So much for opening night fireworks right? The vaunted toughening of Rangers looked more like the same old same old as we watched the re-tooled line-up get manhandled by Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Well at least Tom Wilson didn’t get up to any mischief I guess.
Well at least they’re hitting more right? The Rangers are currently ranked sixth in the league, with an average 28.11 hits per sixty, trailing just the Senators, Stars, Golden Knights, the Flyers and oh yeah, the Islanders. Not that the league’s statistic for hits is all that consistent, or even useful for evaluating a team. The Rangers for instance were ranked 13th last year, with 22.79 hits per sixty, about 5 behind the league leading monsters of hitting – the Montreal Canadiens. So yeah, I wouldn’t invest too much time focusing on that one.
What we can say is that the Rangers ability to control the puck, and to generate offense has been lacking through these first four games. The simplist measure is the 2.00 goals per game that they’ve managed through four games, and that includes an empty net goal in the final ten seconds by Kevin Rooney against the Montreal Canadiens. It includes just 2 goals on 16 power play attempts, that places them 24th in the league. It also includes a laundry list of players who’ve yet to get their game going.
Of the first six goals scored, three were from Chris Kreider, all in and around the net. The veteran winger hasn’t necessarily been generating the offense so much as converting on some good shots from out high. Kreider seems to have embraced a more physical role, but has converted on most of the chances he’s been given.
Linemate Mika Zibanejad seems to be starting to get his game going after a slow start last season, with five points in the last three games. His lone goal an unassisted snipe off the post gave the Rangers a lead against Toronto, but it took him until over halfway through the second game to record his first shot on goal. His power play execution has been a bit off too, shooting wide or into the goalie more than challenging them. Still there are positive signs in his game that suggest he’ll remain one of the elite point producers this year.
Third man on the line, Alexis Lafreniere has had one shining moment, scoring on a two on one with Zibanejad to win in his first visit to his home province since being drafted #1 overall in 2020. Lafreniere has lacked the standout inviduality of other first round picks, and has not yet shown an ability to generate much on his own. This year he’s seeing more power play time, which might help get his game going, but there are already grumblings about where he might project out, and we’re only 60 games into his career.
Two thirds of the second line are now out of action thanks to COVID protocol (Ryan Strome) and an upper body injury (Kaapo Kakko). The pair have now missed two and one game respectively, and figure to be out at least a few more before returning to the line-up sometime towards the end of the month or in early November. Kakko for his part seemed to be close to opening up his account, particularly with Artemi Panarin looking to feed him the puck as much as he could – more on that shortly, while Strome looked a little less impactful from an offensive perspective, but certainly has been a big part of Panarin’s success to date.
Speaking of Panarin, his biggest challenge early in the year has been his reluctance to shoot. As with Zibanejad, it took over a game and a hald for him to record his first shot on goal, and he’s managed just four through four games. He got his first goal of the year on his last one, the overtime winner in Toronto, but it’s clear he needs to shoot a lot more.
Part of the challenge for Panarin has been his preference to feed his teammates, whether that be Mika Zibanejad on the power play, or Kaapo Kakko at even strength. While both figure to be goal scorers to varying degrees, Panarin is at his best when the goaltender is less sure whether he’s going to pass or shoot, and the Breadman can certainly shoot the puck.
In fact, all eight goals this year have been scored with at least one of the top six forwards on the ice, including Rooney’s empty net goal that came after Zibanejad had kept the pucks on the boards for 10-15 seconds prior to it squirting free for Rooney to skate it out and score.
On defense it’s been a little underwhelming, with Adam Fox the lone bright spot. Fox had his three game point scoring streak ended in Toronto, and is the only blueliner to register a goal so far on the season. To be fair, K’Andre Miller‘s shot lead to one of Kreider’s goals, while rookie Nils Lundkvist hit a pretty solid post of a nice Panarin feed in the last game, but if the Rangers are to succeed, they’ll need more from their defense.
Which brings us to the bottom six. The collection of Sammy Blais, Filip Chytil, Julien Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt, Greg McKegg, Ryan Reaves and Rooney have combined for a total of an empty net goal and zero assists in four games. In a combined 27 games, they have a collective 26 shots on goal – or to put if another way, about 6.5 shots per game across the four games.
Is it even realistic? The only one who has scored 10+ goals in a season out of those eight players is Filip Chytil, who managed 14. All the others have falled short. Perhaps Morgan Barron might prove to be an answer of some sort, he lead the Wolf Pack last year and was recently called up, though ultimately passed over in preference to retaining McKegg in the line-up. Even if they were to expect Barron to carry some of the load, it’d be unfair to expect much from a guy who has played a handful of games and has just one NHL goal to his name thus far.
Clearly the Rangers need to drive their offense from the top two lines, but some from the defensive side and, particularly the bottom six, would give the Rangers some balance when those two lines are neutralized by the opponent’s top defensive players.
Winning close games on the back of Igor Shesterkin will certainly be a key factor, but the Rangers at the moment need to find some offense from somewhere to augment the likes of Fox, Panarin and Zibanejad.