The New York Rangers have remained competitive in the talented Metropolitan Division with a record of 13-4-3. The team is in third place in the division and is looking to maintain pace with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes, who are in first and second place, respectively. The Blueshirts have high expectations for this season in terms of playing hockey beyond the 82-game regular-season schedule.
With the quarter mark of their schedule complete, the team looks to be on the way to qualifying for the postseason, especially if they maintain their current pace for the remainder of the season. The Rangers will have their work cut out for them, as the Capitals and Hurricanes appear to be elite teams in the NHL. The argument can be made that all eight teams in the division will be challenged to maintain success given the level of aggressiveness in the Metro. The Rangers have their share of top players that have put them in a position to achieve their goal of returning to playoff hockey this season. Let’s take a look at what players have been exceptional for the Rangers at the quarter mark of the year.
Most Valuable Player, Most Surprising Player: Chris Kreider
The award for the team’s most valuable player (MVP) is difficult to determine given the excellent play of forward Chris Kreider, goaltender Igor Shesterkin and defenseman Adam Fox. The argument could be made the Rangers have co-MVPs between two of these three individuals or the entire trio. However, the Rangers forward has been on a monumental tear through the first 20 games of the season.
Kreider, who is in his 10th season in the NHL, has put up an astounding 15 goals through the first two months of the season. The chemistry he has with center Mika Zibanejad on the top line and first power-play unit has been automatic in terms of generating scoring opportunities. The native of Boston, Massachusetts, has an exceptional ability for establishing a net-front presence in the offensive zone. He endures battles with opposing forwards and defensemen in order to establish a good forecheck and create scoring chances from rebounds and deflections.
Kreider has not only been the MVP for the Blueshirts, but his start to the season has been the most surprising. His goal total currently puts him near the top of the NHL with an elite player such as Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin. The Rangers forward is tied for third in the league in goals with Calgary Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane and trails Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisalti (20 goals) and Ovechkin (19 goals).
The Rangers forward has nine power-play goals, which is second in the NHL, trailing only Draisaitl (10 power-play goals). Kreider has the benefit of playing with Zibanejad and forward Artemi Panarin on the same power-play line, and both of those players create opportunities for Kreider with their tremendous abilities to pass the puck in the offensive zone. Kreider has often been the recipient of goals due to his positioning in the offensive zone.
He has a history of streaky play throughout his career, which is one of the reasons for the criticisms against him. When Kreider accepted a seven-year contract extension in Feb. 2020, the concerns were valid from fans as to whether former President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and former general manager Jeff Gorton made the correct decision. A seven-year extension is a big investment for a franchise in a player whose past production has been volatile.
However, Kreider has quieted his critics and perhaps won them over with his tremendous start to the 2021-22 season. He seems to be as much of a sure thing as possible to net a goal and create multiple scoring opportunities per game this season. His low assist total (3 assists) limits his total number of points, but teams need to account for the damage he is capable of in terms of goal scoring.
His production rate makes him the first option his linemates are searching for in the offensive zone. It will be interesting to watch to see if he can maintain his high level of play through the season. He has benefited from playing under Rangers’ first-year head coach Gerard Gallant.
Most Disappointing Player: Alexandar Georgiev
Due to the Rangers’ success in terms of getting off to a good start this season, the players who have been struggling this season have not been as much of a focus. In other words, the positives outweigh the negatives thus far for the Blueshirts. There have been some players who have underachieved for the organization this season. Young forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere are two individuals on the roster with high expectations given their overall selection in prior NHL Entry Drafts. The former was selected with the number two overall selection in the 2019 draft, while the latter went first overall in the 2020 draft.
Although Kakko has played a bit better over the last two weeks, Lafreniere has struggled thus far in the 2021-22 season. The former has a stat line of 3-3-6 in 16 games played, while the latter’s stat line in 20 games played is 5-1-6. Given their young ages, better things are in store for the duo as they gain more experience with each game they play moving forward. But backup goaltender Alexandar Georgiev has clearly been the Rangers’ biggest weakness this season since his opening night start against the Capitals.
The fifth-year player has looked more reliable as a backup goaltender in previous years with the Blueshirts. In six games played and five starts in goal this season, Georgiev has a goals-against average (GAA) of 4.08 and a save percentage (SV%) of .858. His GAA and SV% numbers are the lowest of his career so far, even though he likely will play in more games as the season progresses. However, there is cause for concern based on his play at the quarter mark of 2021-22.
During his most recent start against the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 21, Georgiev allowed four goals on 18 shots through the first two periods of play. Gallant decided to bench him and put Shesterkin in net at the start of the third period. It is not a good sign if this becomes a trend because the Rangers starting goaltender assumes an even bigger role without a dependable backup goaltender. The uncertainty at the backup goaltender position is an evident weakness in evaluating the Blueshirts at the quarter mark of the season.
Biggest Offseason Addition: Ryan Reaves
During the previous offseason for the Rangers, new president and general manager Chris Drury recognized the need for physicality on the roster. Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Dryden Hunt, Patrik Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi were acquired during the period to fill this need. The Rangers also acquired Ryan Reaves in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, which capped off their additions of physicality. The argument could be made that the team acquired too many physical players, but the addition of Reaves has proven to be a necessary component to what was previously missing on the roster.
Reaves has provided a spark of enthusiasm to the Rangers roster while remaining intimidating to play against. Since his acquisition, he has interacted with the Rangers fan base on social media and lived up to his reputation to be an intimidating player for the opposition. He has even energized the home crowd at Madison Square Garden on more than one occasion.
Reaves has established himself as a necessary part of the roster because the Rangers lacked physicality, and he has filled that missing component. His size and build alone make it difficult for the opposition to play against him. He is enjoying himself during his play, and he provides a boost of energy to the crowd and his teammates when he demonstrates his physical style of play through body checks or fighting.
The Rangers have gotten off to a start that was better than expected, given that Gallant is in his first year as head coach and the average age is one of the youngest in the NHL. The team has shown that they can remain near the top of the Metropolitan Division and are challenging to play against, given where they are in the standings at the quarter mark of the 2021-22 season. Fans should be excited for what will be in store as the year progresses, as the Rangers have not looked this good in quite some time.