Rangers have a promising framework but require consistency for ultimate success
Going into the 2020-21 NHL season, it appeared the Rangers had four decent lines, two solid defense pairs, and two reliable goaltenders. Amid their early season struggles, it is important to note that many of the players on this team are truly better than what is currently being displayed.
Most of those guilty of this are the veterans. The Rangers’ top six, outside of Panarin, has not reached the level of play that they are expected to be at. Right now, this team requires every player on the roster to be better. There is plenty of potential and proven skill here that is not being reached or utilized at present.
Rangers veterans must step up
David Quinn has already shuffled the lineup quite a bit through the first nine games of the season. However, it appears the top six is expected to consist of the following players: Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, and Alexis Lafreniere. Of those, five can be considered veterans at this point. The best of them so far this season has been Panarin, as it should be, who has five goals and seven assist for twelve points. Other than him, Buchnevich has impressed so far with his apparent confidence and noticeable presence on the ice. He currently has two goals and five assists for seven points.
The veteran concerns on offense start with Mika Zibanejad. Over his last two seasons with the Rangers, Zibanejad proved he could be a top player in the league. So far this season, he hasn’t quite been able to reach his normal level of play.
He did test positive for COVID in January and therefore missed most of training camp. Nine games into the season though, the Rangers need their number one center to step up. Zibanejad only has two points (a goal and an assist) and is a -4 on the season.
The players, the organization, and the fanbase all know that this is not a true showing of Zibanejad’s ability and that he is well-deserving of the “A” he wears. It is just a matter of getting back to the level he was at last season. In a 56-game season, there isn’t much time to work things out. Kreider and Strome have both been producing more in the last few games, but improvement from just two veterans isn’t enough.
Kaapo Kakko needs more ice time
Kaapo Kakko has shown that he has an effective shot and after spending a year in the NHL, has the willingness to shoot more. He is also better adjusted to the pace of the game this season.
David Quinn may feel that Kakko is not quite adjusted enough, but losing him in a game won’t help that situation. Kakko has good size, is strong on his skates, and has a goal-scorer’s shot. Playing him on the third line made sense earlier as he showed excellent chemistry with Filip Chytil and Phil DiGiuseppe. But now that Chytil will be out for the next few weeks, it may make more sense to try him on the second line with Panarin and Strome. This will get him more playing time, and the opportunity to play with a star and a proven veteran.
Without more ice time, it will be harder for him to develop into the star many believe he can be. He was the obvious choice as the second overall pick in 2019, and the Rangers cannot allow his talent to go to waste. On the whole, the team needs every player to do more in order to be competitive in their division. But again, Kakko cannot contribute if he doesn’t play.
Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller leading Rangers defense
Last season, Adam Fox surprised in his rookie season. He looked far more comfortable than other rookies and made an immediate impact. So far this season, he has been just as effective. Fox plays a good transition game, is almost always in position in the defensive zone, and capable of generating offense. He leads the defense in assists (5) and points (6). Last year, this was Tony DeAngelo’s territory. Now, DeAngelo has been placed on waivers. It should be interesting to see where this goes.
K’Andre Miller had a good night against the Penguins on Saturday as he recorded two assists. His effectiveness goes beyond the numbers. Miller’s assist on Kevin Rooney’s goal was a true heads-up play that is indicative of his constant awareness. He did make a mistake in the third period, but was able to recover immediately and get back to block a shot. Miller currently lead the team in plus/minus at +7.
Consistency is key for this Rangers team
In this shortened season, there isn’t much time for trial and error. Yet Quinn continues to try different combinations, mainly up front, every couple of games. It is also not uncommon for the Rangers’ lines to change mid-game.
This Rangers team is trying to find their identity, and it may be more worthwhile to give the players some consistency during this process. They need to find a level of comfort with their linemates or defense partners. This cannot be established if the combinations keep changing.
Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren have been a consistent pair with obvious chemistry. Kreider, Zibanejad, and Buchnevich have chemistry but have been split up of late. The third and fourth lines may require consistency the most as they find ways to play effective hockey. The fourth line, for example, must turn into an energy line. While chemistry is not necessary for hitting everything that moves, it is for generating offense as a result of gaining puck possession.
The Rangers have blown too many leads already this season, and it has cost them games. They start to sit back a bit too much and stop skating. As Kreider mentioned in his post-game interview on Saturday night, the team started going east to west instead of north to south. They need to not just understand what needs to be done to hold a lead, but actually be able to do so.
It is not time to panic about goaltending
While Igor Shesterkin and Alex Georgiev may have seemed shaky through the first eight games, this is not who they are. Both have proven that they can be elite goaltenders at the NHL level. They just need to find their game. It appears they may be adjusting to the lack of a veteran presence at their position without Henrik Lundqvist. But once they get past this, they should be back to normal.
Last night, Igor Shesterkin was rock solid and turned aside 25 of 26 shots in the Rangers 3-1 win over the Penguins.
The Rangers are close to the team they should be
Overall, this team has talent and skill in all areas. Now it is about making sure every player shows up to play every night and developing the individual parts into a cohesive group. The rookies and younger players have not be an issue so far this season. If they can continue to do what they’re doing and if the veterans can reach the level they’re expected to be at, this Rangers team will be a playoff contender.