Rangers Report Card: All-Star Break Edition

Forget the seven game playoff series the Rangers and the Senators played back in 2012, and Ottawa’s MSG resume over the past decade is pretty darn terrific. On Tuesday, though, the Rangers came away with a rare home win over the team which had been 13-1-1 in their past 15 visits to the World’s Most Famous Arena, as they downed their Canadian opponents 3-2, in thrilling overtime fashion.

The win – which saw goals from Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, and the OT winner from Carl Hagelin – was not just the third in a row for Rangers, but also their 16th in their last 19 games. In a matter of weeks, the Rangers have gone from, in ESPN’s words, “a mediocre group,” to serious contenders in the Eastern Conference. As team’s now head into the week long All-Star break, let’s grade the Rangers’ season up to this point.

Offense

It doesn’t take analytics and advanced stats to tell us that this Rangers offense has developed/is developing into the best offense they’ve had in years. In fact, if the season were to end today, they would finish the campaign in the NHL’s top-10 in scoring for the first time since the 2000-01 season. This would also be the first time the Rangers would crack the 3 goals per game mark since the 2005-06 season.

What’s led to that success? Well, a few things.

First of all, there’s Rick Nash. There shouldn’t be any need to spell this one out, but if I must, here goes.

Nash has been, well, Nashty. Through 44 games this season, the former first round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets has lit the lamp 28 times, putting him on pace to finish the season with 52 goals, which would also exceed his career high of 41 goals back in 2003-04.

Nash playing alongside Derrick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello has also worked out well, as it has helped both his individual production, as well as the teams in general.

The emergence of the “real” Chris Kreider also cannot be understated when talking about the Rangers offensive success, particularly in recent days. After a difficult stretch which spanned from mid-November to early December where Kreider scored just one goal, and registered three total points – during which time his Grandfather also passed away – Kreider has since come back with a vengeance.

In his last 10 games, eight of which the Rangers have emerged victorious, Kreider has collected nine points (5-4-10), and it seems every game now he uses his speed to get behind the defense of the opposition, which in turn leads to a grade-A scoring opportunity.

He is using his strength to establish positioning in front, he is skating downhill with speed and determination, and he is working incredibly well with line-mate’s Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan.

Kreider spoke about playing with those two, and particularly his relationship with St. Louis following Tuesday’s win over Ottawa:

“It’s a give-and-take relationship. He gives and I take. He talks, I shut up and listen,” said Kreider of St. Louis. “The plays he makes, the things he sees before they happen; it’s extraordinary. He is so cerebral…he is playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers. Isn’t that the euphemism?”

The play of the Rangers second line, which consists of Kreider, Stepan, and St. Louis has been huge. They are all feeding off one another. Kreider and St. Louis are a well-oiled machine, while Stepan has become the centerpiece to keep the cog in motion.

Since returning from a fractured fibula, Stepan, the 24-year-old center, has racked up 32 points in 31 games, 24 of which have been assists. With the exception of his 43.2 percent success rate on faceoffs, he is developing into the center the Rangers have been yearning for him to become. His production is reflecting his play, as well as the Rangers success.

Put it all of these pieces together, and you’ve got not just a solid top-six for the Rangers, but pretty good overall offense. That’s also of course without even talking about Kevin Hayes and the respectable rookie campaign he’s putting together for himself.

This seemed far-fetched over the past decade, but let’s give this Rangers offense an “A-.” With how much better they’ve performed compared to past Rangers rosters, I’d say they deserve it.

Defense

Talk about a mess early on. Beginning on opening night, and continuing through the season’s first quarter, the Rangers defense was nothing shy of a cataclysm.

And rock bottom? Probably this goal scored by Vladimir Tarasenko when he turned Mike Kostka and Dylan McIlrath inside out:

But in the days since, things have gone uphill for the Rangers defense core. They’ve allowed two goals or fewer in seven of their last 10 games, contributions offensively have been easier to find in recent days, and there are seven capable defensemen competing for the six open positions. It certainly isn’t a bad problem to have, and we’ll first start by talking about the “coming out party” that this season has been for Kevin “Optimus Klein-Kleisenberg” Klein.

