MSG analyst Dave Maloney got a message from his daughter this week: What’s wrong with the Rangers?
It’s the same question most Blueshirts fans are asking after the team started the season with a 2-4-1 record. Such is the nature of the NHL’s unforgiving 56-game schedule, where a slow start can seem insurmountable and a five- or six-game loss can kill any hope of qualifying.
Maloney said to his daughter: Expectations did not quite match reality.
It’s the simplest explanation. The Rangers reshuffled their team in February 2018 and have since eliminated nearly all veterans from their 2014 Stanley Cup final team (striker Chris Kreider is the only remaining attacker).
As Maloney, the Rangers’ quarterback in the ’70s and ’80s, notes, it was a whole new approach for New York management. They never tried to build that way, he says. The Rangers, especially over the past two decades, have notoriously strengthened their team by pursuing brilliant free trade officials and trade goals.
Management never set a timetable for the rebuild, but expectations rose when the Rangers won the second pick in the 2019 lottery (on Kaapo Kakko-Land) and the first pick in 2020 (Alexis Lafrenière). Things also gained momentum when they brought in a great free agent, Artemi Panarin, prior to the 2019-20 season. He was so exceptional in his first season that he finished in the top 3 of the league’s MVP rankings.
There is no doubt that the Rangers had legitimate expectations for the postseason this year – or at least that they wanted to take a step forward. Thursday’s thrilling victory over the Sabres, in which Lafrenière scored his first NHL goal in overtime, has eased the panic, but there are some fundamental problems keeping this team from being a true contender. Let’s see what went wrong and what can be corrected.
Goalkeeper or defender?
The easiest starting point for the Rangers is their goalie, who ranks 24th in the league in goals against average (.894) in seven games.
Those of us in [Henrik] Lundqvist’s generation enjoyed spectacular goal scorers night after night, and that was the scariest thing, Maloney said. Not many franchises have had a goalie like that. So it’s not so much what’s going on with [Alexander] Georgiev, but what’s going on with [Igor] Shesterkin. It’s about using this franchise for protectors who were in their own universe compared to the rest of us.
That’s a good point, but the Rangers decided to buy Lundqvist this season largely because they had so much faith in the 25-year-old Shesterkin, who was long considered one of their best hopes. Management also believed strongly in Georgiev, 24, and made it a priority this season to rehire him as a free agent.
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Kevin Weeks, longtime NHL goaltender (including two seasons with the Rangers) and NHL Network analyst, says it’s too early to panic given Shesterkin’s background.
I think it’s a pretty relaxed situation for everyone because it’s not his hallmark, Weeks says. Last season in the KHL, Shesterkin made a .953 save percentage before coming to North America. He was so good as an AHL rookie last season that the Rangers drafted him in January and he recorded a .932 save percentage in his first 12 NHL starts.
One thing that’s different now is that he’s letting the goals go through his body, Weeks says. How [opponents] find holes that most NHL goalies don’t – unless you’re going through a tough time. But normal NHL goalies don’t let that happen very often. This makes him look smaller in line, even though he’s not a small guy. I think it’s a safe bet. I know when I’m in position and you know you’re in the right place and the puck somehow finds a hole. When it’s done, you take it. If that happens two or three times, you start to doubt yourself, and before you know it, you’re not playing pucks right, which usually hits you in the body.
After impressive stats in the KHL and last season, Igor Shesterkin struggled at the start of the 2021 season. Justin K. Allaire/NHLI via Getty Images
Weeks of playing under the guidance of Benoît Allaire, who is still the Rangers’ goalkeeping coach.
Benny has always been a big supporter, you have to stop the first [shot], Weeks said. Don’t worry about the second or the third yet, but you have to stop the first. He works a lot on the guys’ ability to react to the first shot, to be able to make stops on the first shot. And for some reason, that’s not yet the case with Igor.
Mr. Weekes said Allaire is also one of the best in this area by giving the goalies extra time to train, which has been a challenge because of the tight schedule. It’s just different this season, Weeks said. And then someone will say: What about John Gibson [who has done well so far this season]? I know John Gibson skated with [Ducks goalie Sudarshan Maharaj] from the beginning. He’s getting a lot out of it. I’m not saying Igor never skated, but I know it helped John Gibson.
Defense is the next problem for the Rangers. The blue line had been shaken up all last season, and their only way out in the offseason was to trade Mark Staal and replace him with Jack Johnson (who was bought out by the Penguins). Things are moving in the right direction, and the biggest surprise of the season in New York so far is the emergence of rookie K’Andre Miller. The 21-year-old makes a balanced impression and plays with great confidence, especially with Jacob Trouba in the first team.
