A look at the New York Rangers as we near the midway point of the season
The Rangers have had some ups and downs this season which was expected as they’re the youngest NHL team on average. They have shown in spurts and streaks what they can do with the talent and skill on this roster.
There have been noticeable differences in their play between last season and now, particularly in the defense and penalty kill. However, they have also shown that they have some inconsistencies. Whether the Rangers make the playoffs this year or not, 2021 will have proved to be a learning curve year in which this young team began to find their identity.
Rangers differences in play from game to game highlight inconsistency
On both Thursday and Saturday against the Devils, the Rangers put up six goals to win both games. They held the Devils to only one on Thursday and three on Saturday. These were the second two games of their three-game winning streak, the longest they’ve had this season. Ideally, a team with a winning streak would carry momentum from game to game. For most of the first period against the Penguins on Sunday, it seemed that’s what the Rangers had done.
Mika Zibanejad scored 1:18 seconds into the game. He had a two-on-one with Alexis Lafreniere on which Casey DeSmith anticipated a pass when Zibanejad decided to shoot instead. It appeared Zibanejad changed his mind about passing at the last second. The goal demonstrated patience and Zibanejad getting a good read on DeSmith. This display of hockey sense and skill is the kind of play we are used to seeing from Zibanejad. He had been picking up points prior to the game against the Penguins, but this goal should help to boost his individual confidence.
He and the team didn’t get to fully enjoy this though because late in the period, the Rangers seemed to take their foot off the gas. They allowed the Penguins to score three goals in only 61 seconds. This sequence included a play where Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren were both caught out of position, which is uncommon for the Rangers’ top defense pair. Winning in the NHL requires a full 60 minute effort and recovery from mistake. The Rangers were unable to recover from their 61 second meltdown. For a young team, this is a perfect example of how it is a learning curve year.
Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko noticeable in returns
Filip Chytil returned from injury last Tuesday against the Sabres. He immediately went back to using his speed to his advantage. Chytil is at his best when he’s skating and joining rushes. On Saturday against the Devils, he recorded a goal in only his third game back. Chytil started the season playing the best hockey of his career before being injured in a collision with the Penguins’ Evan Rodrigues. It seems he has been able to come back and pick up where he left off, which is a great sign for the Rangers. One question that remains is if he is better suited to play center or wing. The Rangers have more flexibility with this now as Kevin Rooney has proven to be a valuable asset on the third line.
Kaapo Kakko returned from having been in COVID protocol on Saturday against the Devils. He picked up an assist in that game on a goal by Ryan Strome. He has appeared more confident this season in comparison to last, making the types of plays that made him the second overall pick in 2019. Also, he has been harder on the puck as he has 16 takeaways and only one giveaway. However, he needs to be willing to hold onto the puck for longer instead of looking to make passes too quickly. This was particularly evident on Sunday against the Penguins. There were several instances in which Kakko could have skated to make a play but chose to pass instead. While there is still work to be done with both him and Chytil, it is encouraging to see them both having success.
Examining the Rangers third line
Line combinations have changed fairly often for the Rangers this season. But let’s assume for a moment that the bottom six consists of Chytil, Rooney, Blackwell, Brett Howden, Julien Gauthier/Phil DiGiuseppe, and Brendan Lemieux. This is also considering the fact that Panarin is not currently in the lineup and therefore Lafreniere and Kakko are both in the top six.
Blackwell has been solid for the Rangers and has produced offensively. He can be used by David Quinn on either the second or the third line depending on where personnel is needed. He’s hard working and has spoken about making the most out of this chance with the Rangers. That attitude can only be helpful when on a team trying to find their identity. Additionally, as Chytil progresses it may become evident that he is a better winger than center. In that case, playing him on a line with Rooney at center appears to be a viable option.
Analyzing the Rangers fourth line
There are some more uncertainties surrounding the fourth line. For some other teams, the Islanders for example, the fourth line is used as an “identity line” or “energy line.” The Rangers, however, have a fourth line that seems a little bit thrown together. The line generally consists of a combination of Howden, Lemieux, and DiGiuseppe or Gauthier. They each bring something different to the table, but they don’t seem to have a collective identity like some other fourth lines.
This is Howden’s third year with the Rangers. He brings a good work ethic along with a presence on the penalty kill. However, he has little offensive upside as he currently has only two assists on the season. He is going to have to start playing a more physical game or producing more offensively going forward. The Rangers could chose to keep Chytil as a center and drop Rooney into Howden’s spot. Or they could call up Morgan Barron later in the season to give him a look at center. However, an important thing that Howden does is stay out of the penalty box. He does have nine penalty minutes on the season, but five of those came from a fight that proved beneficial to the Rangers. As the fourth line center, he cannot afford to be taking bad penalties in untimely fashion.
Lemieux brings a physical presence and willingness to fight. This is particularly useful against heavier teams. His personality is also something the Rangers seem to value. He is a good fit where he is in the lineup and definitely contributes to the Rangers’ identity. As for DiGiuseppe, he started off the season well. He was making plays that led to offensive rushes and was producing himself as well. His production has slowed down slightly, however his play in all three zones has been notable. His game is comparable to that of Jesper Fast. Gauthier is young yet and has been fairly inconsistent. He has picked up a few more points recently though. The Rangers just need more time to see what kind of player he really is.