Are the Rangers being forged by fire or melting away?

The New York Rangers dropped another game on Friday night. This time a 5-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on home ice, where they outshot their opponent by a margin of 38-20.

There’s no doubt the Rangers are in a downward spiral after an amazing start to the 2023-24 campaign, which saw them in first place by double digits around November. The team was red-hot holding a record of 18-4-1, and hadn’t suffered consecutive losses during that stretch. However, once they did lose two in a row to the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals beginning on Dec. 5, their record is a mediocre 11-12-2.

“We definitely had things going our way early on,” veteran Blake Wheeler explained. “We have to stay rooted in the fact that what we want to achieve is going to be really hard. Harder than this. Great teams are made in fire, and we’re certainly in the fire right now. This could be a very useful situation for our team if we handle it the right way.”

Is Wheeler right? Are the Rangers really being forged by fire or are they simply melting away?

Related: Filip Chytil suffers setback

New York Rangers: Forged by Fire?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers are an absolute mess, and there’s no sugarcoating it anymore.

“We want to win hockey games,” said an exasperated Peter Laviolette. “We’re pressing and trying to do the right things. I thought we could’ve scored three or four goals in the first period (against Vegas). We walked away with just one. We push in the second period and they get one off a partial breakaway and a bounce on that third one. We lost our way after that.”

Once again, the Blueshirts came out of the gate strong, but were done in by another subpar start by Igor Shesterkin. Unless there’s some lingering issues from the injury he suffered back in early November, this slump appears to be either mental, technical, or both.

After winning five straight to close out 2023, he’s just 4-5-1 to start the new year. Furthermore, all of those wins have come versus teams out of the playoffs. What’s even more concerning is Shesterkin’s stats in January, with a 3.25 GAA and an .863 save percentage. It’s been downright abysmal.

“I think he made some big saves, but everybody has to do more,” Laviolette said to protect his fragile goalie.

If the Rangers are going to turn this around, it’s going to have to start from the net out. Jonathan Quick will get the nod tonight in Ottawa against the Senators before the All-Star Break, but he hasn’t been tearing it up either.

After a stretch where Quick went 8-0-1, he hasn’t won a game since Dec. 15 (0-4-1). While some of this is a byproduct of the Rangers shoddy defense, his GAA is 3.26. That’s coupled with an .884 save percentage, which is simply not good enough.

Of course, goaltending and defense aren’t the only problems. This is a one-line team that’s getting nothing from either Mika Zibanejad or Chris Kreider at even strength. If the Vincent Trocheck line flanked by Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere don’t get at least two goals a game, the Rangers don’t win.

Scoring from the bottom-six is non-existent, and it feels like Will Cuylle is being wasted on the third-line. The anticipated return of Filip Chytil felt like an opportunity to unlock more offense from that unit with Kaapo Kakko on the right wing. Sadly, Chytil suffered a setback at an optional skate on Friday morning, and his longterm health is at the forefront of any decisions regarding his career.

Unfortunately, the business of hockey must go on, and general manager Chris Drury has already made one tough decision by placing veteran Nick Bonino on waivers. There’s undoubtedly more to come as well.

If the Rangers are being forged by fire, it isn’t just the players on the ice going through the process. Drury is being tested early in his career as a GM. He’s going to have to make some hard decisions to help change the makeup of this team, which is obviously mentally soft and often way too easy to play against.

Will the Rangers and Chytil make the tough choice to shut it down for the season? By doing so, they can use his $4.4M AAV to acquire another center like Elias Lindholm in Calgary or Sean Monahan in Montreal.

Is that enough? Do the Rangers trade Kaapo Kakko for an upgrade at right wing and maybe a shutdown defenseman? All that would help, but unless Shesterkin and Quick can get back to stopping pucks, it won’t matter.

Yes, the Rangers are definitely in the fire. However, will they come out stronger like steel, or simply melt like butter? Everyone is going to start clearly seeing that answer coming out of the All-Star Break in February.

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore