This year’s incarnation of the New York Rangers has been “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” While there are no Russians on this team, Churchill’s words about Russia are very appropriate. What is this team made of? What are they, really? They can look like a legitimate contender on some nights, then fade into oblivion on others. The Rangers of last season were easy to diagnose–early on they looked lost most of the time, but as the season progressed they gradually fixed most of the glaring mistakes and became a formidable team. This time though, in addition to the fixable technical issues, there seem to be motivation and execution issues–and those tend to be much more insidious.
Real New York Rangers Option 1: The World-Beaters
We saw this team on November 11 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and again on November 19 against the Philadelphia Flyers. In both cases, this was not a perfect team, but rather a team playing with a singular purpose. Anyone watching those two games saw the Rangers drive puck possession from the opening faceoff, battle for every loose puck, and carry the play. Does that sound like an exaggeration? Try this Rick Nash goal against Philly on for size:
That level of execution is a joy to watch, and the Rangers have the pieces to do this more often, but we’ve really only seen a full game’s worth of this effort twice. It’s maddening to see this, know that they have this kind of game in them, and then watch the “Option 2” Rangers take the ice. We haven’t seen this team very often, and only after a particularly embarrassing loss (again, see Option 2, below). The talent is there, no doubt, but it’s not realistic to expect this Blueshirts team to show up all the time. It’s certainly fun when they do, though–unless you’re Ron Hextall.
Real New York Rangers Option 2: The Lost Boys
And then there’s the Mr. Hyde to option 1’s Dr. Jekyll. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this Rangers team more often this season–to the point where it’s starting to become a regular occurrence. These Rangers look completely and utterly lost on the ice. Their defensive zone coverage can look at times like a peewee team–with all five players chasing the puck while opponents park in the high-percentage areas completely unmolested. Again, does this seem like an exaggeration? Look at exhibit “B”:
How many individual defensive breakdowns can you find in that one clip? How many times does a Ranger have control of the puck only to give it right up to an opponent? And how is it possible that this is the same team that’s featured in the first video? At its heart, this team is still extremely fragile. A single breakdown leads to another, and then another… And soon the snowball rolling down the hill has turned into an avalanche. And none of the players has the ability to stop it. Sadly, this Rangers team has been on the ice at some point in nearly every game this season.
The answer, of course, is that neither of these two teams are the “Real” New York Rangers–and they both are, at least right now. This Rangers team has many good things going for it, and they understand that they’re much better than the “Option 2” Rangers–but they only bounce back after the damage has been done. Other than the win against the Minnesota Wild on October 27 (where they came back from 3-0 and 4-2 deficits in the third period), they have so far been unable to respond to adversity while the game is going on. A single bad bounce, or missed assignment, sends them into a tailspin from which they can’t recover. This has happened in most of their losses this year. Their opponents’ goals tend to come in bunches because of this fragility and lack of response.
The Rangers from last season, especially in the playoffs, got to the Stanley Cup Final by being resilient. They were knocked down and bloodied on many occasions, but always got back up. Compared to that, this year’s team has a glass jaw right now, able to be felled by a single shot. More than anything, they need their confidence back–and success breeds confidence.
This team now needs to get back to the basics of the game and become more fundamentally sound. One thing that jumps out from the losses this year is that it’s usually an awful defensive play that sparks the opponent and begins the plunge. Whether it’s a blatant giveaway or a blown assignment, the defensive zone is the Rangers’ kryptonite right now. By eliminating or at least minimizing these defensive mistakes, the Rangers can solve most of their problems in one shot. That may mean more work with the players to make sure they understand their roles in the defensive zone, or it may even require Alain Vigneault’s coaching staff simplifying the entire defensive system. Either way, something needs to change defensively. Until that happens, expect the Jekyll and Hyde Rangers to continue making their appearances.
If this team can shore up their defensive holes, they will be better–and more resilient. Will that translate into success? Undoubtedly. What remains to be seen is whether that success will reach the level of last year. But this year’s team first needs to find a single identity–not the split-personality they currently have. Maybe then, we’ll consistently see the “real” New York Rangers.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).