New York Rangers: Biggest disappointments in 1st half of 2023-24 NHL season

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Despite an 8-9-1 stretch that carried them to the halfway point of the 2023-24 NHL season, the New York Rangers have very little to be disappointed about through their first 41 games.

They’ve spent much of the first half battling for first overall in the League and sit atop the Metropolitan Division. Winger Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate as NHL MVP. And Peter Laviolette is on the short list for the Jack Adams Award as top coach in the NHL.

But nothing is ever perfect. And we’ve already examined the Rangers biggest surprises this season.

So, let’s take a look at the other side of things.

Rangers’ biggest disappointments in 1st half of 2023-24 NHL season

kaapo kakko chytil

Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko longer-term injuries  

The Rangers steamrolled to a 26-13-2 record at the midpoint of the season largely without two of their top-six forwards. Filip Chytil has missed 32 games (31 in first half and the first game in the second half) with an upper-body injury and Kaapo Kakko missed 21 games with a lower-by injury. Kakko returned for the 2-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday.

Chytil is back home in Czechia for a “reset” and has been skating with Jaromir Jagr. Vincent Trocheck has done an outstanding job moving up to replace Chytil between Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere after Chytil had six assists in the first 10 games. But New York was eager to see the 24-year-old take the next steps as an NHL player, just as Lafreniere has done this season. And there’s no timetable for Chytil’s return, throwing the Rangers’ trade deadline plans somewhat into chaos.

Kakko missed valuable time in the top six, where he began the season playing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. The 22-year-old only had two goals and one assist in 20 first-half games. He’s another young forward the Rangers are eager to evaluate, especially since he’s a restricted free agent at the end of this season. The injury didn’t help that process.

Igor Shesterkin has been good, not great for Rangers

This feels a bit nitpicky, but Igor Shesterkin wasn’t great the first half of the season. And when you’ve set the bar as high as Shesterkin did when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2021-22, then anything less is a letdown. Such is the curse of greatness.

The 28-year-old has been good and did have great moments over the first 41 games. But he just wasn’t as consistently on top of his game as the Rangers would like to see. He’s tied for sixth in wins (17) but is 16th among NHL goalies who’ve played at least 20 games with a 2.83 goals-against average and tied for 19th with an NHL career-low .903 save percentage.

Feels like we talked more about Jonathan Quick in the first half than Shesterkin.

The Rangers are still a first-place team. But if they plan to be a Stanley Cup-winning team, the Rangers need Shesterkin to be great in the playoffs, meaning the second half is very important for him.

Rangers struggle to find right wing on top line

Perhaps now that Kakko is healthy and back in the lineup, this gets sorted out with him taking ownership of right wing alongside Zibanejad and Kreider. But Kakko wasn’t exactly lighting it up before he was sidelined a couple months. So, the Rangers need to decide in the next few weeks if they, again, need to trade for someone to play on the top line.

Two seasons ago, it was Frank Vatrano who was brought in and played well with the BFFs, Zibanejad and Kreider. A year ago, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko were big-ticket acquisitions. This season, Kakko, Blake Wheeler and Jonny Brodzinski got some run in that spot.

If the Rangers feel compelled to acquire a center because of Chytil’s health woes, then they’d sure like to see Kakko emerge as an in-house candidate to ride shotgun on the first line.

Rangers showed cracks during 8-9-1 stretch before halfway mark of season

It was bound to happen. After beginning the season on an 18-4-1 tear, the Rangers hit a rough patch, 8-9-1 in their final 18 games before the halfway mark of the season.

Not terrible. And if you believe Rangers captain Jacob Trouba, it’s good to fight through adversity now before the playoffs begin.

But some key areas were exposed during this time and starting the second half with a solid win against the Capitals doesn’t cure all their ills. The Rangers need to be more committed to their 200-foot defensive game and must be harder to play against, particularly in the neutral zone. Far too many odd-man chances against also must be addressed.

The Rangers are still in first place and have one losing skid longer than two games all season. So, there’s no reason to panic. But regaining their edge in the second half of the season is paramount for the Blueshirts.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny