by Mark Owens
Despite bowing out in round two again and perhaps wasting their final season with Hall-of-Famers-to-be Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, the Rangers’ season was mostly successful, due to the development of rookies Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan. Lauri Korpikoski scored a goal in his NHL debut Sunday, and is one of several rookies with a chance to make next season’s roster.
However, the Rangers’ number one weakness all season, their horrendous power play, threatened their ability to clinch a playoff spot, prevented them from gaining a top-four Eastern Conference ranking, and absolutely killed them in each loss to the Penguins.
The power play finished as the league’s 9th worst and consistently failed to make a difference when crucial games were on the line. The unit’s low ranking wouldn’t have been much of an issue if it managed to capitalize in crucial situations, especially in the Penguins series where each Penguin win can be attributed to a superior Penguins power play/awful Rangers power play. Blowing two 5-on-3 advantages in the second period of game three and failing to convert two power plays in the last six minutes of game two while trailing by just one goal gave the Rangers no chance in this series.
Of course, the Penguins’ penalty killing, team defense and goaltending deserve full credit for getting the job done. In the regular season, the Penguins’ penalty killing was not good, but as a team they finished among the league’s top ten for fewest goals allowed. Jordan Staal was already one of the league’s best penalty killers when they added giant Hal Gill and two-way forwards Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis at the trade deadline. These trades definitely made the Penguins more playoff-ready, while improving their penalty killing and team defense.
Glen Sather did nothing to address his team’s brutal power play, while rivals like the Flyers added an excellent top-six forward in Vinny Prospal, who has single handedly awoken Danny Briere, who now has 14 playoff points in 12 games. Michal Rozsival has proven unable to lead a power play, and he, like too many other Rangers, is unwilling/unable to get pucks to the net while on the power play. (The Rangers also need to address their lack of brawny forwards to fight for loose pucks.)
Besides not having a power play quarterback, the Rangers’ defense appeared unable to contend with the skill, speed and size of the Penguins’ forwards. Rozsival is the de facto number one defenseman based on ice time, but he is not a true game-changing, shut down defenseman. He too often defers to Jagr, passing up good opportunities to shoot the puck. His ill-advised blue-line pass to a covered Jagr one minute into game three led to a turnover and 1-0 Penguins lead.
Tom Renney and staff have done an outstanding job developing the team’s young players while getting the Rangers to the playoffs in each of their three seasons on the job, but it may be time to question whether this staff is good enough to get the Rangers to the next level. Sather needs to decide if Renney is the in-game strategist and motivator who can help tilt close playoff games in his team’s favor.
Losing the 3-0 lead in game one was an unwelcome flashback to February’s Montreal Debacle, and should raise warning signs about Renney’s ability to prevent his team from unraveling when nursing a lead, especially in tense road games. The Rangers are usually great at keeping games close and grinding out one-goal victories, but they need to learn how to play with a lead, which involves combining smart defensive play without taking your foot off the accelerator. Does Renney know he’s entitled to one time-out per game?
Simply put, coaching involves more than installing a defensive system that limits scoring chances against your team.
Renney’s use of fourth-line players Betts, Hollweg, Colton Orr and Fredrik Sjostrom was questionable all season. Individually, these players fill important roles on the team. When combined to form a fourth line, though, they were often exploited defensively by their inability to control the puck or get out of their zone effectively. They generated no offense in the playoffs but were on ice for several important goals against, including the game’s first goal in games three and five against the Devils. Hollweg’s patented boarding penalty in game three basically pulled the plug on the Rangers’ season.
To take the next step, the Rangers need to add an assistant coach who can engineer an effective power play. They need to add a power-play quarterback to keep the seat warm until Bobby Sanguinetti is ready. Wolf Pack Defenseman Andrew Hutchinson may be up to the task. Add a top-six forward, such as Marian Hossa, Brian Rolston or Ryan Malone. Shanahan should be encouraged to retire or accept a fourth-line/part-time role for a salary close to the league’s minimum, like the Red Wings’ Chris Chelios did this past season for his team. Let Paul Mara and Marek Malik sign elsewhere. Same goes for Martin Straka if he doesn’t retire. Re-sign Sean Avery and Rozsival, but only if the money is right (no more than $3M and $4M per year, respectively). Sign a physical, stay-at-home defenseman like Brooks Orpik. If possible, trade Petr Prucha and Christian Backman. Let skilled young players like Korpikoski, Greg Moore and Dane Byers replace Hollweg, Betts and Prucha.
There are no number-one defensemen available in this year’s UFA class, so re-signing Rozsival and depending on Staal’s future development seem like the way to go. The Rangers passed on their opportunity to acquire a number-one defenseman in 2006, when Zdeno Chara (UFA) and Chris Pronger (trade) were both available.
And of course there’s Jagr. Does he want to stay? Does he want to play for Tom Renney? How much money does he want? Will the possible departures of fellow Czechs Straka, Malik and Rozsival affect his decision?
Jagr’s status will surely dictate the Rangers’ off-season moves and their ability to spend on unrestricted free agents like Hossa, Rolston, Malone and Orpik, not to mention Avery, Rozsival and Shanahan. The Rangers need to clarify Jagr’s status, and soon.
This brings us back to Renney. Sather needs to honestly assess Renney’s strengths and weaknesses. Strengths: Defensive system, player development, steady hand, well liked. Weaknesses: In-game strategy and motivation, questionable use of players. While replacing Renney with veteran outsiders like Pat Quinn and John Tortorella seems like a long shot, Sather does have interesting options in house, such as Wolf Pack General Manager Jim Schoenfeld.
Tough choices indeed. The last thing Ranger fans want is a return to the revolving door of coaches and Monopoly money spending sprees of the 1998-2004 era.