The All-Star break is here and the New York Rangers don’t have to worry about playing for two points again until February second. The first half of the season was eventful; out of the gate the Rangers looked like a clear-cut contender for the Stanley Cup going 17-6-2 through November. But they followed that amazing start by going 4-7-2 in December, where they created plenty of doubt. The good news for them is that heading into the break the team started to pull the pieces back together with a 6-3-1 record in 10 contests. Now that the organization has seen this club play 49 games, they have to devise a plot to squeeze more consistency out of the team; the chief goal will be figuring out what decisions need to be made to get a more determined effort on a nightly basis.
Giving it All
A common issue with the Rangers when they’re not playing well, is that they aren’t getting to the net enough. A great example of that issue is their most recent contest against the Ottawa Senators, where the Rangers got no traffic in front of Craig Anderson, and frankly played with very limited energy and emotion. Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault was visibly angry after the loss and uncharacteristically walked away from his interview.
Vigneault so mad he storms off. “I really thought we were building momentum…then we come up with this tonight. Thanks. I’m outta here.”
— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) January 24, 2016
Now the Rangers (and every other team) do this from time to time, they come out and just don’t have it. They are after-all human; the issue with that loss against Ottawa was that it was such a winnable game, and with the Rangers not being great lately, one would expect them to come out aggressive to grab two points. But that didn’t happen, not even close; instead, almost everyone on the team looked like they were skating in mud, there was no creativity, no urgency, and certainly no battles to get to the front of the net. The good news for the Rangers is that they have a good core of veterans that should be able to push the coaches message to correct the problem. The early sign of that was the Rangers coming out with real urgency against the Buffalo Sabres the following day. The team did blow a two goal lead in the third period of that game, but responded well by answering right away and getting the win. So maybe the Ottawa game was a wake up call.
I think from a leadership standpoint, guys like Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh will be able to get rest, get energy, and really push the message from a mental aspect to get this team back to being a force.
The Rangers as an organization are going to have to decide what course to follow with their up coming free-agents, most notably Keith Yandle. He’s a UFA at year’s end, and the team will struggle to afford him unless they make another big transaction to make cap space; another factor is that the team may be able to land a big package for the offensive defender. The team needs to figure out where they sit and get that situation decided before they run out of time. If the Rangers do lose Yandle, they need to at least have a finals appearance to show for it.
The other end of decisions has to do with who the Rangers deploy on a nightly basis, and the most obvious question is whether or not the team plays Dylan McIlrath over Dan Boyle. McIlrath seems to have won the fans over, and for good reason, he’s physical, he’s young, and the biggest reason is that he has looked great making plays to get the puck where it needs to go. The Rangers have been playing Boyle because he’s a veteran, and he’s good on the power-play, but as this season runs on it becomes harder and harder to bench McIlrath. The 23-year-old is also starting to show that he can contribute on offense, which could be the final straw for Boyle whose been good but not great in that department.
Kevin Hayes is another player that the Rangers will have to make a decision on. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year, but the issue with Hayes is that he has had an inconsistent season. He’s had games where he’s looked like a promising young forward, and other games where he’s just slow to the puck. Hayes had a stint where he was a healthy scratch this season, he seemed to respond, but is still leaving something to be desired. Now the Rangers could dangle the RFA to be for the deadline (which I think would be a mistake, unless the return was huge), or they could start removing responsibilities from him in an effort to get him to play with some sort of desperation. I think he’ll be a fabulous player in the future, but he does need a kick in the pants. Now that the Rangers signed Daniel Pallie, they have a reliable veteran to play in his place.
The final, and most important decision this team has to make, is whether or not they’re a realistic contender. If they are then they have to start putting together a list of assets they’d be willing to part with to improve. If not, then they need to find a way to start adding organizational depth; that would mean shopping players like Viktor Stalberg and Dominic Moore. Personally, I see this team as the former, I think they have a boat load of talent, and it would be a mistake to start back peddling on their attempt to push for The Stanley Cup.