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Halfway there: Evaluating the Rangers at the midpoint of the season

Bobby Bevilacqua

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Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

We’re officially halfway through the Rangers season, and it’s been a pretty good start despite some injuries, rough stretches and a lot of new players for Alain Vigneault to figure out and utilize properly.

With a 27-13-1 record along with practically same defensive unit as last season, the Rangers have probably exceeded most people’s expectations. Their 55 points are tied with the Penguins for second in the division, as well as being tied for the second most points in the entire league (Pittsburgh has played three fewer games). The Blue Jackets sit in first in the division and the league thanks to their incredible 16 game win streak that stretched from late November into January.

Given the situation with all of the forward injuries, the first half of the season has been a big success. There have been some issues and rough patches, like with just about every team, but it’s hard not to come away with more positives than negatives.

The offense has been incredible, scoring a league-high 141 goals, a plus-38 goal differential and scoring from all over the lineup. When your depth guys like Michael Grabner have 16 goals already, you know the offense is in a pretty good situation.

Less encouraging is the defense, which has had plenty of issues and cost the team some wins. The regression of Kevin Klein and continued struggle of Dan Girardi meant that Ryan McDonagh has been without a defensive partner that suits him well for most of the season. The surprising offensive production and strong defensive play of Nick Holden has helped make the problem less substantial, but it’s still there.

And while Henrik Lundqvist has had some rough patches of play this season, Antti Raanta was able to win games and right the ship during that time while also allowing Lundqvist to have some time off and figure his game out.

While the defense is not ideal, a fully healthy Rangers offense should be enough to carry this team through a playoff run. With Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich back and Lundqvist back to normal, this team could be a serious threat come playoff time.

FORWARDS – A

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The Rangers forward group is definitely the best part of this team. When Alain Vigneault had his entire team healthy and available, the Rangers were truly a four line team, able to score no matter who was on the ice. The fourth line was speedy, skillful and able to handle defensive and forechecking duties. The combination of Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri was very effective, and it allowed the top three lines to be utilized in more offensive roles while also taking some pressure off of them as well. It particularly helped Kevin Hayes and the third line, who often caught opposing defenses off guard and scored a ton because teams couldn’t/wouldn’t use their best defenseman against them.

The addition of Mika Zibanejad was paying off early before he broke his leg on Nov. 20. He had five goals and 15 points through 19 games, added another dimension to the power play, and gave the Rangers three very good centers.

One of the other injuries the Rangers suffered this season was to promising rookie Pavel Buchnevich. He’s played just 10 games but recorded eight points (4-4-8), including recording a goal in four straight games before suffering back spasms again. Having his playmaking ability back in the top nine will do wonders for this team.

Getting Rick Nash back too will be even more beneficial. Nash might just be the best complete player in the league. It’s almost guaranteed that he will score 20 goals every year, and he already has 13 goals and 20 points in just 30 games this season (a 30 goal pace if he plays the rest of the Rangers’ games). He’s a great defensive player, takes pressure and attention off of him teammates, and he’s good in front of the net.

In the absence of all three of those players, the current top line of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello have really stepped up. Derek Stepan is on pace for a 60+ point season, and has continued to be the best two-way center on the team. But his chemistry with Kreider has grown even more, leading to Stepan getting more assists and facilitating a lot of offense (9-22-31). Kreider is on pace for 34 goals which would shatter his previous career high, and he’s grown tremendously as a player and as a goal scorer. Zuccarello isn’t scoring as many goals, he’s still a wizard when it comes to passing and has 22 assists already.

Kevin Hayes has also grown tremendously, and is on pace for a 26 goal, 60 point season. He’s a much better defensive player, now playing on the penalty kill, has become more decisive with his shooting and decision making, and continues to rack up primary assists. He’s provided the Rangers with yet another talented scoring center, and even more options to score goals. JT Miller has also been great, with 29 points (12 G, 17 A), and continues to play a physical game. Rookie Jimmy Vesey has surpassed expectations as well, already scoring 11 goals and 19 points. He has a nose for the net and will be a good third line threat come playoff time.

