The New York Rangers are 2-5, defensively porous and offensively inept. They are discombobulated on the ice and lost for answers. And perhaps worst of all, after cementing their reputation as an iron-willed team over the past three seasons, they are a spineless bunch.
But these are not the New York Rangers you find in the program roster. Right now, this team is decimated by injury – a fact that must be remembered as the losses begin to pile up like a stack of overdue bills. The team that has emerged in the aftermath of the separated shoulders, the broken thumbs and the concussions is a shell of the team that Alain Vigneault signed up to coach.
With Carl Hagelin out for at least another weak, Ryan Callahan sidelined for a month and Rick Nash gone until who-knows-when, the Rangers have three giant holes among their top-sox forwards. Between Hagelin’s speed, Callahan’s leadership and Nash’s gaudy skill set, those are three players you don’t exactly replace from within. And given the time of year – just seven games into the season – management isn’t going to ship in reinforcements from out of town.
Unless from Hartford, of course. So these are the Rangers, for now. And these are the Rangers that will need to find a way to win some games over the next month or so before this tailspin spirals out of control to simply get this season off the ground. If they can play .500 hockey and keep themselves in the race until the injured return, they’ll have done their job. And though that task isn’t a tall one standing alone, it grows like a weed when you consider what comes with it.
Last night against the Devils, these are the top six forwards that took the ice for the Rangers: Brad Richards, Derick Brassard, Taylor Pyatt, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Pyatt, he of 15 goals in his past 128 games, skated on the first line. In the Rangers’ preseason plans, the lead-footed winger wasn’t even a lock to make the team. Opposite Pyatt was Richards, who has played well in the early-goings but still finds himself out of place on the wing. And between them was Brassard, a great centerman if he’s measured as a second-line player.
This is to say little of the second line, where an overqualified Stepan was flanked by an under-qualified Zuccarello and a not-quite-ripe-enough Miller. So it was little surprise that the team mustered just 22 shots on goal, mostly of the harmless variety. The shutout kept the Rangers’ season goals total at 11 for a per game average of 1.57, better than only the 1-7 Flyers and the 1-8 Sabres. The forwards who have scored so far for the offensively-reinvented Rangers? Richards, Callahan and Derek Dorsett. That’s it.
Still, it’s hard to blame Vigneault. He’s simply working with what he’s got and he hasn’t got much. With Nash, Callahan and Hagelin out, more than 35 percent of the team’s total offense from a season ago is out with them. That’s a sizeable chunk of the pie missing for any team, not to mention one that struggles to find offense from its bottom six. (In seven games, the third- and fourth-liners have produced three points.)
In Callahan and Hagelin, the Rangers also lose two of their best penalty-killers, a pair of shorthanded gurus that helped make the Rangers one of the hardest teams to score against on the power play in 2011. They fell back into the pack a bit last season, but faith in the man-down unit never wavered. This season, though, they are killing penalties at less than an 80 percent success rate, and look ever-vulnerable while doing it. Expect that to improve when the personnel is shorn-up; Vancouver’s penalty kill unit was a top ten fixture under Vigneault.
Expect a lot more to improve then, too. There’s a reason the Rangers were pegged as a Cup contender this summer, and truly, a 2-5 start with a squad full of reserves does little to change that. They will have to start showing some defensive responsibility, to be sure, but the goals will come. And when they start coming at one end, expect them to stop coming so frequently at the other.
For now though, understand that the Rangers are not this team. There’s a lot more to them that we haven’t seen yet, at least not all at once. Their 2-5 record doesn’t reflect what they can be, but what they presently are. Fortunately, this identity is a transient one.
Give the Blueshirts a chance to actually wear the blue shirts. Give the team you see in the program a chance to match the team you see on the ice. Then decide what this team is made of.