The New York Rangers entered the season knowing they had a strong top-six capable of putting up plenty of offense. Last season, they lacked a lot of secondary scoring and in particular, had a very weak fourth line for most of the season. The weak bottom-six and bottom defensive pairing put New York at a disadvantage since they had to rely on Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin lines. In the past few games, the Blueshirts have seen quite a few guys who were expected to play limited roles or even guys on the taxi squad step up and contribute in big ways. The Rangers have had a few injuries early on, particularly with Filip Chytil, Brendan Smith and Jack Johnson who were all on the main roster to start the season.
In the first five games of the season, the Rangers were 1-3-1 but since, have gone 3-1-1. The depth players have played a big role in the team’s turnaround. The fourth line, in particular, has been buzzing in the offensive zone creating chances, playing strong on the forecheck and doing a solid job of wearing the other team down. The Rangers were a fragile team in terms of team defense last season, but for the most part, they have made strong all-around adjustments up and down the roster. Last year, they had plenty of offensive power in guys like Zibanejad, Panarin, Ryan Strome, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox.
Assistance From the Youth
Kaapo Kakko had a very underwhelming rookie season, primarily playing in the bottom six, but has rejuvenated himself and has become one of the Rangers most effective forwards. The points are not quite there yet (two goals, one assist) but his play has grown immensely and he has worked his way into the top six with Panarin and Strome. Before Chytil’s injury, the duo had been excelling at keeping opponents in their end while racking up scoring chances. Brendan Lemieux seems to have honed his game more as well – he has been a huge part of the bottom line’s high energy and high impact play.
K’Andre Miller has been a revelation on the backend for the Rangers. There was the full expectation he would need to adjust to professional hockey but that transition has been seamless. Miller has been strong on all ends of the puck and shown he can defend against the league’s best, like he did against Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has gotten better and better each game, essentially forcing his way into the Rangers’ top four by the fifth game of the season.
Depth Players Making Their Presence Known
The Rangers have also had some of their older players stepping up in major ways and a few members of the taxi squad. Phil Di Giuseppe has been great in the middle-six as a relentless forechecker capable of forcing turnovers. So far this season, Di Giuseppe has five assists which ties him for third-most on the team. His five points are also fifth-most on the team. He was the third member of the line with Chytil and Kakko that out-chanced the New Jersey Devils 17-3 in their first meeting. He was also the one who forced the turnover for Chytil’s highlight goal against the Penguins. Di Giuseppe also saw some time in the top six as Head coach David Quinn was searching for a way to fill the hole left by Jesper Fast, just like he did last season when Kreider was injured. (from ‘Rangers’ Phillip DiGiuseppe gets rave reviews in place of injured Chris Kreider’, Newsday, 03/2/2020).
One of the biggest surprises before he also found his way on the injured list was Colin Blackwell. He was brought in to add some grit to the bottom six but Blackwell made a big splash in his four games. In just four games, Blackwell scored one goal and added two assists, including the primary on Alexis Lafreniere’s first NHL goal. His play saw him get promoted up to the second line before his injury. His pressure on the puck carrier created the turnover and sent them in on a 2-on-1 for the overtime winner. Blackwell’s speed and physicality was a big boon to the Rangers. He is expected to return soon and the Rangers would love to have him back based on his first four games in New York.
The Blueshirts signed Kevin Rooney during the offseason to help the penalty kill but he has chipped in with points in three consecutive games (two goals, one assist) including a shorthanded tally. With Chytil’s injury, Rooney has become the full-time fourth-line center and he has been nothing short of great in that role. He is not a player a team expects to put up points but when they do come, they are always welcome. Even without his point production, he has been a solid player so far. Rooney was originally looking to be the 12th/13th forward going into the season but his play and importance to the penalty kill has likely cemented a full-time spot for him when the team is healthy again.
The next Ranger to step up in a small role looks to be Anthony Bitetto – he made his Ranger debut after Tony DeAngelo was sent down and he has made the most of it. Bitetto started on the taxi squad but has taken off with the opportunity he has been given. The Long Island native played a solid defensive game with two big hits in his Blueshirts debut. In his second game, he scored a highlight-reel goal against the Washington Capitals and had an overall decent game. (from ‘Anthony Bitetto describes ‘magical’ first goal as a Ranger,’ New York Post, 02/5/2021). Two games is a minimal sample size, but he has already made his impact felt in the lineup. His physical play is a great addition on the blue line.
This season has not started out how the Rangers were hoping for and the injury bug has made its presence known. Between that and Zibanejad’s slow start to the season, the depth and role players have made things much easier for the Rangers. It was not too long ago when things were looking very dim for the Rangers but things have become much brighter with big contributions from the guys who were not expected to make much of a splash.