The team’s depth continues to be their biggest strength this season. Michael Grabner, signed on a cheap two-year contract and expected to fill a fourth line spot, has 16 goals and 23 points. That kind of unexpected production is a big reason for the team’s success. Jesper Fast has a respectable 15 points, Brandon Pirri has cooled off considerably after a hot start but can still chip in offensively. Oscar Lindberg and Marek Hrivik haven’t been goal scorers but are solid defensive fourth liners, and even Matt Puempel, claimed off of waivers, has scored five goals in a depth role.

When everyone’s healthy, the Rangers offense is arguably the best in the league and capable of outscoring anyone. If the Rangers make a successful Cup run this year, it will be because of the offense.

DEFENSE – C+

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Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Early on in the season, the defense looked okay. Over the past month or so, it’s been a hot mess. When it comes to scoring, the defense has been surprisingly great. Ryan McDonagh already has 25 points (2-23-25) and could surpass his career high of 43 points. Nick Holden has shocked everyone by scoring eight goals and recording 21 points, and even Brady Skjei has been a solid offensive contributor with 17 points so far. I thought losing Yandle would be a huge blow to the power play and the offense from the blue line, but it hasn’t been.

However, the defensive aspect of the group’s game is not where it needs to be. Kevin Klein is arguably the worst offender, as he has regressed massively since last season. He’s been turnover prone, a step behind on plays and missing a lot of his defensive assignments. Dan Girardi hasn’t been much better, especially when Vigneault uses him on the top pairing. Girardi can’t handle those minutes anymore as he is just not fast enough to defend the likes of Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, etc. Girardi’s inability to make passes out of his own zone and keep up with his man has been a big problem for the team.

Ryan McDonagh has had a solid season thus far, albeit also having some issues with turnovers and defensive miscues. But I would say about half of those have been because of the fact that he was playing with guys like Dan Girardi and Klein. When paired with Brady Skjei against the Flyers, the two looked pretty fantastic and formed a good pair that could do a little bit of everything.

Marc Staal and Nick Holden have been a successful pairing, both playing well defensively and even chipping in some offense. And Adam Clendening has been fine when he has played.

It’s clear that the Rangers need to acquire a defenseman at the trade deadline, and hopefully someone that can be a true number one defensive partner for Ryan McDonagh. That’s their biggest need and something that needs to be solved ASAP.

GOALIES – B+

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

When Henrik Lundqvist is in net, you have a pretty good reason to be confident in getting good results on a daily basis. And when your backup goalie is as good as Antti Raanta is, any worries you have can be thrown out of the window. Henrik Lundqvist had another slow start and a few more bad games than normal, but Raanta was able to provide a steady force in net and even started four games in a row. With Lundqvist finding his form again, Vigneault can be confident with whoever he decides to start. And if Lundqvist is shaky in the playoffs, he can also be confident in going to Raanta for a game or two, just like the Blackhawks did with Scott Darling against the Nashville Predators in the 2015 opening round. The Rangers have no real problems in net.

COACHING – B

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Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Alain Vigneault is a good coach and one that I do like, but one that has made some baffling usage decisions this season. My biggest gripe is the way he deploys his defenseman, consistently using Girardi for 20+ minutes a night on the top pairing when he clearly isn’t suited to handle that role. He’s also refused to give Adam Clendening a real shot on defense, giving him about 13 minutes when he does play and not following up on his promise to rest Girardi in the second game of back-to-backs. On top of that, he scratched guys like Brady Skjei and criticized Ryan McDonagh, while not holding Girardi and Klein accountable for their continued poor play.

He’s also made some weird decisions like using Michael Grabner on the first and second line while Jimmy Vesey was a fourth liner, but that can be excused  because of Grabner’s success so far.

Overall, while Vigneault has had some accountability issues and badd/odd deployment of players, he’s done a good job battling through adversity and using what he has to make the Rangers the third best team in the league. The offense masked a lot of his poor decision making at the start of the season, but he’s done a good job managing his guys and getting them ready for most games. He continues to get the best out of a lot of his players and the team he’s given, and he’s done a fantastic job helping the young players continue to develop. You can criticize him, but definitely acknowledge all of the positives he’s brought to this team, and he’s had a hand in their success.

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Posted on January 6, 2017, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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