The New York Rangers know what kind of team they want to be. The moment Alain Vigneault signed up to coach the Blueshirts back in June, their basic identity was set in stone: The 2013-14 Rangers would be a creative-minded, free-flowing offensive machine.
33 games into the season, the team ranks 29th in the league in goals scored, averaging 2.18 per game. The only club with a more futile offense than the Rangers? The Buffalo Sabres, who, with seven wins in 32 tries, are doing a very good job of tanking for the number one pick next June.
The Rangers have different plans for June. They’re supposed to be playing hockey still, at least by the estimation of GM Glen Sather. It’s why he hired Vigneault in the first place: Sather felt former coach John Tortorella was stifling an offensively-angled roster, and thus selling his team short.
So Sather handed Vigneault the reins in hopes that the new coach could coax more offense out of the team. (The Rangers finished 15th in the League – 10th in the East – last year in goals per game.) And by some measures, Vigneault has met the task, orchestrating a team that runs and guns, pressures the puck hard and generates plenty of scoring chances. The Rangers rank third in the East in shots per game.
The only measure that really matters, of course, is goals. And right now, the goals simply aren’t coming. The offense surged for a flash in November, scoring 19 goals through the first five games of the month, but the lights went out almost as quickly as they came on. Since a November 10 win over the Panthers, the Rangers have averaged just a shade over 2 goals per game.
They’ve lost 10 of 16 over this stretch, but it’s hard to say they’ve been badly outplayed more than three or four times. In most cases, the Rangers have dictated play, controlled puck possession, outshot the opposition…and lost. Why? Because there is only one player on this team – Rick Nash – with a true knack for scoring goals.
Consider that, and the whole idea of the Rangers as an offensively-minded team seems pretty silly. When you think of offensively-minded teams, you think of the Blackhawks and the Sharks, the Penguins and the Capitals – teams that can score at a moment’s notice. The Caps might be an exception here (read: Ovechkin, Alex), but these teams are good because their offense is sustainable: if you remove one goal scorer from the game, there are three or four more who can step up.
Patrick Kane has Jonathan Toews. Patrick Marleau has Joe Pavelski. Sidney Crosby has Evgeni Malkin. But who plays Robin to Nash’s Batman? Brad Richards? Derek Stepan? The now-sidelined Ryan Callahan? Whoever it is, they’re not playing it well. Since returning from his concussion November 19 against the Bruins, the Rangers are 1-6 in games where Nash is held without a point.
The statistics, truly, are counterintuitive. The Rangers are one of only seven teams in the league averaging more than 30 shots for and less than 30 shots against per game. The others? The Sharks, Blackhawks, Canucks, Ducks, Penguins, Kings and Red Wings. And yet despite finding themselves among the league’s elite in shot differential, the Rangers are 15-17-1 and sixth in the League’s worst division.
Something has to be off, right? There has to be some empirical explanation for all this, some number that points out the Rangers are simply victims of bad luck. How else could their peripherals be so promising, and their results so discouraging? Once this abnormality corrects itself, things will start turning around for the Blueshirts.
Okay – you could attribute the team’s woes to an irregularly low shooting percentage. The league average for 5 v. 5 shooting percentage is 7.60, and the Rangers rank 29th at 5.79 (ahead of only the Sabres). You have to figure this deviation will fix itself as the season progress, and more pucks will start going in for Nash and Co.
But you also have to remember this is the Rangers we’re talking about, a team that scores goals at a soccer-like rate. The reason their shooting percentage is so low is because they lack the snipers to bring it up to par. It might improve marginably over the course of 82 games, but to toss all the team’s eggs in the basket of probability would be foolish. The Rangers aren’t simply victims of one statistical anomaly.
Their problems can be traced back to their identity. The Rangers know what type of team they want to be, but is that the type of team they actually are? They might enjoy envisioning themselves as a risk-taking, lamp-lighting offensive dynamo– and after years of defensive-minded hockey, who can blame them? – but do the Rangers have the players to make that work?
Not if the results so far are any indication. And after their dreadful 4-1 loss to the Predators on Tuesday, Vigneault admitted his team might be playing the wrong type of game.
“I’m not quite sure we have the personnel to play the type of game I’d like to play, which is more offensive oriented,” he said. “We’ve got to be a little more defensively oriented for the time being.”
He’s absolutely right. For if the Rangers continue to play the way they are now, they’ll lose 4-2 or 3-1 or 4-1 every single night. The chances they surrender on the defensive side of the puck wouldn’t come with such a toll if they were scoring at the other end (or if Henrik Lundqvist were playing better), but with goals growing like 4-leaf clovers, they have no choice but to rein it in.
It’s the last thing Rangers fans want to hear, especially after listening to Tortorella preach grind-it-out hockey for the past three and a half years. Vigneault was supposed to deliver the team from the valiant struggle of a 2-1 win – he was supposed to make hockey fun to watch again.
Through 33 games, he did his best. But now, as he acknowledged on Tuesday, it’s time to find ways to win games. If that means collapsing in the defensive zone, so be it. If that means dumping pucks into the corners and creating offense below the goal line, so be it. If that means shortening the leash on the defensemen, so be it. It might not be the formula he’s used to, but it’s the right one given the ingredients on hand.
That’s the hope, at least. But there’s a foreboding feeling that the Rangers might not be suited for that type of game either. Most of the players that thrived on Tortorella’s “Black and Blueshirts” are gone, their places now filled by the weak-willed likes of Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard, he of the “sore butt” injury. The Rangers, as currently assembled, are neither skilled enough to stretch the ice nor tough enough to trim it down.
Stuck between identities, it’s hard to say where they go from here. They’re failing to win games they deserve, and incapable of stealing games they don’t. Still, by most outward measures, the Rangers should be a lot better than they are. Maybe the defensive experiment will work. Maybe the team will fall back into it naturally, as you do when skiing for the first time each winter.
But they need to figure it out fast: this is no time be headed downhill.