Friday, January 23, 2015

N.Y. Rangers: Avoiding the Sniper in the Bushes


3rd Place ~ Metropolitan Division
27-13-4 (58 points)

NEW YORK RANGERS: This Team is One Cheap Shot Away From Losing Their One Big Shot.

Did anyone catch the Flyers premeditated thuggery against the Penguins?

In their last game before the all-star break, the defending Eastern Conference champions defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in overtime, and in doing so, secured 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division, and closed to within 5 points of the division leading Islanders.

After the Rangers fell behind Ottawa 2-1 after two periods, Chris Kreider tied things up at the 2:42 mark of the 3rd period.....  And into overtime they went.  Less than 3-minutes into the extra session, Carl Hagelin netted the game winner.

That was Kreider's 10th goal, and Hagelin's 9th goal of the season.  Appropriate that they should respectively tie, then win Tuesday's game, during a season in which so much more was expected of them.

More was certainly expected of Chris Kreider, now two seasons removed from John Tortorella's doghouse.  At 23-years of age, and listed at 6'3", 226 lbs., he was to bring the rare combination of size and strength, speed, and scoring ability to the ice.   However, in 41 games, he's only managed 84 shots on goal (when most of the league's top shooters are well beyond 100 SOG at this point).

He "only" has 10 goals and 14 assists, for 24 points - disappointing in and of itself, but, also because he spends an inordinate amount of time in the penalty box.  Foghorn Leghorn would say, "that boy, I say, that boy lacks discipline."  Tuesday night was no different,  He committed a senseless holding penalty in the 1st period.  On Sunday against the Pens, he was whistled for (careless) interference.   Kreider's penalty minutes double that of the next closest Ranger, Tanner Glass, whom understandably earns his minutes by administering the team's limited toughness.

Carl Hagelin's effort level is admirable as always.  His hustle hasn't translated very well to the back of a hockey card though - at least not in the way of elevating his game they way many thought.   While he's actually getting off more shots on goal per games than in his previous 3 years, Carl is lagging slightly behind his career averages.

With his speed came expectations that Hagelin would become a 20/25-goal scorer.  He had a career high 17 goals last season.  To date, Carl has 9 goals and 9 assists in 43 games.  At 26-years of age, his game doesn't seem where it needs to be.

How is the Ryan Callahan/Martin St. Louis trade looking?
  • Callahan: 15 G; 20 A; 35 points; (29-years old; priced himself off Rangers budget).
  • St. Louis: 14 G; 22 A; 36 points; (39-years old; an expiring contract).
Martin St. Louis is playing some of his best hockey now that he's back on the wing.  He is the team's 2nd leading scorer, but (salary cap wise) the Rangers will be hard pressed to bring him back.

The Rangers have a decision to make regarding Mats Zuccarello's free agency.  Plus, Derek Stepan, will also be a restricted free agent.

As the season progresses, it might become easier to decipher where the money to pay Stepan will come from.  But, sign him they must.  In 31 games played, Stepan has 32 points.  Despite missing 13 games, he is the team leader with 24 assists.

The club's budget also got a little tighter because they recently extended Marc Staal for another 6-years.   That's money well spent though, as the Rangers top four blue-liners are now all signed for several years to come.  And, they've earned it.  The Rangers presently rank 3rd in the NHL in goals against.

What money is left for Martin St. Louis and Zuccarello in the off-season, is growing increasingly questionable.

I would not turn away a younger (future Hall of Famer) Martin St. Louis, but I would pass on a 40-year old free agent to be.  I strongly feel the Rangers need to replace him, and Mats Zuccarello, with bigger, more physical players.

The New York Rangers are 6th in the NHL goals per game; 11th on the power play; and 12th on the penalty kill.

They are winning 61% of their games, owning a 27-13-4 record, good for 58 points.  The Rangers are 6th in the Eastern Conference; Washington is 7th with 57 points; and Boston is 8th with 56 points. Florida leads the best of the rest with 50 points.

On December 8th, the Rangers embarked on an 8-game winning streak, and overall, won 13 of 14 games through January 10th.  They marvelously punctuated their run on the west coast with impressive victories over the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks.

