by Mark Owens
Your team is struggling for the past five weeks, you have just gained 1 of 6 available points on a road trip, and you return to MSG for a three-game homestand against the NHL’s second worst team who is riding a seven game losing streak. Sounds like your team should be desperate to seize the opportunity and start the homestand on a positive note, right? Wrong.
Despite mounting a furious but futile comeback, the 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday was one of the season’s worst. There have been too many similar disappointing losses, and efforts, this season. Tom Renney’s ability to lead this team ‘ from both a strategic and motivational point of view ‘ should be questioned.
It’s hard to blame Renney and staff for the rash of injuries this season, Henrik Lundqvist‘s recent mediocre play, or even the ineffective power play. What is questionable is Renney’s tactical use of the players and the unacceptable number of games this season in which the Rangers simply looked unready (or unwilling) to compete.
Tuesday’s first period against the Lightning is a prime example of Renney misusing his players. How can the Hollweg-Betts-Orr line receive more ice time than the Hossa-Gomez-Jagr line in the first period? Some of the season’s most noteworthy victories started with the Rangers applying immense pressure in the first period to seize control of the game. Granted, they lost some of those games due to their inability to score, but they certainly put themselves in a position to succeed. Playing the Betts line more than Gomez’s line is a ‘play-not-to-lose’ strategy, not a ‘play-to-win’ strategy ‘ and certainly no way to seize control of a game.
You also have to question Renney’s judgment in utilizing the Hollweg-Betts-Orr line against other teams’ best lines. That line just doesn’t have enough puck skills. Keeping them in the lineup during the regular season is understandable, but tasking them with a demanding, ‘checking line’ assignment is hard to fathom. Replacing Hollweg or Orr with Marcel Hossa would make this a much more dependable line. It’s hard to see Renney using both Hollweg and Orr come playoff time, so why not form a more dependable fourth line now?
However, Renney’s first period strategy against Tampa Bay was not the primary reason they lost that game; they lost because the team did not charge out of the gate with a full effort, ready to compete on every shift. Theirs was a 25-minute effort. This has happened way too many times this season (against Phoenix, Atlanta, Toronto, Carolina, and other teams). Why does that happen? Do the Rangers lack character and have the wrong types of players, or, like most teams, do they need motivational leaders (coach and captain) to help ensure the team consistently rises to the occasion over the course of a long, 82-game season?
Questioning the team’s character and the captain’s leadership are certainly factors to be explored, especially the role of Jaromir Jagr as captain. Is he on the same page as the coach? Is he on the same page as Brendan Shanahan, the de facto team leader? Is he setting a positive example for the entire team, especially the youngsters, and competing 100% on every shift? Would replacing him as captain have a positive or negative effect on the team?
What are the possible solutions? Certainly the number one way to overcome most of these deficiencies would be for each member of the team to play harder and compete during every shift, like they did against the Hurricanes two weeks ago. Renney could alter his strategic approach and try to become a more forceful leader. Or maybe it’s Glen Sather who needs to take charge by addressing the team and coaching staff, trading players, or firing the coach. Replacing Jagr with Shanahan as captain may help, but could also totally derail the team.
Regardless, team leadership begins with a head coach who consistently puts his team in a position to succeed, from both a strategic and motivational standpoint. Talent alone can win you many games, but average (or even above average) talent cannot overcome questionable strategy, leadership and motivational tactics during the course of a full season. Let’s see if Sather gives Renney the rest of the season to prove he’s the man to get the Rangers through this rough stretch and into the playoffs.