The New York Rangers have not played very well all season. It is quite apparent at this point that their 16-3-2 start was driven by a fortuitous combination of unsustainably good goaltending and luck. Now, the Blueshirts are mired in more than just a slump, as they have slid to third place in the Metropolitan division, and rank in the middle of the NHL in goals against after leading the league for most of the beginning of the season.
For whatever reason, this team as currently constructed is not good enough, despite its success in recent seasons. It’s time for general manager Jeff Gorton and the rest of the staff to consider shaking things up.
Reversal of Fortune
I wrote previously that the Rangers had an unrealistically high PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) early in the season, and that that would regress to the mean. As that has inevitably happened, the losses have piled up, with the club going just 5-11-2 in its past 18 games. New York has not won consecutive games since November 21-23. Not exactly what one would expect from a supposed Stanley Cup contender.
Not only has their largely poor play caught up with them, but now, the Rangers’ luck has completely flipped, as they are even losing games in which they actually play well. Take Saturday’s game against the red-hot Florida Panthers as an example. The Rangers, contrary to what they have done for most of this season, actually played a decent game, controlling the puck for most of the night. They out-shot the Panthers by a staggering 40-20 count, yet lost 3-0.
It seemed like any time they made a mistake, the puck ended up in their net. Conversely, they could not convert any of their opportunities into goals. Sure, veteran Roberto Luongo was strong between the pipes for Florida, and the Rangers could have screened him more to make things more difficult, but at the same time, they just could not catch a break. Meanwhile, Florida scored a fluky goal to make the score 2-0 in the second period — perhaps the turning point in the game.
The Big Picture
With the wild swings of luck that the Rangers have had this season, it is important to try to assess things objectively, and look at how well the team has played from a perspective of process. When doing so, it’s quite clear that the Rangers have not looked like a good team for any consistent stretch this season.
Why is this happening? Coach Alain Vigneault’s system had previously worked wonders for this team. They have most of the same players they had last season, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy and came within one period on home ice of a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Perhaps it’s that all of their core players are another year older. Perhaps it’s more so that their core players have put on a lot of mileage with their deep playoff runs the past few seasons. Dan Girardi, at 31, has rapidly declined. Marc Staal, at just 28, also looks a step slow. While those players’ struggles have already been documented, there are other players who just have not been good enough this season, including Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Rick Nash, and Derek Stepan (when he has been healthy).
We’ve seen head-scratching declines in performance plague previously powerhouse clubs in recent years, such as the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins last season. Both of those clubs missed the playoffs last season after being perennial Stanley Cup contenders in the handful of preceding years. They were likely gassed from their deep playoff runs. Could the same thing be happening to the Rangers?
The Kings and Bruins also shook things up following their disappointment. Milan Lucic was actually shipped from Boston to Los Angeles, and the Bruins also traded promising youngster Reilly Smith to Florida for another good young player, Jimmy Hayes (brother of the Rangers’ Kevin).
Those teams, however, made their most significant moves after the season was lost. The Rangers should think about preempting what could become a lost season, and make some kind of significant roster move to create a much-needed spark. Girardi and Staal would be hard to trade because of their no-movement clauses, but it’s worth a try.
While the club should still not consider making a coaching change, they should give some thought to dangling impending restricted free agents Kreider and Hayes, the latter of whom has been a healthy scratch the past two games and has been scathingly called out by Vigneault.
A few months ago I could not have imagined advocating such moves, but things have come to a breaking point. There has been almost nothing this season to suggest that the team’s overall play will get significantly better, so changes might be on the horizon.