This is an important part of the season for the Rangers. An inconsistent couple of months were manageable with the new coaching staff, injuries, and awful road trips. To hover around .500 at the end of that was pretty okay. Not great, but okay.
But it's now approaching the middle of December. The team started an eight-game homestand with an understanding of what the coaching staff wants and a relatively healthy team. Two games against the Devils and Capitals, who are hardly tearing up the NHL right now. This homestand badly needs to be a successful one for the Rangers. It's a chance for them to finally break away from .500 and begin a run. Instead, it's two awful losses on back-to-back nights.
I'm not even going to waste time picking apart tonight's game. Lundqvist let in a soft Oleksy goal but also made some really fantastic stops. McDonagh and Kreider were excellent. Del Zotto looked more comfortable on the left side of the ice, which the Staal absence allowed. Pouliot scored, which is something. Aside from that it was an incredibly underwhelming performance from the Rangers, with the key word being performance; not effort. I don't doubt that the team is trying. This isn't a battle of laziness or apathy. The job just isn't getting done. So let's look at what the options are going forward and how the ship can be righted. I'll warn you ahead of time that it's going to be ugly, and it's going to come off as a manifesto. Take some adderall before tackling this.
John Tortorella/Alain Vigneault
As the Rangers struggled with consistency and were anemic offensively last season the burden of failure was largely placed on Tortorella; both by fans and management. There was not much roster turnover in the offseason. Instead, Glen Sather banked on a change in coaching staff being the big difference. Here is what he had to say about firing Tortorella and finding a new coach from a tactical, philosophical standpoint when he spoke to The Daily News' Pat Leonard in June:
"He also knew that the Rangers’ style of play needed to evolve to contend with other top NHL teams, or in his words, “the game has changed.' 'If you look at these playoff games (like the Stanley Cup Finals matchup) you’re gonna see, the style that they play, I mean there’s not a hell of a lot of dump-ins,' Sather said. 'I mean, (if) you have to dump the puck in, you have to dump it. But there’s a lot of puck control and hanging onto the puck and moving the puck out, and there’s not stopping behind the net to gain control. There’s a lot of things that are done differently than what we were doing. So you have to look at the style of play. That had a lot to do with (the decision to fire Tortorella), too.'"
There's no doubt that the Rangers are playing a different style right now. There's more of an emphasis on possession as opposed to dumping the puck in and playing a north-south game. But as much as the style of play is different under Vigneault, the end product is pretty similar. As of right now the Rangers are tied for 25th in the NHL in goals-per-game. In fact, we could perhaps argue that the team regressed from last season, when the Rangers finished 15th in the NHL in goals-per-game.
Now, this is not to place the blame on Vigneault or sit here and lament about Tortorella leaving. That's not the point. This summer Glen Sather made peripheral changes to the lineup, and more or less placed the blame of underachieving on coaching. As Alain Vigneault, who helped cultivate a dynamic, prosperous offense in Vancouver, struggles just as much to milk much production out of this group one has to wonder if Sather dropped the ball in putting all his eggs in the Vigneault basket. Maybe Tortorella was not the problem, and maybe Vigneault, while certainly a brilliant hockey mind, is not himself an all-encompassing solution. Maybe this is just a flawed roster.
So where do we go from here? Well, as Kevin Power of Blueshirt Banter has pointed out, the Rangers' shooting percentage is abnormally low right now. To some degree the Rangers have just had poor luck and the law of averages will soon start to work in their favor. Still, this does not address the lack of scoring completely.
Discussing call-ups is, to be frank, a waste of time. Sather and Vigneault have pretty much played every card in the deck as far as Hartford is concerned. Kreider's addition has been much needed. Beyond that there isn't much in the way of NHL-ready talent. We're already stretching the deck with J.T. Miller, who at 20 years old is still very raw and could use some more time in the AHL. Jesper Fast already proved early in the season that he is not ready and an ankle injury has kept him off the ice for the last month. Oscar Lindberg and Danny Kristo are developing just fine but are in no way ready for the NHL. The same can be said for Dylan McIlrath and Connor Allen, who are showing glimpses of NHL quality but lack the consistency and experience. The sad reality is that, beyond Kreider and a desperate call-up of Miller, Hartford is in a transition phase in terms of prospects. The only viable call-up options are the likes of Darroll Powe, Arron Asham, Danny Syvret, and Aaron Johnson; guys who are experienced and could step into a minor role but won't make a tangible difference. Unless a McIlrath, Lindberg, or Kristo really turns on the jets in the next week or two no help is coming from Hartford.
If any help is coming, then it's going to be from outside the organization. However, working against the Rangers is limited cap space and the fact that there aren't many teams looking to make big moves this early in the season. Glen Sather has (hopefully) learned from blunders from The Dark Ages when he would ship out prospects for guys like Martin Rucinsky in desperate attempts to stay relevant. Michael Del Zotto has been in all sorts of rumors, and we've seen how Glen Sather can sometimes pull a rabbit out of his hat in the trade market. Still, I don't think we can bank on any big moves coming right now.
I think, barring something truly great from Sather, we're stuck with what we've got; for better or worse. Hope lies in the fact that it's early December, and, unlike last year's lockout-induced 40-yard dash, it's a long season with 51 games left to play. The best asset Sather and Vigneault have right now is time. There is still plenty of season left to figure things out and get into a groove. Guys like Callahan and Hagelin are going to pick up the goal production at some point. The 2010-2011 Bruins as well as the 2011-2012 Kings both experienced their own existential crisis of sorts during the regular season before going on to win the Stanley Cup. Without even thinking about Stanley Cups, Glen Sather better hope that this is a similar crisis of identity for the Rangers and not simply the true nature of the roster he built. Otherwise, pointing to Tortorella and Sullivan as culpable for offensive woes – and not Sather himself – is going to be very hard to defend.
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