The New York Rangers are winning games at a high level and scoring at an even higher level, creating a team that’s rattled off one of the best starts in the NHL so far this season. During the offseason, many hockey outlets such as Sportsnet wrote the Rangers off as a team that would likely not contend for a playoff spot in 2017. Some even went as far as to say that the Rangers would be the worst hockey team in New York this year.
General Manager Jeff Gorton went out to prove them wrong and with successful long-term drafting and dominant recent offseason moves, the Rangers have started on their quest to do just that.
Consistent Draft Success
Most of the talk about the Rangers’ drafting history comes at the trade deadline when the team makes trades to try to plant themselves firmly in the Stanley Cup race. While these trades may not have all worked out for the best, nor were they crippling for the franchise in hindsight. That being said, most people overlook the sheer success of front office moves on draft day dating back many, many years that are still benefitting the Rangers on the ice today.
A large chunk of the Rangers’ roster is home-grown talent. Impact players were selected outside of the first round of the draft, such as Henrik Lundqvist at the 205th pick in 2000 and Derek Stepan at 51st overall in 2008. Add on young, talented players like Chris Kreider in 2009, Jesper Fast in 2010, J.T. Miller in 2011, Brady Skjei in 2012, and Pavel Buchnevich in 2013 and the majority of the Rangers’ talent was from extremely successful draft years. Being successful when drafting is important because as players develop skills, there will always be players waiting in the minors a few years down the road to step into an important role as a rookie whether they were drafted as a first rounder like Kreider or a seventh rounder like Lundqvist.
Quietly Dominant Free Agency
While NHL free agency doesn’t showcase too many steals, the Rangers made out like bandits on multiple signings this offseason. The most obvious would be obtaining Michael Grabner. Grabner has been the biggest anomaly in the league so far this year as he is tied for second in goals scored with Sidney Crosby, Mark Scheifele, and David Pastrnak with ten. Those ten goals are already more than he has tallied in the last two seasons and there is no end in sight with another two goal performance against the Oilers on Sunday night.
While the Grabner signing was absolutely amazing, other signings such as Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri have also proven beneficial. Pirri and Vesey are tied with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello for the team lead in power play goals with two and the success hasn’t stopped there. Pirri has scored four times, scoring a goal every six shots he takes so far. Vesey is tied for the second most goals on the Rangers with seven, scoring on one of every four shots. These numbers are incredibly high and will yield even more success if they can keep producing at the rate they are now.
Fixing Special Teams
With these additions in free agency came a major boost of the Rangers’ special teams play. The Rangers were 16th in power play efficiency and 27th on the penalty kill just a year ago. With Grabner and Pirri added via free agency and Zibanejad and Holden added through trade, these percentages have both skyrocketed to being well above the league average, which is a significant improvement on last season.
Last year, the Rangers scored on the power play just over 18% of the time. That stat is up to almost 22% this year, bringing the Rangers up to 8th in the league with the additions of Pirri and Zibanejad as the team’s trigger men. Grabner and Holden have helped buff up the penalty kill with over a 5.5% gain in percentage of penalties killed from last year. Grabner has also helped to create offensive chances on the penalty kill and the Rangers have already scored two short-handed goals, almost reaching the mediocre three goals the Rangers scored short-handed all of last season.
Bottom Line Analysis
Gorton took the helm of a situation that many thought would lead to a rebuild after a few deep but unfulfilling playoff runs. The GM has turned that ship around, creating a roster of players with a common goal who work together better than many other Rangers teams that came before this one.
With a seemingly improved roster from top to bottom, the hope for a contending Rangers team is starting to return after the disappointment from a few months ago. While the additions were unconventional, taking the path less traveled has been the difference so far for a Rangers team that is now leading the Metropolitan Division, a division that many predicted would be too tough for the Rangers to place in the top three. While the season is barely a month old, the Rangers have shown that they will not be easy to put away anytime soon.