Their net minding and defense, speed, special teams, and particularly their passing, were impeccable.


Upon their return to Eastern Conference competition, the Islanders slowed down the Blueshirts, and   thumped them rather handily at MSG.  The Bruins did the same in Boston.  Both teams provided a rude welcome back to east coast hockey.  That's because both opponents bring size and physicality on all four lines.  The Rangers do not.

Physicality does not mean fighting.  It means; clearing the defensive crease of traffic and establishing position in the opposing crease; it means retrieving pucks in the corners; it means winning the battles along the boards; a strong cycle and puck possession; it means finishing checks and turnovers, and not getting pushed off the puck so easily...., etc.

Rick Nash, however, has demonstrated a change in his on-ice demeanor; he's utilizing his size and strength more than in previous seasons.  He is headed to the all-star game, while in the midst of an MVP caliber season.  At the break, he is tied for the league lead with 28 goals.

That said, team physicality also means having Rick Nash's back.  He's a big boy and can take care of himself.  But, no one ever sees the sniper in the bushes.  The more physical Eastern Conference teams routinely target him.  If anything should happen to Nash, if he should miss considerable time, the Rangers are doomed.

I recently called the Rangers a one-trick pony this season.  Here's why:

Rick Nash - 162 SOG
Carl Hagelin - 96 SOG
Chris Kreider - 91 SOG
Martin St. Louis - 90 SOG

The Islanders Johnny Boychuk (a defensemen for Pete's sake) has more shots on goal than all but two Rangers, yet doesn't even crack the Islanders top six!

Kyle Okposo - 154 SOG
John Tavares - 146 SOG
Brock Nelson- 115 SOG
Ryan Strome - 106 SOG

Steven Stamkos - 158 SOG
Tyler Johnson - 125 SOG
Nikita Kucherov - 111 SOG
Ryan Callahan - 105 SOG

Evgeni Malkin - 142 SOG
Sidney Crosby - 130 SOG
Patric Hornqvist - 120 SOG
Kris Letang - 119 SOG

When the Rangers resume play next Tuesday, they'll face the Islanders in Uniondale, where they'll have an opportunity to close to within 3-points of the division leaders.

They'll perhaps be looking to gain a small measure of redemption as well.  The last time they met, the Islanders held a tutorial on how to slow down the Rangers.  In each of two previous meetings this season, the Islanders defeated the Rangers by 3-point margins, as their distinct size advantage weighed heavily in both outcomes.

For as well as they've been playing, the Rangers are nonetheless running in a pack.  They say only the strong survive.  That said, can they distinguish themselves and separate from the pack in the second half?

We'll see.  After all, we wouldn't want our team to fall from defending Eastern Conference champs to an 8th seed.  Right?

They're 8-2 in their last 10 games, which presently makes them one of the hottest teams in hockey (along with Detroit, and Anaheim from the west).

In 2nd place of the Metropolitan Division are the Pittsburgh  Penguins, who seemly continue to win, yet appear to have lost a great deal of their toughness during the off season (with Sidney Crosby paying the price).  The Rangers handled the Pens this season, taking the series 3-1, but so have the Isles, and so have the Devils for that matter.

Then there's what happened in the Penguins/Flyers game.  So far, Philadelphia is playing some rather inconsequential hockey this season, which makes them all the more worrisome.  They admitted their thugoonery was premeditated.  On another level, they were typically shameless.

The Rangers have one more game with them on February 28th.  Circle that date on your calenders, because after that, the Rangers most grueling month of their schedule comes in March, when they will have to play 15 games (9 road games) in 31 days against Detroit, NYI, Boston, and two against Washington, and from the west, Los Angeles, Anaheim, two against Chicago, with the month kicking-off against Nashville.

By the end of February, the Flyers should be floundering like fish out of water.  But since when has that ever stopped the Flyers (of any decade) from stupidity on ice?  That means, as previously speculated, Rick Nash is a potential target.  I have no doubt the Flyers will somehow use the Thanksgiving home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Rangers as some sort of motivation to fuel their misguided and recklessness behavior.

Think not?  If the Flyers, somehow, get close enough to sniffing an 8th seed by then, think again. They are presently 12 points out.  If they get to within 6 points, watch your back.


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