After consecutive deep playoff runs that helped establish the New York Rangers as an Eastern Conference powerhouse, the club’s 2015-16 season ended in embarrassing fashion at the hands of the faster, hungrier, more structured, and flat-out better Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite amassing 101 points in the regular season, the Rangers were a very inconsistent team for most of the season, and all of their flaws came back to bite them in their first-round playoff exit. It was a sadly fitting and deserving end for a team whose players did not regularly bring their best games, and whose coaching staff and management refused to address the inherent weaknesses that were evident all year.
Rangers’ Flaws Exposed
The Rangers had numerous flaws all season, many of which stemmed from their inadequate defense corps. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal took major steps down this season, particularly the former. Yet head coach Alain Vigneault continued to give them heavy ice time when they were healthy enough to play (we might find out in the coming days just how banged-up Girardi was for most of the year, although a healthy Girardi likely would not have been significantly better).
As a result of coverage issues in their own zone, and an inability to efficiently move the puck out so the offense could establish a consistent forecheck, the Rangers became one of the league’s worst possession teams (they were 26th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage during the regular season, with a meek 47.4% clip). The shots and chances they yielded were often of the high-danger variety, making Henrik Lundqvist’s job all the more difficult.
While Lundqvist played out of his mind, even by his lofty standards, in the early part of the year to help the Rangers jump out to a 16-3-2 start that masked their poor play, the King eventually showed signs of fatigue from what was a very trying season, as he was not sharp in the series against the Penguins. As a result, it got downright ugly for the Rangers in Games 4 and 5, as they were exposed for what they actually are behind the facade of elite goaltending (not to mention an unsustainably high shooting percentage). The Blueshirts were embarrassed, with the Penguins outscoring them 11-3 in the series’ final two games.
Interestingly enough, the Rangers actually played better from a possession standpoint in the series’ first two games, and at that point, my rare (for this season) optimistic outlook on how the series could potentially play out seemed to be realistic. While they lost Game 1 because of untimely mistakes that ended up in the back of their net (more on that in a bit), they earned what would be their only win of the series with a great performance in Game 2.
But then came their hideous 17-shot showing in Game 3 at home. The Penguins made adjustments, and the Rangers never had an appropriate counterattack either in that game or in the next two games, which were disastrous. That’s an indictment on Vigneault and the rest of the coaching staff.
The penalty kill, another huge issue all season, even though it used to be one of the club’s strengths when their defense was not broken down, also came to the forefront in its playoff defeat. Pittsburgh scored eight power-play goals in 20 opportunities, meaning the Rangers’ penalty-kill rate was 60%. That’s, um…not good.
Another hallmark of the 2015-16 season was New York’s penchant for giving up untimely goals, either right after they scored or at the very beginning or end of periods, thus creating momentum shifts in favor of the opposition. This trend continued in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, as the Rangers had actually played a pretty solid first period, before yielding a goal in the final minute to go down 1-0 heading into the intermission. Another late goal in the second period put them down 2-0, and they would eventually fall, 5-2.
In their final game of this tumultuous season, the Rangers had leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in the first period, both of which they relinquished before the end of that stanza. Going into the second period with a lead would have been good for them mentally, but instead they went in tied, and Pittsburgh had momentum that they used to eventually blow the game open in the second period.
A Failure to Address Problems
All year long, these issues were evident underneath the surface of the Rangers’ respectable record, but the organization never did anything to properly rectify them. From a personnel standpoint, New York’s biggest weakness was on the blue line. So rather than address that at the trade deadline, the Rangers went out and acquired a declining forward in Eric Staal.
While there was potential for the move to be helpful, it ignored the team’s most pressing need. Then Staal, a pending UFA, proved to be a huge disappointment, netting just six points (three goals and three assists) in 20 regular-season games with New York, and none in the playoffs. There is no conceivable way the Rangers will be able to (or should) re-sign Staal, so the trade turned out to be a massive failure, as a strong prospect in Aleksi Saarela and two second-round picks were essentially given away for nothing.
This offseason will be critical for the Rangers, as they have to navigate the salary cap in addressing the shortcomings of their roster. Based on the way this season played out, it’s hard to be confident that the front office will make the right moves (more on that in future content), but maybe the silver lining in the Rangers’ embarrassing playoff exit is that it will open the organization’s eyes to what needs to be improved.