Mika Zibanejad’s five-goal masterpiece last week represented the high point of the New York Rangers’ season, a breathtaking performance by one of the Blueshirts’ stars which delivered a key victory in an unexpected 2019-20 playoff push.
While Zibanejad’s effort highlighted all that’s right with the Rangers going forward, it also perfectly epitomized the club’s 2019-20 campaign – putting a spotlight on the roster’s deficiencies and how far the Blueshirts still need to go to return to consistent contender status.
Career seasons from the trio of Zibanejad (41 goals, 34 assists in 57 games), Artemi Panarin (32 goals, 63 assists) and Chris Kreider (24 goals, 21 assists in 63 games before getting injured) have carried this team to the outskirts of the playoff race. That’s a testament to the extent of their brilliance this season – because the Rangers don’t get very much from the rest of their forwards at all.
In the past seven games, the club’s top-six forwards, a group that now includes Kreider’s replacement Phil Di Giuseppe, have scored 15 of the forwards’ 20 goals, with 11 – yes, 11 – coming from Zibanejad, the NHL’s hottest player. At this point, the Rangers simply lack the roster-wide depth to be considered a serious threat to make a deep postseason run, even if they are somehow able to find their way into the tournament this spring.
Kreider’s absence, unsurprisingly, laid the imbalanced nature of the team fully bare. The Rangers failed to score at even strength for two straight games after No. 20 suffered a broken foot Feb. 28, the absence of his heavy game and net-front presence sorely missed in the pair of losses. Zibanejad’s career effort rescued them in their 6-5 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals in the next game, but a 6-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday followed – with Zibanejad recording one of the goals, of course.
Zibanejad tacked on another one Tuesday, making him the fastest Ranger in history to reach 40 goals in a season, in a key 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars. He scored again and nearly had two other goals in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for us the last week-and-a-half or so,” Zibanejad said (from ‘Road Trip Will Show if Rangers Can Overcome Unmasked Deficiencies,’ New York Post, 3/9/20).
More Baby Blueshirts Growing Pains Seem Likely
Let’s not forget, though, that this roster configuration is largely by design. While 20-somethings Zibanejad, Panarin, and the recently extended Kreider are viewed as cornerstones of the Rangers’ rebuild, team management also saw the presence of the trio – especially offseason free-agent signing Panarin – as able to provide short-term cover for the development of youngsters as the club winds its way through a reconstruction process the front office is determined not to rush.
While the Big Three have likely delivered more than general manager Jeff Gorton could have imagined this season, the yawning gap in effectiveness in the forward ranks remains clear. No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko has largely played like the teenager trying to adjust to the NHL that he is, dropped to the fourth line against the Devils. He provided a glimpse of the Rangers’ vision of him as a future top-six mainstay against the Stars, though, scoring twice to break a 14-game goal drought.
Filip Chytil has shown promise to go with continued growing pains, while Brett Howden has delivered little.
Pavel Buchnevich has made strides, but not enough yet to cement himself as a certain part of the future. Ryan Strome’s 18-goal, 41-assist season has unquestionably been significantly helped along by his role as Panarin’s center. Brendan Lemieux has struggled to unlock much offensive potential, and he’s been especially ineffective since suffering a broken hand in late December that kept him out for three weeks, recording one goal and four assists in 24 games since returning.
Is the inconsistency really surprising, given the Rangers’ status as the youngest team in the league?
“We just have to be a little more thorough. We’ve got to get back to being thorough all the time. It can’t be 53 minutes, it can’t be 58 minutes,” coach David Quinn told The Post. “It’s got to be shift in and shift out.”
Despite an impressive makeover of the defense that’s borne fruit faster than the efforts upfront have, the Rangers are young and still feeling their way. Unfortunately for fans excited over what they see as an accelerated rebuilding process, more uneven results could be in store for next season.
Kakko will still be a teenager. Chytil turns 21 in September. Promising right-wing Julien Gauthier is 22. Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth-overall pick in 2018 who’s gone through a rough adjustment period in the AHL and Russia this season, is 20.
Will Rangers Continue to Rise, or Take Step Back Next Season?
Could all of those kids make a quantum leap next season? It’s possible. More likely is that one or two will, while the others will continue to suffer the ups and downs of youth – perhaps even going backward, as Chytil did before finding his way into a regular spot in the lineup. As that growth process continues into 2020-21, will the Rangers get the same stratospheric level of production from Zibanejad, Panarin, and Kreider to fill in the gaps?
Again, it’s possible. Mostly, though, the next season or two will have plenty of uncertainty over the club’s hopes. The Rangers have a bright future – it just might prove to be further away than fans have been led to believe by this season’s surprising performance.
Consequently, the faithful will require patience and understanding, even if the Rangers do manage to defy the odds and slip into the playoffs this season. There’s just as good a chance that the build takes a step sideways or even back as there is a continued rise in 2020-21.
Should the latter come to pass, there’s no need for concern. Gorton and team president John Davidson are going to do this right as they work to develop a deep, sustainable program for the long haul. Despite the star turns of the Big Three this season, the Rangers aren’t close to that yet.
Getting there will take some more time. The success of the front office’s efforts so far has meant that the fan base has largely been spared the pain inherent in rebuilds – but it also has some expecting more than what’s realistically possible right now. Fans should at least prepare for more of the rollercoaster results in the future – while keeping in mind that all of it will eventually pay off.