The Metropolitan Division of the NHL is again shaping out to be the hardest division this 2021-22 season. It is a tough call between the Metro and the Central, but with the Metro ultimately taking the cake, what does it mean for the teams of the Metro, specifically the New York Rangers?
Firstly, it means the young Rangers will fight tooth and nail to keep up in their division standings. Meanwhile, they sit comfortably sixth overall in the league with a 13-4-3 record. This places them third in their own division, with the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals leading the pack, without any signs of slowing down.
There is still most of the season to go, but the Rangers collected 29 points in their 20 games played. The best team in the league currently, the Capitals (point proven), have 33 points, meaning the Rangers are barely trailing behind. With 62 games remaining, the Blueshirts will need to keep up their pace, mostly to stay relevant in their division. However, this does not need to be an intrinsically negative situation.
If the Rangers proved one thing already, it is that they adapt at a fast pace. Between coach head coach Gerard Gallant’s line swaps to overall team chemistry in general, this team knows how to learn on the fly. The team is also enjoying sparks of depth, forwards Dryden Hunt, Julien Gauthier, and Kevin Rooney were recent contributors.
Given the inevitability of the injury bug and absences due to COVID protocol, adaptability and depth are two massive aspects the team will need to preserve for sustained success. Other than the team getting tested early, not to mention the Rangers had to meet the Capitals opening night this season, Gallant is free to shuffle around his options all to his heart’s desire.
With winger Sammy Blais injured and out for the rest of the season, Gallant did not have much of a choice. As unfortunate as the circumstance is, the coaching staff is able to see which players have instant chemistry. They can use these back up plans if scoring becomes scarce, or a player needs to get going again at any point of the long stretch ahead.
With certain teams in the division struggling, such as the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers are in a great position to widen the gap, especially as the Islanders face a COVID pause. Though the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets are in a similar boat in terms of a rebuild, it is clear the Rangers have the edge. Other than this broad perspective, there are multiple reasons competing in the toughest division should actually help the Rangers.
Seeing What Igor Shesterkin Is Made Of
Shesterkin’s first two seasons in the NHL were different from most rookie goaltenders’. Due to the timing of the season, a three-goalie roster, and COVID-19, Shesterkin only played 12 games during his debut near the end of the 2019-20 season. The next, he saw 35 games. The Russian goaltender had a proven track record in every other league, but his full potential was not on display.
With several other teams in a similar phase, it may come down to a goaltender battle in the Metro for the final ticket to a postseason spot. Although Shesterkin’s performance is crucial now, it will become even more important as the season forges on.
Meeting tough teams early forces the Rangers into different scenarios, and Shesterkin is forced to perform in overtime and shootouts sooner than later. Though he faced some of these situations before, the sample size is still small in terms of persistent weak areas.
There is no debate Shesterkin is a legitimate NHL goaltender, but some goalies have weak spots that eventually become the thorn in the side of the organization. For example, Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tristan Jarry’s tough time in high-stakes games or Philadelphia’s Carter Hart’s shootout struggles.
With Shesterkin getting the green light these days, he is quickly getting tested as the starting Rangers netminder, and for real, finally. At 26 years of age, he came in to expeditiously take over the number one role after 15 seasons of the Henrik Lundqvist show.
Early Adversity Breeds Different Approaches
While the Rangers continue to succeed as lower teams continue to sink, this is a great time for the Blueshirts to ride the momentum. With Gallant in his debut term with the Rangers, the coach is still in trial and error mode, getting to know his players. Though Gallant’s impact was immediate and his experience is vast, there is simply no way the coaching staff has the team all figured out yet.
Putting in the extra effort for wins is additional practice the younger players are getting as they simultaneously adjust to the standard 82-game format. Former second and first overall draft picks, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière, are becoming more and more visible; it is clear they are embracing the early challenges. With the team working extra hard for their nightly two points to stay alive in the division, the young core is developing together on a higher level.
The team has yet to meet some divisional teams, which are sure to be anything but a breeze, but comfortability and the confidence from overpowering their other competition will translate into their game. For the young group, confidence is everything. Gauthier also vocalized how important familiarity with his linemates is, especially when practicing.
Thanks to the seasoned and rookie team dynamic, the kids will also have the veteran Rangers to lean on when facing these familiar teams. Regardless, the team is finding a way to win, even if it is close and not always pretty.
With several Metro teams competing as the division’s dark horse like the Devils and Blue Jackets, plus the Penguins’ annual resurgence in the month of November, the Blueshirts hopefully avoid that contest and stay above in the standings. They also face another hurdle when the seasoned Islanders find their footing when they manage to keep a healthy roster. Although it may seem disheartening to be in the Metropolitan, there are many opportunities ahead, and the organization is making rapid progress.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.