Mika Zibanejad

Let’s Hold Off On Jumping Off That Bridge Just Yet

Six games in and the Rangers are 1-4-1, having lost four straight, all by one goal.  They’re 1-7-1 since the COVID pandemic hit, including the three game sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes in the play-in round last August.  All of those games played in stadiums without fans.

It’s easy to get down on the team and coaching staff with a record like this, though there are some mitigating circumstances.

For one, this is a season like no other.  Teams were given 10 days to assemble from around the world and prepare for the start of a 56 game season that started some three months past the usual date.  Sure, every team was in a similar situation, but it’s still a factor that will affect teams in different ways.

They then were without one of their stars, Mika Zibanejad, for pretty much the entirety of training camp.  It’s fair to say that Zibanejad has been a leader on the team the past few seasons, playing in all situations and driving offense on one of the two top lines.  To say his production has been underwhelming to start the season, is the proverbial understatement.

Missing camp certainly set him back, and you have to wonder how prepared he was coming into the team given that he had to spend two weeks isolated.  You also have to wonder whether he has lingering effects of COVID, a common occurrence in many of those who recovered.  Even if he did manage to get past the obvious effects, there are reports that the virus does leave scarring in the lungs for a large number of victims.  What exact effects he has now and going forward remain’s to be seen, but there’s room in there to forgive his performances in light of what he went through.

We also shouldn’t forget that the Rangers are carrying just under $13M in dead cap space related to the buyouts of Henrik LundqvistKevin ShattenkirkDan Girardi and Ryan Spooner (via Vancouver).  That’s a shade under 16% of the total available cap space, enough to add another Jacob Trouba AND Mika Zibanejad on the roster, or at least upgrade a few spots like 6th dman, 4th liners etc.

It’s even more stark when you compare that to the rest of the East Division this year, where the team will play games solely against the other seven teams in the division:

$13.0M – New York Rangers
$4.4M – New York Islanders
$3.9M – New Jersey Devils
$3.2M – Pittsburgh Penguins
$2.5M – Philadelphia Flyers
$1.5M – Boston Bruins
$791K – Buffalo Sabres
$0 – Washington Capitals

It doesn’t help either, that the Rangers play in the toughest division in hockey, and could arguably be a little tougher this year with Boston and Buffalo subbing in for the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets.  At least it’ll be just for this season.

Age is also a factor, the Rangers as of January 27th, were the youngest team in the league at an average of 25.6, including 19 year old forwards Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, along with the likes of Filip ChytilAdam FoxRyan LindgrenK’Andre Miller and Brett Howden all 22 or younger.  Julien Gauthier is a year older at 23.

Youth of course doesn’t explain everything, after all the Devils are second at 26 years of age, and the Sabres are fourth at 26.8, and those teams are 3-2-0 and 3-3-1 respectively, having both beaten the Rangers.

Which brings me to my next point, the Rangers are not that far behind.  The Devils are three points ahead and have a game in hand, the Sabres four points, but with one more game played.  Neither of them are in a particularly strong position either and have their own problems that are keeping them in the middle of the pack.

If you factor in that the Rangers have been a shot away from tying the game in four of the five games they’ve lost, and a post away from victory in that shootout loss to the Penguins.  They’ve lead in three of those four games too, just have not always gotten that last save, or been able to mount a comeback all the way, in the case of the Devils.

The emotional toll of watching losses though, can cloud our judgement, especially with the raised expectations of last year’s late rally.  The reality is this team is still a work in progress, and this season is one that the Rangers objectively would have been less likely than likely to succeed.

It doesn’t mean they can’t succeed, after all hockey perhaps as much as any sport, is one that rides on confidence, lending itself to successful streaks – and the opposite – despite what might be the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the team.

That said, it’s still a team that has things working against them, and will be in a better position next season when the dead space on the cap drops to a much more manageable $4M and further to $2.5M in 2022-23.

Are there structural issues to the team, clearly there is down the center at the moment, with their inability to consistently win in faceoffs one of the glaring weaknesses – they rank last in the league with 41.8% compared to Boston’s league leading 58.6%.  Over the course of around 50 to 60 faceoffs in a game, it means the Rangers on average may have possesion of the puck 10 fewer times than their opposition.

Many have also pointed to goaltending as a problem, after all there have been more than a couple saves that, if made, could have perhaps changed the outcome or flow of a game.  Their 2.83 GAA isn’t that bad though by league standards, coming in at 14th overall.  Excluding the one win though puts things in perspective, increasing the GAA to 3.40 and dropping the Rangers to 24th.

Perhaps less talked about is the offense, where the Blueshirts have averaged just 2.50 goals a game, good enough for just 24th out of 31 teams.  It gets worse if you exlude the win, taking the team to an anemic 2.0, better than just the Red Wings, Islanders and Ducks…though to be fair, if you excluded that game, then the Islanders would leapfrog the Rangers.

Throw in too Tony DeAngelo and Jack Johnson who’ve struggled in the early going, and there’s definitely some opportunities to improve the team.

Part of this of course is due to the Cap challenges.  In Johnson the team perhaps hoped they’d get something for nothing, or have one of the others step up.  It was a risky proposition, made only a little less dire due to the play of K’Andre Miller who to some extent, has arrived before expectations.  Imagine how things might be if that hadn’t panned out, and they were forced to rely on the likes of Libor HajekBrendan Smith or Anthony Bitetto in the line-up every night.

That’s to say, the Rangers are already just an injury away in their top four from having that very situation.

I expect that Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere will to varying extents, find their game and become more offensive forces as the season progresses.  I also expect Panarin to find his timing, and for Zibanejad to improve somewhat, though perhaps not to the level of last season.  Perhaps too Ryan Strome and Tony DeAngelo will raise their games, though I remain much more guarded for both.

The start to this year is nothing short of disappointing.  To lose leads in three consecutive games, to loase five out of six games, and to put in some disappointing stretches of play like we saw in Game 1 against the Islanders and then Tuesday against the Sabres, makes for some frustrating watching.

On the other hand, we perhaps get ahead of ourselves sometimes and hope can turn into expectations so quickly, and expectations for the Rangers are always going to be high anyway.  Just remember before you suggest blowing everything up for some limited long term success, there’s a longer opportunity here, if you can perhaps put things into perspective and give the team a little more time to get to a position where they have a little more flexibility to make those changes.

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