Johnson has become a target of negativity for fans, especially when he is linked to Tony DeAngelo. So far, both players are healthy reserves.
Johnson has been around for 14 years and has a certain style, Maloney said. The question is this: Is this gonna work with Tony? Is he Mark Staal with Tony? The reality is that he likes to move, he’s overly aggressive at times, and he just understands where things stand.
Will there be other changes?
The Rangers have changed their lineups so often that it sometimes seems like coach David Quinn considers the regular season an extended preseason, something teams lack in this fast-paced season.
It’s a bit like the chicken or the egg. If you win, you don’t have to change anything, Maloney says. There’s a lot to be said for letting things develop a bit. Quinn] wants this combination to work, but there is not enough consistency to stick to a single set of lines.
Last season, Panarin and Ryan Strome formed a magical combination and the Rangers even scored 23 more goals than their opponents when they were on the ice together. Quinn has kept the duo largely intact this season, but he has shared a can in almost every game with his third partner and has regularly put the rest of the line in the blender.
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But except for Panarin (eight points from seven games), the best veterans – Strome, Mika Zibanejad, Kreider – are not producing at a high level, and it’s hard to say exactly why.
It’s an obvious question, and an obvious answer: Yeah, we’re not down on our sixes, Quinn said pointedly after Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Sabres.
Weeks, who attended last week’s game against the Devils in Madison Square, said it flatly.
I don’t know what they look like this year, Weeks said. Last year, as the season progressed, they established their identity and their way of playing. Even without Mika, they played well. And it’s clear that Bradman [Panarin] was New York’s top athlete last year, and Zibanejad was a pain in the ass. You knew what to expect as the season progressed.
This year, they haven’t found their identity yet: What are we, a print team? What are we, a review team? What are we, a team that attacks by surprise? We’re a defensive team – well, we know we’re not. Are we a physical team? Well, Trouba, [Brenden] Lemieux and Kreids have some physical elements, but as a team they just don’t seem to be in sync.
Artemi Panarin scored high again this season. Sarah Schmidl/NHLI via Getty Images
There is no doubt that Rangers have good players and should be a team that relies on its own energy, but they have not been able to hold that energy throughout an entire game – and have often lost confidence and seemed depressed when setbacks struck late.
Lafrenière as first choice. When asked what he sees in Lafrenière, who scored his first goal Thursday night with the winner of extra time, Maloney replied: a 19-year-old who always feels that way. I’m a little nervous.
New Jersey didn’t have an exceptional recruiting season in 2019 either, but it was much better than the second year.
Often in this generation, a top player who is a first-rate pick is considered next, Maloney says. As if [Lafrenière] is the next [Sidney] Crosby because he won an award [in the ULC], just like Sid. Or Kakko becomes the next [Mikko] Rantan in Colorado; it took him two and a half years to get strong enough or something. Not everyone is Sid, and not everyone is McDavid.
Kakko, Maloney noted, is also always guessing. People in the NHL often say it takes about 150 to 200 NHL games to figure out who is really a player; no selected player even comes close to that number. According to The Athletic, the Rangers’ average age this season is 25.6, the lowest in the league. New York has only four players over the age of 27.
If you look at the Islanders, Washington and Boston, those are tough teams, Maloney said. I wouldn’t say the Rangers are a strong team. As they get older, young people get heavier and heavier. They are not as heavy as they will be because they can play. You are not the same person at 19 as you are at 21 and 22, let alone at 23 and 24. So there’s so much here; if you make an honest and unbiased assessment of your situation, there’s a lot that’s not there yet.
So maybe it’s not a matter of fixing what’s wrong, but of releasing the panic button after the unfortunate period at the start of the season.
frequently asked questions
Who will the Rangers contract in free agency?
Brodzinski, 27, scored 30 points (14 goals and 16 assists) in 44 AHL San Jose games last season and Greco, 27, scored 19 points (10 goals and 9 assists) in 37 AHL Springfield games. UPDATE: 3:33 p.m. Friday – The Rangers have officially announced that Jack Johnson has signed a one-year contract.
How much does a New York Ranger earn?
New York Rangers 2020: Salaries | Spotrac
What are the Rangers worth?
The New York Rangers have won just one Stanley Cup since 1940 and have failed to qualify for the playoffs in the last two seasons. Yet for the fifth consecutive year, it is the most valuable team in the NHL, valued at $1.65 billion.