Who or what will make or break the Rangers this season

Alain Vigneault meets with the press (NYR)

Alain Vigneault meets with the press (NYR)

The New York Rangers enter the 15/16 season as one of the favorites to win the Metropolitan Division and possibly the Eastern Conference. They have a large amount of their core players from last season still on the active roster, so there are less question marks than say Pittsburgh or Washington. However, there are still some spots that need to be worked out in camp and as a result questions loom. Who will be the Rangers X-factor this season? Who or what will be the reason they sink or swim?

There’s a lot of angst among the fanbase over where Kevin Hayes should play this coming season. Anthony did a great post the other day on Hayes’ development which I suggest you read here. In that article FTNYR asks if it’s possible the Rangers hurt Kevin Hayes’ development. Hard to say now at this juncture in the young man’s career but 45 point centerman don’t grow on trees. Especially those that are cost controlled (RFA’s) and only 23 years old. One thing is for sure. If Kevin Hayes cannot manage to at least equal his production from a season ago; the Rangers depth will take a hit this coming campaign.

It does not matter how much speed or skill you have on the wing. If your pivot cannot get them the puck, the line will be ineffective.

Mats-ZuccarelloThe play of Mats Zucarello will be pivotal to the Rangers success this season. They really don’t have another player with his speed, skill and playmaking ability. Zuccarello has had remarkable chemistry with Derek Brassard the last two seasons and even led the Rangers in scoring in 13/14 as a third line winger. The effect his presence has on the Rangers on and off the ice is paramount. He is a heart and soul player that has first line skill with a bottom six tenacity. One could make the argument that had Mats Zuccarello been in the lineup for the Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers could have manufactured a few goals in one of the 2-0 losses at the Garden (games 5 & 7).

Mats Zuccarello played against some of the toughest competition among forwards on the Rangers and still managed the second best possession rating. His 52.3% Corsi rating was second on the Rangers forwards to only his linemate Derick Brassard. He was playing a lot of his even strength (56.3% OZS%) minutes in the offensive zone but most teams start their top forwards in the offensive zone. Zucarello led all Ranger forwards with a 4.2% relative Corsi for percentage which means the Rangers were 4.2% better when Zuccarello was on the ice. There’s no denying the Rangers are a better team with Zuccarello on the ice. If he can return to form and play his relentless style of hockey, the Rangers will no doubt be a better team.

Dominic Moore #28 is all smiles (Photo by Anthony J. Causi)

Dominic Moore #28 is all smiles (Photo by Anthony J. Causi)

The final possibility for the Rangers X-factor will be the fourth line and how well it will be in terms of possession. Last season the fourth line was a shell of the one that went to the finals the year before. Dominic Moore was the anchor on that line but no matter how hard he played, Tanner Glass was always on his left slowing the line down. In 13/14 Moore held a very respectable 48.15% on ice Corsi for percentage of. Last season with Tanner Glass’s (43.3% CF) Dominic Moore’s possession rating dropped to 47%.

Keep in mind that under Alain Vigneault the fourth line plays some hard defensive zone minutes. Starting 70% of their even strength shifts in the defensive zone but there’s no doubt that Tanner Glass was a ball and chain last season, weighing the line down. Alain Vigneault finds himself in a tough position with Tanner Glass for a couple reasons. First is the fact that there will be some games like against Columbus and Boston that may require a deterrent like Glass. His $1.45 mil per season cap hit makes him a bad choice as a 13th forward.

Tanner Glass  (Getty)

Tanner Glass (Getty)

For Jeff Gorton that’s not exactly money well spent by his predecessor. There’s no reason Glass should have played 65 games last season for a contending team. He played his best hockey in the second round series against Washington so he wasn’t a total bust. Still far from what you’d expect from one of Alain Vigneault’s guys. Coach had better be sure Glass will be much better before playing him with the top 12 forwards.

These are all considered X-Factors because if they break right, things will go the Rangers way. If any one or two go wrong, the Rangers depth players in Hartford could be playing more NHL minutes then they can handle.

There’s going to be quite a few X-Factors to the 15/16 season but if things continue to progress, it could be the year that the Stanley Cup takes it’s stroll down the Canyon of Heroes.