The Broadway Doughnuts?
This time last year, there was plenty of reason for optimism amongst Rangers fans. They brought their most highly regarded prospect, Pavel Buchnevich over, from Russia. They defied all of the hockey insiders by signing Jimmy Vesey to add to an already talented group of forwards. Trade acquisitions Mika Zibanejad and Nick Holden, along with a full season of another rookie, Brady Skjei, added to the intrigue of a fairly complete, and well-rounded squad. But this year feels different to me.
Too Many Defenseman?
Kevin Shattenkirk is a great addition as a free agent. He has his defensive deficiencies, but his power play prowess, fine skating, and passing abilities should make the Rangers stronger. Trade deadline pickup Brendan Smith was a nice re-sign, considering his solid chemistry to the very important Brady Skjei. I would like to look forward to Anthony DeAngelo’s skill set, along with Neal Pionk’s play. A long look at the more mature Sean Day would be very interesting. But, there are still too many veteran defensemen ahead of those three youngsters.
Marc Staal and Nick Holden were a very good second pairing last year, and then saw a considerable drop in their play. Some whisper that the concussion that Staal suffered hampered his play as the year went along. Either way, bringing back both of those players impedes the possibility of DeAngelo (provided he has grown a whole lot), Pionk, Day, or Russian import Alexei Bereglazov of making a significant impact. While Bereglazov should make the team’s top seven, the other three have the option of playing in Hartford. From an armchair, it’s real easy to say Staal and Holden shouldn’t play if our Russian import and DeAngelo can outplay them. But, NHL general managers aren’t going to just lose their depth on the blue line for the price of nothing. Staal cannot be waived or traded, with his No Movement Clause having one year left. So, much to the chagrin of many, his spot is secure, unless he is somehow traded.
As for Holden, he doesn’t make enough for me to worry about his feelings if he sits in the press box for most of the season. But by the same token, if he were waived, he would surely get snatched up, with his fairly low cap hit at $1.65 million, and ability to play both sides at a decent level. It is also well known that Bereglazov has an out in his contract to return to the KHL if he is sent down to the AHL.
Broken Promises at Center?
Now we return to the position that is truly maddening, center. We all know that the team has lost Oscar Lindberg and Derek Stepan this offseason, and only signed the very marginal David Desharnais to be a 4th line pivot. Incumbents Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad both missed time due to injury last year, as did Desharnais. This position is on thin ice (pun intended) before the puck is even dropped on the 2017-18 season. GM Jeff Gorton very publicly stated that there would be trades and that “his phone rings more now with his team having cap space.” Well, we are still waiting for that center.
But it didn’t end there. In an interview with Dan Rosen, head coach Alain Vigneault says that acquiring a third line center is “definitely a possibility, and could be in the cards.” Again, teasing the media and the fans that a gaping hole could be filled, as well as possibly clearing up a logjam on defense.
The problem with all of this is that when the people that run the team are stating a need to go outside the organization, it puts the team at the mercy of the rest of the NHL. It also sets up the fans and media to jump all over the team if injuries occur to centers or even if there is a losing skid. People will point right to the unfulfilled intentions stated by the GM and head coach.
The center position is so important in today’s NHL. Without a Crosby, Malkin, or McDavid, a team needs depth down the middle to compete. The Rangers haven’t had a superstar first line center in many years. The team’s success has been attributed to depth rather than the big, go-to guy. Now, they don’t have that depth. Lias Andersson (2017 first round pick, 18 years old) and the oft-injured Cristoval Nieves, are battling for the vacant center spot, with the “loser” providing the only depth. Sorry, that does not inspire confidence. Also, rather than hoping that Hayes and Zibanejad have better years and progress, the team needs them to do just that.
The rumors out of New York and Toronto of Tyler Bozak coming to the Big Apple in a trade have amounted to nothing so far. The Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Matt Duchene talk have been just that. If management can’t fill the obvious glaring need at center, the season could be doomed before it starts. Two years ago, Derek Stepan broke his leg the first time he touched the ice in training camp. Zibanejad missed 26 games last year. Desharnais missed 33. So you see how this can go real bad in a real quick. And if there are no injuries, that third line center spot is not in sure hands by any means.
Trades in September and October have become very rare in the NHL. That’s not to say it’s impossible. But team management faces an uphill battle to clear up some excess at one position and fill a huge hole at another. Until then, be optimistic, but be forewarned.