Over the past two seasons, the New York Rangers have attempted to transition from rebuilding to contending and they have some great young players to build around. However, faceoffs have been a glaring issue for the Blueshirts over the past few seasons and must be addressed. Adding or developing an effective two-way center would go a long way for the Rangers in the 2021-22 season.
Rangers Centers Have Struggled on Faceoffs
The Rangers have had excellent offensive production from their top two centers in Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome over the last two seasons but neither one is strong on faceoffs.
Zibanejad has averaged more than a point per game in his last two seasons while Strome has averaged just under a point per game over that span. In addition to their offensive production, both can kill penalties and they deservedly get a lot of ice time but their inability to win faceoffs has hampered the Rangers.
Last season Zibanejad won 46.3 percent of his faceoffs, while Strome won just 43.2 percent of his. This was especially noticeable in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill as they both lost far too many faceoffs cleanly.
The struggles of the top two centers on faceoffs were exacerbated because they didn’t have anyone else who was better. Talented young center Filip Chytil won 42.8% of his faceoffs last season which is the best percentage of his career thus far but far from ideal for the Rangers. He is also known for his offensive talent rather than his defensive play. Gritty center Kevin Rooney won just 45% of his faceoffs and fourth-line center Brett Howden was at 46.6%.
Options on the Rangers
Howden and Rooney are options at center if neither of them gets selected by the Seattle Kraken in the upcoming expansion draft. Rooney has one more season remaining on his contract and the Rangers just re-signed Howden to a one-year contract. The hope is that they can both improve on faceoffs and in Howden’s case that he can also significantly improve his play in the offensive zone.
Howden is just 23-years-old and showed some promise as a rookie when he had six goals and 17 assists in 66 games. He is excellent on the penalty kill and has considerable size at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds but this was an extremely disappointing season for him. In 42 games he had just one goal (an empty-netter) and six assists.
In each of his past two seasons, Howden’s offensive production has decreased. He seems to have lost the confidence he had in the offensive zone early in his rookie season when he drove to the front of the net and made smart, effective passes. Perhaps newly hired head coach Gerard Gallant will help the young center regain his confidence.
While Howden struggled this season, Rooney thrived in his first season with the Rangers. He helped improve New York’s penalty kill, played with physicality and chipped in offensively. He finished with eight goals and six assists in 54 games, including two shorthanded goals. Despite his struggles on faceoffs, he should be a valuable player if the Blueshirts don’t lose him in the expansion draft. If the Rangers do manage to sign a center who’s better on faceoffs, he could move to the wing.
This season both of the teams that played in the Stanley Cup Final had an excellent two-way forward set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Phillip Danault of the Montreal Canadiens and Barclay Goodrow of the Tampa Bay Lightning both stood out this postseason.
Danault finished with just one goal and three assists in 22 games this postseason but he was excellent defensively and repeatedly shut down opposing stars, including holding Brayden Point without a goal in the Final. He helped Montreal kill a record-breaking 32 consecutive penalties this postseason. He also won 54.2% of his faceoffs.
The impressive play of Danault in the postseason should earn him a big salary as a free agent. His strengths are New York’s weaknesses so it makes sense for the Rangers to make a big push to sign him.
Goodrow finished with two goals and four assists in 18 games this postseason. He struggled on faceoffs, winning just 40 percent of them in the playoffs but he has won 52% of faceoffs in his career. He also played well during the 2020 postseason, finishing with one goal and five assists in 25 games while excelling on the penalty kill.
Despite helping Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons the cash-strapped Lightning likely can’t afford to re-sign him. He would provide the Rangers with a boost on their penalty kill, add physicality to their fourth line and help them on faceoffs.
For years the Rangers have failed to address their struggles on faceoffs and their need for effective two-way forwards. They have a bit more cap flexibility this offseason than they did last year which should help them find players who will fill these needs. Signing a free agent like Danault or Goodrow would take some pressure off of New York’s centers and improve the Rangers’ penalty kill.
The Rangers could also get a boost if Rooney improves on faceoffs after an otherwise strong 2020-21 season. Additionally, Howden could develop into a reliable fourth-liner if he improves on faceoffs and chips in offensively as he did during his first two seasons.
In order to reach their full potential, the Rangers need to find or develop a reliable two-way center and it’s something they need to prioritize this offseason.