Klein has been outstanding from day one. He has been smart in his own zone, not afraid to play physical, and he’s been tough as nails – as was demonstrated after he lost part of his ear on December 8 against Pittsburgh, and returned only to score the game winner in overtime.

The 30-year-old defenseman has also become the Rangers’ biggest offensive threat at the blue line, as Klein has eight goals on the season in just 43 games (his previous season-high in goals was four).

It’s been a career year for Klein, and for the Rangers – who lost Anton Stralman to free agency last summer – it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Beyond Klein, the Rangers have also been fortunate enough to have a pretty good problem on their hands; good at least compared to what problems they could have to deal with, and that is the fact that the Blueshirts have seven capable defensemen for the six open positions, thanks to the solid consistent play from both Matt Hunwick and John Moore.

When health is at a maximum, the top-four at the Ranger blue line is occupied by McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, and Boyle. As far as top-four’s go, that really isn’t half bad. And then there’s Kevin Klein, who we’ve already outlined as having a career year, and could probably fill in as a top-four defenseman on many other teams. He is in the fifth slot on the Ranger blue line.

And finally, there’s both Matt Hunwick and John Moore.

At the beginning of the season, that sixth defensive slot seemed to be John Moore’s, no questions asked. But thanks to injuries, Matt Hunwick was given the time of day, and proved not just to be a worthy replacement when injuries would arise, but a formidable opponent to Moore’s keeping of that sixth spot.

It would almost seem reasonable to ask where the Rangers would be right now if it weren’t for the way Hunwick stepped up in the early going of this season.

Yes, he was that good.

And so, here are the Rangers rolling deep on defense, and to make things even better, a good chunk of them – four to be exact – are under contract through the 2017-18 season.

Oh, and Henrik Lundqvist? His save percentage in the month of January is .950. I don’t think anything more needs to be said. He had a slow start, but is once again the King Ranger fans have come to know and love.

Yup, it’s true. The Rangers are going to be a tough team to penetrate offensively for a couple more years at least.

The Rangers defense overall: Got to go with an even “A.”

Special Teams

The truth is, not everything can be unicorns and rainbows. While this year’s penalty kill and power play for the Rangers are both in the top-half of the league, which is far better than what can be said about past years, special teams is still where the Rangers probably need the most work.

Yes, the power play is currently ranked 11th in the NHL with a 19.3 percent conversion rate. That really isn’t all that bad, compared to last season’s 18.2 percent. The problem lies, however, in the inconsistent nature of their play with the man-advantage.

There have been stretches during the year where the power play has looked lost, kept to the perimeter, and gone games upon games without scoring a power play goal.

And then there have been spurts where the power play seemed to be able to do no wrong; yes, I’m taking about when they scored 10 power play goals over a seven game span between December 23, and January 8…for the record, they’ve score one power play goal in the six games since then.

So yes, the power play has looked decent at times, and Dan Boyle appeared to be making a real, noticeable impact. And other times it’s looked like a dried up well in the middle of the Sahara. In other words, inconsistent.

The penalty kill has been a little more consistent, in the sense that power play goals against haven’t come in bunches the way power play goals have, but the penalty kill has simply been average at best all season.

At no point has it been a dominant, smothering penalty kill, nor has it looked like a slice of Swiss cheese, filled with holes and glaring problems. The Rangers penalty kill has just been average. It is ranked 12th in the league, they’ve successfully killed off 82.4 percent of all penalties, and ironically that percentage is the same at home as it is on the road.

Could the PK be better? Sure. But they can also win with the status quo. Combine the special teams into one, and a “B+” feels about right.

Overall

Let’s call a spade a spade, the Rangers were absolutely terrible in the early going of the season. Lucky for them, though, there was a fairly reasonable explanation.

Right from day one, the Rangers were battered with injuries, and they simply couldn’t catch a break in that regard. As full health has since returned, the Rangers have begun to look more and more like the team that went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.

With wins in 16 of their last 19, the Rangers have all but proven that they are for real. They have been sharp defensively, Henrik Lundqvist has started to play like the Vezina winner that he has been in years past, and offensively, the Rangers have threats up and down the lineup. While there is of course still room for improvement, particularly with regards to special teams, the Rangers are certainly headed down the right path.

For now, an “A-“seems adequate, though if the current upward trend continues, that could be upgraded sooner than later.

Only time will tell with that though…