by Mark Owens
The Rangers’ record now stands at 2-4 after Thursday night’s miserable loss to the lowly Thrashers. Until this game, the team had tidy excuses for each of their three previous losses: two were to the Cup-ready Ottawa Senators and the other was a 2-1 loss to the Islanders in which Rick DiPietro repeatedly stoned the Rangers.
Then, Atlanta fired their coach and it seemed like the Rangers were already making excuses for this game, too (Thrashers are ‘fired up’ and ‘looking for revenge’ for last season’s playoff sweep).
So, what is wrong with the Rangers? I can think of 23 things, and I don’t mean the 23 players on the roster. In no particular order:
1. They miss Michael Nylander. Why mess with something that worked so well? Like Joe Torre, he was pushed out the door.
2. They miss Sean Avery – but at least he’s returning.
3. Tom Renney shuffles the lines too much. With three new centers, the players haven’t had a chance to adjust to their linemates.
4. Scott Gomez looks lost. He’s trying too hard to impress and live up to his lofty contract. Looking for the fancy play when the team is struggling is not the way to go. He’s also been misutilized by Renney bouncing him between the first and second lines.
5. Michal Rozsival looks more like the player the Penguins gave up on than the number one defenseman he has been the past two seasons.
6. Marek Malik again struggles out of the gate and his troubles are compounded by the hatred shown by Ranger fans. In a totally classless move, the fans cheered when Malik was shaken up by an illegal check (charging penalty) by the Senators’ Christoph Schubert. Accept it: Malik is not a physical or fast player and he plays a high-risk, puck-possession game that sometimes leads to errors. Many fans choose to ignore it, but his high +/- ranking over the years speaks for itself.
7. Brendan Shanahan is rusty, scoring on just one of his 40 shots on goal, a shooting percentage of 2.5%. His career shooting percentage is 13.1%.
8. Players have been misused. Blair Betts has been overutilized. He is a fourth line center and should not be counted on to help line three generate offense. Petr Prucha and Ryan Callahan have been underutilized. Betts is not the player to maximize their offensive potential. Brandon Dubinsky may not be, either, but he has not been given a fair chance. Maybe Dave Scatchard or Avery will be a good fit with them.
9. Young players like Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes have not been given a chance to help the team. Dubinsky’s stint as the full-time, third-line center lasted less than one game before Renney swapped him with Betts, a pattern that continues. Dawes earned a spot with a strong preseason but fell victim to a numbers game. He’s back now and should be given a chance to stay given the team’s lack of offensive production.
10. The team is too small. Smurfs like Prucha, Callahan, Martin Straka and Dawes are offensively talented, but have been pushed around by big, physical defensemen like Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton, and Garnett Exelby; they haven’t even played Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith yet. It might be a ‘new NHL’ but you still have to win battles in front of the net.
11. They are too one-dimensional. Puck possession is non-existent and they seem unable to execute more than one pass in a row. They need to find ways to score ugly goals by crashing the net and looking for deflections and rebounds. They also wait for turnovers instead of creating turnovers.
12. They’re too soft. Besides lacking size, the Rangers also seem unwilling or unable to get their noses dirty in front of Lundqvist, the opposing goalie, and along the boards. Avery will return soon and Scatchard will probably get a shot, but the team still lacks toughness on the blueline (hence the talk of Ed Jovanovski). Perhaps Michael Sauer should be given a chance to supplant Paul Mara or Thomas Pock. They passed on their chance to pursue Witt and Sutton when they were free agents.
13. They’ve been victimized by poor officiating. Yeah, yeah, that’s usually a loser’s excuse, but the officiating has been horrible at times and factored into three of the four losses. However, the Rangers don’t help themselves by cashing in on the power plays they are given.
14. Jaromir Jagr seems disinterested. Is it because Nylander is gone, or because he doesn’t want to play with Gomez? Or because Marcel Hossa was scratched the first two games? Or because both Gomez and Chris Drury have higher salaries? Or because both Malik and Rozsival have struggled? Something else?
15. Opponents don’t fear any of their defenseman. It seems like every other team has at least one ‘mean’ defenseman. In the old days, forwards had to ‘pay the price’ when camping in front of the goalie or otherwise looking to cash in around the net. Through six games, opponents have looked way too comfortable around the King’s net.
16. High expectations. It’s harder to live up to lofty expectations than rise up as underdogs.
17. Unrealistic expectations. Simply put, all the talk from Glen Sather, Renney and players about ‘wanting the Cup’ was premature and misguided. Every team ‘wants’ the Cup. However, that is different than being a Cup contender. Adding two high-profile free agents and dumping your number-one center does not make you a Cup contender either. The hype machine worked though, as tickets are sold out for the season.
18. The power play. It struggled last season and Sather did nothing to address it. They don’t have a true power play quarterback. They pass too much and shoot too little. They look for the perfect play instead of cranking up a shot and crashing the net.
19. They don’t have an identity. At first they were the Euro-Rangers who proved too soft for the gritty Devils in the 2006 playoffs. In 2007 they added some North American players and ‘sandpaper’ in the form of Avery and Callahan, energizing the team during a memorable playoff run. The Rangers need to forge an identity, which is probably a hybrid of finesse and grit.
20. They over-rely on Lundqvist. It’s OK to play an offensive, high-risk style but the Rangers have been too careless with the puck at both blue lines (see Gomez’s turnover against Atlanta). The smart, safe play is almost always better than the high-risk, high-reward play.
21. They have too many big contracts. Being pressed against the salary cap has limited roster options and will make it difficult to swing a big trade that addresses the team’s deficiencies.
22. Too much youth. Breaking in the young players is great but you have to live with the growing pains, which is hard to do when you ‘want the Cup.’
23. Nothing! The rough start was to be expected and the team needs more time to gel. Press the panic button if they’re under .500 in late November.