Rangers offseason changes have made them a playoff team; are they ready for that challenge?
With some new additions to the lineup and a coaching change, the New York Rangers look like a different team this season. They currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division with 56 points. This was difficult to imagine before the season started. But the Rangers have exceeded expectations. They are certainly on track to make the playoffs. But are they prepared for that task?
It has often been said that the playoffs are “a different animal” than the regular season. The playoffs are often not kind to finesse teams. Those teams always must make physicality or speed a more prominent part of their game. While the Rangers have elements of both speed and physicality, they’ll need more in the postseason.
Postseason requires another level
Of the three elements listed above, the Rangers have usually been described as a finesse team. While they do have several very skilled players on offense and defense, they don’t always convert. As a team, offense has been streaky throughout the season. At the beginning, they struggled to score at all. They’ve mostly found their offensive game and score much more now. However, they do still experience bouts of troubled scoring. Despite their streaky scoring, the Rangers still fit the description of a finesse team more than anything else.
Finesse needs a partner in the playoffs. The two avenues available are speed and physicality. The Rangers have generally preferred to play a higher paced game. This season, there are some nights where their speed jumps up at you. But if this is the element that would mainly accompany finesse in the postseason, they’ll have to place with this kind of speed more consistently.
There is also the option of being a more physical team. It can be argued that this was the main reason the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019. The Blues had a big team that played a heavy, physical style. It helped them compete and win in the playoffs when they were considered an underdog. The Rangers made additions to their roster in the off-season with the intention of improving this aspect.
Ryan Reaves has made a visible difference with 144 hits in 33 games played. Aside from Ryan Reaves, Jacob Trouba has also committed himself to playing his physical game which has elevated his play and the Rangers as a whole. But the team will need more physical play from all parts of the lineup in the playoffs.
Barclay Goodrow is just that kind of player and with Sammy Blais out for the season, Dryden Hunt will need to be another physical contributor.
Contributions are needed from every player
Playoff success is rarely about one particular player. It is more so the result of a complete team effort. This is where Chris Drury’s vision of each player having and understanding a role matters most. In theory these roles will help get contributions from all parts of the lineup. Some roles have become more clearly defined this season. For example, Chris Kreider has become the net-front presence, and Jacob Trouba has become, more consistently than in the past, as a physical defenseman. But other players’ roles still aren’t so clear, so they can’t contribute as much as those with defined roles.
Kaapo Kakko has been moved between the first and second line throughout the season. He played well on the right wing with solid puck distributor Ryan Strome in the middle and passing magician Artemi Panarin on the left. On that line, Kakko was expected to be a goal scorer and was starting to get comfortable there when Gerard Gallent moved him to the first line. The top line has net-front presence Chris Kreider and strong shooter Mika Zibanejad. Suddenly, Kakko has to become more of a playmaker. He seems to not have adjusted as well to this role. Zibanejad is also an excellent play maker, and some nights the top line looks like a two-person line, leaving Kakko out. Gallant and Kakko need to find where he can be most effective so he can contribute.
Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow are other interesting players to watch in this search for a role. Chytil has almost always been used at center with the Rangers but recently has had some good looks on the wing. Chytil’s awareness on the ice just isn’t where it needs to be in order for him to be center. He needs to be able to distribute the puck which has proven to be an issue for him. Chytil has picked up his game recently recording three assists and one goal for four points in his last five games, mostly as a winger. At this point in his career, he is expected to produce especially if the Rangers are to make the playoffs.
Barclay Goodrow is a playoff player. Both with the San Jose Sharks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Goodrow was a reliable player and integral part of their playoff runs. The Rangers will need him to reach this other level he has in the postseason. Contributions need to come from all four lines, not only the top two. All three defense pairs have been solid recently, especially with the addition of Braden Schneider.
Rangers have the coaching to achieve playoff success
Looking at Gerard Gallant’s recent coaching history, he took the Vegas Golden Knights to the playoffs all three years of his tenure there. In the Knights’ inaugural season, he took them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Clearly, Gallant knows how to navigate the postseason.
Additionally, it’s been often said that Gallant is a “player’s coach” and players enjoy playing for him. That seems to be holding true with the Rangers considering their vast improvement from last season where there was an apparent disconnect between the players and then-Head Coach David Quinn.
Rangers proving they can be resilient
Since returning from holiday break, the Rangers have had players going on and coming off the COVID list. There have also been some injuries But even with multiple regular players out, they were able to get through the stretch without losing ground in the division.
The Rangers’ third and fourth lines looked like a minor league team on paper with Tim Gettinger, Morgan Barron, Johnny Brodzinski, and Greg McKegg playing. However, they each did what was required of them to help the Rangers succeed. In particular, Barron stood out at center. The Rangers should consider giving him another, more substantial look.
Wednesday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a good example of this team’s resilience. The Rangers were down 3-1 after the first period but were able to come back and win it 6-3. Ryan Reaves and the fourth line really led the way. A strong fourth line is an ingredient for success especially in the playoffs, so it will be encouraging if they can continue to contribute offensively or even just physically to send a message.
The Rangers still have 42 games left in their season to make adjustments. It’s likely that they will make the playoffs, and they can be ready. They’re a young team, but they have players with playoff experience and a coach who knows how to coach in that situation. They have a foundation that they can build upon in order to prepare for the postseason. It will be interesting to see what they do in the second half of the season and whether or not they can actually contend.
Note: All stats come from hockeyreference.com and nhl.com
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