Adam Fox’s health could make or break playoff success for Rangers

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Fox’s health has been a lingering question during the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup Playoff run so far this postseason. The star defenseman hasn’t missed a game, but things seem just a bit off since he got dinged up in the final game of the first round against the Washington Capitals.

Asked about how he feels physically after participating in practice Tuesday ahead of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, Fox kept his answer brief.

“Good, yeah. Ready to go for tomorrow,” Fox replied, as he and Rangers captain Jacob Trouba shared a chuckle seated behind microphones.

Fox was the recipient of knee-to-knee contact on his right leg from Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round. The collision was reminiscent of a similar incident between Fox and Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho back on Nov. 2, which resulted in a lower-body injury injury that sidelined Fox for nearly a month.

He has played all 10 postseason games for the Rangers, though he’s missed several practices due to maintenance. Fox even sat out a well-attended optional practice Sunday, New York’s first after eliminating the Hurricanes in six games in the second round last week..

Related: Panthers coach hopes Blake Wheeler can return for Rangers in conference final

Adam Fox’s production is down for Rangers during Stanley Cup Playoffs

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Norris Trophy winner played at a point-per-game pace in the regular season, tallying 73 points in 72 games. However, there’s been a noticeable drop off in his production this postseason, four points in 10 games. Since the Jensen hit, he’s been limited to two assists and not recorded a point in his past four contests.

It’s out of character for the typically clutch defenseman. Fox recorded eight points last season in a seven-game series loss to the New Jersey Devils and 23 points in New York’s exciting 2022 playoff run, which spanned 20 games.

The combination of practice maintenance and limited production has spawned conjecture about his health. He’s displayed flashes of his offensive capabilities, such as a beautiful feed in Game 2 against Carolina that set up Alexis Lafreniere for a game-tying goal.

Still, it feels like Fox has struggled to find the offensive consistency that’s made him one of the League’s premiere two-way defenders. Of 98 defensemen with at least 40 minutes played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fox’s -0.9 Goals Above Expected ranks ninth worst (per MoneyPuck). He’s still helping to create chances at an above-average level, but it hasn’t always translated to the scoreboard.

It’s hard to picture the Rangers having extended playoff success without Fox returning to form. Outside of playing top defensive minutes night in and night out, Fox quarterbacks the Rangers elite top power-play unit, which is relied upon heavily for clutch scoring. They’ve posted the third-best power play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, converting at a 31.4 percent rate despite just two power-play points from Fox.

A bulk of that success, however, comes from a red-hot early stretch. Over the past four games, the Rangers power play is 1-for-10, with the lone goal being Kreider’s game-tying deflection in Game 6. The four-game power-play slide coincides with Fox’s four-game pointless skid.

A more productive Fox wouldn’t just improve the Rangers 5-on-5 metrics, which were inferior to the Hurricanes during the Round 2 series — it would also boost a power play that has already found success for stretches.

The Florida Panthers pose a scary physical threat for the Rangers, perhaps most importantly, Fox. Florida has the speed and offensive firepower to make them a scoring juggernaut, but they also have the gritty physicality that becomes so important in the playoffs.

Players in their bottom six like Nick Cousins and Sam Bennett have a reputation for hitting hard and playing on the edge. Look no further than Bennet’s controversial hit on Brad Marchand, which sidelined the Boston Bruins star for Games 4 and 5 of their second-round series, or Cousins’ big hit on Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson back in December.

That’s the level of physicality that players like Fox will have to brace for and contend with. It’s why Fox’s health will continue to be a point of discussion more than three weeks after the initial hit against Washington.

The Capitals gave the Rangers a small taste of what a physical series would look like back in Round 1. Florida will bring a similar feel to the Eastern Conference Final, just with more depth and high-end skill. That could be a daunting challenge if Fox’s health concerns linger throughout the series.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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