Storylines to Watch As Rangers Drop Puck on 2017-18 Season
As fans, players, and coaches gear up for the start of the regular season, here are some things to look for as the journey for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins.
There was much made of the play of the Rangers rookies last season, and for good reason. Brady Skjei introduced himself to the NHL by being a 200-foot defenseman with excellent skating ability and awareness in all three zones. Harvard free agent signing Jimmy Vesey put up 27 points in 80 games last year and should be able to shake off the first year “jitters” as he enters his second NHL season.
That leaves the much talked about, not so much played, Pavel Buchnevich; the young Russian was talked about a lot before last season and played solidly in his first campaign. After suffering an injury that kept him out of the lineup for a good chunk of the season, he was never able to regain his spot in the lineup, or in AV’s good graces. He was benched in favor of the lesser skilled Tanner Glass during the playoffs and was a fourth line player over the course of the year. I will concede that Glass was inserted not necessarily because of Buchnevich but as a way for Vigneault to wake up his team. But when a player in a speed and skill based system is benched for a player who fits a grind and grit system, it should force you to pause and reflect on why it happened.
And it seems that those moves from AV have jumpstarted Buchnevich for 2017-18. Buchnevich posted three points in four preseason games, and it appears as though he will be reunited with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad to start the season. This trio was productive for the Blueshirts early last year before both Zibanejad and Buchnevich went down with injuries.
Living Up To The Money
Speaking of Zibanejad, the Swedish center signed a 5-year, $26.75 million deal this summer and will be assuming the role as the team’s number one center. Zibanejad had an underwhelming debut season with the Rangers, especially when you consider he was injured for a good portion of the year. He put up 37 points in 56 games, which is not terrible, but he’ll need to improve on that pace over the full 82 games to truly be a first-line center.
The other big re-signing of the offseason was relative newcomer Brendan Smith. After being acquired from the Red Wings at the trade deadline Smith came in and provided a much-needed physical edge on the back end. He paired very well with the above-mentioned Skjei, and the two formed a dynamic duo in Smith’s short time on Broadway. Considering the moves Jeff Gorton made in the summer, Smith’s re-signing was a must. And with the rugged defenseman back in the fold, the Rangers have one of the best top-four groupings across the NHL.
A Deep Defense
If there was one thing that Jeff Gorton needed to do during the long summer break, it was to improve the defense. Yes, the Rangers were a little thin down the middle coming into camp, but the emergence of their first-round pick Filip Chytil has given Rangers fans a reason to be optimistic. When it came to the defense however, you were dealing with aging veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal; youngster Brady Skjei; oft-scratched Kevin Klein and Steven Kampfer; the progressively deteriorating play of Nick Holden; and team captain Ryan McDonagh.
Now that Girardi is in Tampa after being bought out by the Rangers and Klein retired from the NHL to play in Switzerland, the team’s defense looks as good as it’s been in a long time. Skjei and Smith will remain together on the team’s second pair. Marc Staal will probably start the year with Nick Holden, much to the chagrin of most Rangers fans. If AV has learned anything from last season, we hope it’s that he needs to have a shorter leash when players aren’t performing, especially his defensemen, and with Anthony DeAngelo waiting in the wings, he’ll be the next man up to replace a struggling defender.
Finally, we have the top pairing of captain Ryan McDonagh and the pride of New Rochelle NY, Kevin Shattenkirk. After signing a team-friendly four-year contract with the Blueshirts Shattenkirk will look to bring his brand of offensive skill and skating to Broadway. He also allows Ryan McDonagh to not have to carry the weight of the entire team on his shoulders. McDonagh had been the go-to guy on the power play, penalty kill, and at even strength. Now with Shattenkirk on the squad, the PP duties will be off of the Minnesota native and the captain can now relax on the ice. Furthermore, McDonagh will be able to step-up in the offensive zone, if he chooses, knowing he has a capable defender playing next to him.
Powering Up the Power Play
When it comes to the Rangers special teams, and specifically the power play, there are different facets that need to be inspected. Who will be on each five-man unit? Will AV and Scott Arniel change the breakout scheme, as we alluded to on FullTilt Radio this week? Will the players finally stop passing up opportunities to get the puck to the net instead of trying to find the perfect pass?
