers lost key forwards from both the third and fourth line without finding suitable replacements, although they did bring in stud prospect Kevin Hayes.

Then there are other minor player personnel decisions including trading Lee Stempniak (11G-22A-33 points in 47 GP this season) for literally no reason as last season’s deadline and curious decisions to sign and play Jarrett Stoll, who was ineffective everywhere on the ice for a large portion of the season.

There’s also the Emerson Etem signing. Etem was going to be a project that could certainly help the team down the road if he improved his play without the puck. Etem was given two games as a top 6 forward and then shipped off for an AHLer. I’m not trying to say that Emerson Etem would have been anything special, but given his skillset he certainly deserved a longer look than he got. That part of it probably falls on Alain Vigneault (more on that later), but the thing that these minor moves point too is that the New York Ranger brass has a player evaluation problem.

Alain Vigneault hasn’t exactly found any solutions yet, either. He has perhaps even been an issue himself. His favoritism has cost the team points in the standings on multiple occasions, as Dylan McIlrath is sitting in the press box while the veterans who are causing a large sum of the teams issues play and play a lot, far too much if you ask me. Vigneault has two right side defenseman who would benefit from days off. Why can’t he adopt some sort of a rotation between Girardi, Boyle, and McIlrath?

Ole’ grey beard Dan Boyle wouldn’t mind a rest here and there considering the Rangers plan on playing more than 82 games this season. After playing some excellent hockey for a few weeks, he’s slowed down again and hasn’t been contributing much lately. While his handling of the defense this season is bad it is not the first time AV has played “his guys” and made the team worse on the ice. Last season’s Tanner Glass soap opera made me want to hurt myself. Glass was god awful through the first 70 or so games and better, but not by much, in the playoffs. He prevented players that could contribute like JT Miller from getting into the lineup on occasion.

This isn’t about Dan Girardi, Tanner Glass, or Marc Staal personally, they are trying and giving maximum effort, that is without question. The fact of the matter is that they are struggling, and the coach needs to take notice and do what’s best for his team and put the players who are struggling either in the press box for someone who will perform better, or reduce their minutes and don’t trot them out against the other team’s top line.

The thing about winning is that it quiets the fans. Everything is okay when you’re winning, right? Well right now the Rangers aren’t winning consistently, and in times like these the mistakes of the past are put under a microscope and we as fans start to make connections.

The Rangers process has been flawed for a long time. They were lucky to draft the best goaltender of his generation in Henrik Lundqvist, who has carried the team on his shoulders since he burst onto the scene after the lockout. Much like the way this season has unfolded as we saw Lundqvist piggy back the Rangers to a 16-3-2 start with his save percentage going as high as .940, then he regressed. Not that he’s playing poorly, he’s performing at career levels with a .922 save percentage, which for a career average is excellent. Those numbers simply aren’t sustainable and Lundqvist went through a long stretch where he wasn’t playing at that same superhuman level. He shouldn’t be expected to be as good as he was for the first part of this season. Lundqvist’s consistency over the years is probably part of the reason no one noticed how flawed the process could have been because they kept making the playoffs!

The issues with the team’s play are not related to heart, or battle level, or needing to want it more. They are related to failures in the player personnel department that have been occurring with regularity, AV not dressing the best line up every night, and a dip in the play of some young forwards who were expected to take a step forward. There is time left to make things right though, get into the playoffs and hope Lundqvist and Nash get hot. The rest of this season could go one of three ways. They could 1. Continue playing .500 hockey and duke it out for a playoff spot, 2. Go on a tear similar to last years, or 3. Have everything fall apart, and miss the post season.

Hopefully it isn’t door #3.










Posted on January 23, 2016, in In the Crease, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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