Ten games into the 2017-18 NHL regular season, there is only one great thing we can say about the New York Rangers … “great” is the magnitude of the identity crisis facing this team as they try to find their way out of the quagmire known a 2-6-2 start. Where the Rangers’ method in the past under Alain Vigneault has been to sprint to a fast start, and then coast to the finish in order to maintain playoff seeding, the only speed to the start of this season is the way other teams have played.
The Rangers – in short – have been awful. Corsi or no Corsi, this team stinks.
We’ve seen some flashes here and there – battling back to tie the score after falling behind 5-1 against Toronto on Oct. 7 was cute – but overall, the pattern the Rangers have shown have allowed us virtually no reason to feel anything but indigestion while watching this team. They allow early goals, and then spend the latter parts of games playing desperate, giving fans reason to think they are putting things together, only to be disappointed by a sluggish start to the next game.
The start of this season is like watching ‘Groundhog Day On Ice,’ chronicling the miserable existence of a brutal hockey team, hoping the next day will bring about something new, when in fact it is the same, lousy game being played once again. Stanley Cup? Only if it’s on display in Toronto the next time the Rangers visit the Maple Leafs.
Is the season really over only 10 games in? Well, yes. This team cannot defend, refuses to take the body, and it seems that Henrik Lundqvist has literally become Swiss Cheese. Rick Nash is back to his, “I do everything right but score” phase. Mats Zuccarello might be the worst player on the team right now. Kevin Shattenkirk has allowed the Rangers to feature an improved Power Play, but their inability to put the puck past an opposing goaltender on a consistent basis has rendered their speed and puck movement abilities almost neutral.
This team hits the opposing goalie with pucks so frequently that they’re going to seriously hurt somebody. It’s like watching Dwight Howard at the free-throw line abusing rims and backboards, but this time human lives are at stake.
So the New York Rangers stink, and what makes them even worse is that they are playing for not one, but two Head Coaches after Lindy Ruff was hired as Vigneault’s right-hand man this past summer, and yet still fail to take the ice on a consistent basis with a real motivation to play. They look like a team that has tuned out their coach. They are zombies skating on a frozen surface … they same way they were when Tom Renney saw his time on Broadway come to an end in 2009, which led to the hiring of John Tortorella and subsequent near decade of success.
But is a coaching change really necessary? Not if it is merely going to mean a different face behind the bench. It does not matter who coaches this team, the Rangers simply do not have an identity. They do not need a culture change, they need an actual culture. Without which, they may play better hockey, but will absolutely not improve.
Think this to yourself for two seconds and then answer: Are the Rangers a veteran team seeking a run to the elusive Stanley Cup, or a team in rebuilding mode behind a younger core? Go. Can’t answer it, can you? If the Rangers are a veteran team, then somebody might wish to inform Nash, Zuccarello, Lundqvist, and others that the season has started. If they are a rebuilding team, their way of going about it seems to be way off.
The veteran Rangers team is not winning games because their veteran players are playing like the pre-season never ended. Marc Staal seems to be an improved product, but not at the shut-down level the team needs, but will likely not get again. Ryan McDonagh continues to play like the victim of overuse, showing some flashes of amazing, but all too many moments where he cannot get out of his own way, but is able to get out of the way of opponents on the attack, at the same time.
And then there is Lundqvist. Rangers fans desperately crave a Stanley Cup for Hank. The reality is for Lundqvist that the window in New York has closed, and this organization has no chance to reverse its fortunes without coming to this realization. He is not winning a Stanley Cup here. Lundqvist will possibly win more than 500 NHL games, and walk his way into the Hall of Fame, but without a Stanley Cup if he remains a Ranger until the end. It is a reality for the New York Rangers and their fans, and it is tragic. But it is true.
Does this mean the Rangers trade Lundqvist the same way they did Eddie Giacomin so many years ago? There might not be another choice. While Lundqvist likely has another big run or two left in him, the Rangers have neither the resources nor the salary cap space to put the kind of team around him that can go deep into the post-season. So he is left with this roster full of holes, something he is used to … but now he is 35 years old. At 25, he made great saves every game to supplement his mastery of the routine. At 35, there are still many great saves, but just as many bad goals against. He is simply not the Lundqvist of old, and with a flawed team around him, if Lundqvist desires a Stanley Cup, it will have to be elsewhere.
So if the Rangers’ veterans are not performing at a level high enough to chase a Stanley Cup, and they do not have the salary cap space to attempt to purchase a Stanley Cup, they must be rebuilding around a young core, right? Well, not exactly. You cannot build a youth movement around a 35 year-old goaltender under any circumstances. Period. If the idea is to rebuild, it has to start in goal, the same way it did when Henrik Lundqvist first came to Broadway.
And you cannot go through a youth movement without developing your youth. Filip Chytil was a revelation during pre-season, and when it came time for the real games to begin, he averaged six minutes of ice time per game before being sent to the minor leagues. Did he play poorly? If he did, how could we have known with such a small sampling of ice time? Pavel Buchnevich seems to have all of the potential in the world, but has been – for the most part – relegated to the fourth line, while Zuccarello struggles on the first line. During a loss to San Jose on Monday night, they were flip-flopped, but what took so long?
There are other examples.
Which, of course, leads to the question of Alain Vigneault. If there is going to be a youth movement, is Vigneault, the right coach to oversee it? And the answer there is a resounding no. In Vancouver, and in New York, Vigneault proved to be the wrong coach to mentor younger players, regardless of talent. In New York, he has repeatedly gone back to underperforming veteran players time after time after time, stunting the development of younger players. This has happened for years, but previously he had enough veteran players producing to allow the team to succeed. Now he has zero.
In other words, if the Rangers are going to go with a youth movement, it starts behind the bench. It begins with a coach who is inspired by the challenge of developing a rebuild. It means cleaning house of underperforming veterans, allowing young talent to learn on the job, and developing a solid core for the future … none of which is happening now. The Rangers are sinking, and they are doing so under the weight of older underachievers and their massive contracts, being enabled by a coach who only knows how to deal with them.
Should Vigneault be fired for the bad start? Actually, he should not. Under his watch, the Rangers won at least one playoff series during three of his four seasons. He deserves some patience for that. But, he should be fired if indeed the Rangers are seeking a more youthful approach because he is not the right man for that job.
Sorry Rangers fans, if this season is going to turn around, and the trajectory of the organization is going to change, it starts with their identity. If the Rangers are a veteran team seeking a Stanley Cup for their beloved goaltender, they need more beloved veterans on this team to put a run together, and their current veterans to produce. If the Rangers are going to rebuild around youth, they must make the full investment, and they must do so now. Under John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault, the Rangers threw away heaps of cash and draft picks to gain the kind of veteran roster to win a Stanley Cup. And it almost worked. But when the Tampa Bay Lightning came to Madison Square Garden in 2015, and ended what seemed like a sure-fire Rangers Cup run in the Conference Finals, an era ended as well. This team has not been the same since then, and the way things are constructed right now, they are not bouncing back.
What we have today is a team stuck in the middle. Too many young faces for a youth movement, and too many experienced underachievers to act like a veteran team. The New York Rangers do not have an identity today, and they is why they are 2-6-2.
Actually, wait a second, the Rangers do have an identity. With this model, they know exactly who they are. They are headed right to the top. Unfortunately, their ascension is to the pinnacle … of the draft board.