The Rangers PP has been a struggle for the last few years, to put it mildly. Since the 2011-12 season, the Rangers man-advantage ranks 22nd across the NHL. Needless to say, it’s not good. In my mind, the Rangers biggest problem has been the breakout. After the Red Wings had a lot of success using the “drop-pass” in the 2000s it started becoming widely used across the NHL and the Rangers were no exception.
Here’s the thing though, the Rangers don’t and have never had the personnel the Red Wings had. The Red Wings power play units consisted of guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Brian Rafalski and Chris Chelios. We are talking about a two current Hall of Famers (Lidstrom/Chelios), two or three potential future Hall of Famers, and two US Hockey Hall of Fame Members (Chelios/Rafalski). The Rangers have had good players, but never that level of talent.
The Rangers’ biggest asset is their speed and with Alain Vigneault wanting to play an up-tempo, high-energy style, it would stand to reason that he should continue that when there is more room to utilize that speed. When the puck gets dropped back, only two players of the five are in motion. The way I see it, the Rangers using the drop-back pass can be summed up in this line from the movie Dodgeball:
The Rangers have a combination of size and speed in their forward group that is being grossly misused by the coaching staff. Here are two ways that I think the PP can improve just by changing the breakout; because let’s face it, if you don’t get the puck into the zone with the extra man, it doesn’t matter who is on the ice.
One way is to have all five guys come up the ice together. Let’s take a unit of Zibanejad, Zuccarello, Kreider, Shattenkirk, Skjei. Shattenkirk is the man behind the net as the quarterback, Zibanejad and Skjei are on one wall and Zuccarello and Kreider are on the other wall. Shattenkirk can make a pass up either wall and allow the guys receive the puck with speed, to get set in the offensive zone.
And I think this is a good starting point. You can run simple variations on this as well. One way is to have the two inside skaters skating in a crossing pattern across the neutral zone, while there is still a presence along the wall. This way Shattenkirk will have four options to pass to, all occupying different areas of the ice.
A second variation would still include the drop pass, but it would happen much earlier. Here, and I know it’s messy, but you have the two inside players curling behind Shattenkirk as he skates past faceoff dots in his own zone. As he gets to the blue line, he drops it back and then a quick pass is made; either along the same wall or to the outer players cutting towards the middle of the ice. In this scenario, even a bad pass up the middle would give players the chance to at least deflect the puck into the zone and negate an icing. On a crisp pass here, you have a 2v2 at a minimum coming in with speed.
If the Rangers are going to have the kind of season that sees them playing hockey late into the spring, they will need to improve on their power play from the back end.
Will The King Get Back On His Throne?
It was talked about all last year; have we seen Henrik Lundqvist turn to the back nine of his career? In this writer’s opinion… the answer is no, but we’re getting close. That isn’t to say that Henrik is a scrub all of a sudden, but you’d have to think that his window is closing, and closing fast. The backbone of the organization’s run of success over the last 12 years and the winning-est goaltender to come from Europe, King Henrik will be turning 36 in March.
Henrik looked more than mortal last season. He posted a career-worst 2.74 GAA and a .910 SV%. Some of that can be attributed to the porous defense in front of him, but Henrik gave up four or more goals 14 times during the 2016-17 regular season.
Henrik is still going to give the Rangers a chance every night he is on the ice. He showed he can still be an all-world goaltender as we saw at the IIHF World Championships in May. And the Rangers improved defensive group will certainly help him this year, but if Henrik is going to reclaim his throne, he will need to turn back the clock just a few years.
In a year where the experts have been saying no playoffs, I say otherwise! The Rangers, to me, are more than just a playoff team, but they are a serious contender in the East. They have a revamped defense that is as deep as any in the NHL. They have young forwards that have a lot of promise and will be looking to make the next step and they have a goaltender who is a first ballot Hall of Famer that is missing that giant jewel on his crown.
I see the Blueshirts finishing in the third division spot around 100-106 points. I think the PP will improve with a true QB in Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh will have one of the best offensive seasons of his career. I can see this team going to the Eastern Conference Finals and giving the Penguins a run for their money as the beast of the East.