by Jim Samuels
One of the best aspects of writing in a forum the likes of Outside The Garden is you constantly get to ask questions that you don’t have to answer. Heading into this season the Rangers organization was filled with questions from top to bottom, Will Eric Lindros remain healthy? Can Mike Richter rebound from his second major knee surgery in as many years? Can Mark Messier withstand the rigors of another 82 game NHL regular season marathon? The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, ten games into this young season both the question marks and the losses have begun to pile up.
The Rangers have gone a respectable 4-5-1, which in and of itself is no cause for alarm because let’s be honest here, where exactly did you expect this collection of rookies, journeymen and reclamation projects to be just ten games into the season? The alarming part is not where they are, it’s how they got there.
Head coach Ron Low, for whatever reason, has been unable to get this stubborn, freelancing bunch to buy into anything resembling a defensive system. Night after night players up and down the roster are beaten in one on one battles along the wall. Opposing players, big and small, are allowed to set up camp in front of gun shy Ranger netminders with nary a price to be paid.
The starts to games thus far this young season have been absolutely awful, through ten games the Blueshirts have yet to hold a lead after the first period. The beginnings to the past three matches have bordered on embarrassing and after watching the Blues outshoot the Rangers 15-0 in the first nine minutes of Thursday’s debacle in St Louis, GM Glen Sather has got to be scratching his head.
The powers that be in this column would like to go on record right now, at the ten game mark, and make one thing very clear, if this team has not turned their season around by game twenty a coaching change has got to be in the offing. It has become blatantly obvious through these eyes that a coaching change needs to be made. Not after Thanksgiving, not after forty games, but sooner rather than later while there’s still some season to salvage. This is not a knee jerk reaction to three bad games, nor is this a move that should reek of desperation, but this should be looked upon as a necessary evil for a team that despite sweeping changes in the off-season has picked up where it left off last season and has seemingly lost it’s way so early in this campaign.
Look up and down the roster, there’s no way this team is as bad as recent games would indicate. There’s no way the power play can possibly be this anemic, a team wide refusal to enter the forbidden zone, or the slot area as it’s known to most other NHL franchises, and pay the price to create havoc in front of the other team’s net has become a Rangers trademark under the Low regime.
All too often this young season opposing goaltenders have had an easy night’s work against the offensively challenged Blueshirts. This is due in large part to a lack of traffic and second chance opportunities created by this band of perimeter players that would make Herb Brooks proud. The willingness to pay the price must not be requested, it must be demanded, a refusal or unwillingness to do so must result in a loss of playing time, which in most NHL circles is called accountability.
Fresh off Thursday’s thorough beating at the hands of the St Louis Blues, the Rangers have stumbled to the ten game mark. Here’s a report card based on individual performances over the first ten games:
BRYAN BERARD- Grade – “C-” Coming back after missing full year due to injury. Seems to have hit a bit of a wall after quick start, losing too many one on one battles. Should improve as season moves along.
DAN BLACKBURN- Grade- “B” Rookie netminder has been team’s most pleasant surprise early on. Extremely cool for an 18 year-old, notched first win in Montreal with 2-1 victory over Canadiens. Needs to play consistently to remain sharp and give starter Mike Richter’s cranky knees a rest. Has gone 2-2 in four game starts.
ZDENO CIGER- Grade “C+” Free agent signee, one of few bright spot’s early on, seems to have a real nose for the net. Needs to be more consistent with play away from the puck. Seems to have found spot on wing with newly formed Czech line.
RADEK DVORAK- Grade “C” Hasn’t gotten off to fast start Rangers had hoped after strong finish to last season. Must score consistently if Blueshirts hope to compete for a playoff spot. Went 3-4-7 in first ten matches. Hasn’t scored in last 5 games since marker vs Montreal 10/15.
RICO FATA- Grade “INC” Claimed off waivers from talent starved Flames, was reportedly placed back on waivers but pulled back once claim was expected.
THEO FLEURY- Grade “C+” Diminutive winger would’ve gotten higher grade but penchant for taking bad penalties has reared it’s ugly head once again. Theo has played with a real chip on his shoulder early on, has created lot’s of opportunities but hasn’t gotten on offensive roll of yet, went 2-3-5 in first 10 matches. Leads team in SOG with 36 through first ten.
BARRETT HEISTEN- Grade “C” Off-season free agent acquisition has proved to be an absolute coup for GM Glen Sather. Made team with outstanding camp but has only averaged 7-10 minutes a night with high priced veterans in front of him. Plays high energy game that the Blueshirts sorely need, has been used on the PK.
ANDREAS JOHANSSON- Grade “B” Defensive specialist has been pleasant surprise, has played both center and wing and been one of the clubs best penalty killers, has to contribute more offensively. Seems to have found confidence during hiatus in Sweden.
DAVE KARPA- Grade “C-” Another of off-season free agent class, stay at home defensemen plays it tough in his own end, gets caught out of position trying to deliver big hits, unforced giveaway’s plagued him early on, was starting to find his game until sustaining shoulder injury against San Jose.
TOMAS KLOUCEK- Grade “INC” Hard hitting defensemen came back from major knee surgery a month early, made impact in first game delivering big hit on Turner Stevenson against New Jersey. Should be a huge asset as he rounds into shape with more playing time, assuming he gets it.
BRIAN LEETCH- Grade “B” Former captain started fast but has struggled during recent three game skid. Seems to be getting beaten in an awful lot of one on one battles along the wall, still has ability to jump into the play, needs steady defensive partner to be of the stay at home variety. Went 4-5-9 in first ten games, including OT game winner in opening night victory over the Sabres.
ERIC LINDROS- Grade “C-” Grade should have been lower but we give the Big Train a pass due to his stretch of inactivity prior to the season. Hasn’t been big presence offensively and seems tentative in traffic, should improve vastly as season progresses. His health is the key to Ranger season. Went 3-3-6 in first ten, but was extremely quiet in back to back losses to San Jose and St Louis.
VLADIMIR MALAKHOV- Grade “C” Oft-injured defensemen has embodied this Ranger season, flashes of brilliant play followed by maddening unforced errors. Probably deserves a better grade but single-handedly cost Blueshirts a point with lazy giveaway vs. Ottawa. Needs to exert himself more offensively to take the onus off of Leetch, leads team in +/- with a +6 rating.
MANNY MALHOTRA- Grade “D” Former first rounder is looking more and more like a bust every day, cannot seem to earn himself a regular shift and seems to have fallen out of favor with his second regime. For some reason Low refuses to give Manny his best chance to succeed, on a line with the Captain, instead he has seen an average of 7-10 minutes a night on the 4th line. Has not distinguished himself in a limited role.
SANDY McCARTHY- Grade “F” Rangers “enforcer” has dropped the gloves a grand total of one time this season, in the home opener against Buffalo. The hulking wingers role seems to have diminished for some reason after breakout season last year. Is an alarming -6 through first ten matches. Sandman needs to get more involved physically to be the asset he was last season.
MARK MESSIER- Grade “C-” Hate to say this but the greatest captain the Rangers have ever known has begun to show his age early on. Has become too much of a perimeter player and is consistently losing one on one battles. Missed two games due to ribcage injury, went 2-3-5 in eight matches.
PETER NEDVED- Grade “B” Notoriously slow starter got off to fast start for first time in Ranger career, speedy Czech has continued to be way too streaky, needs to find consistency on offense. Penchant to miss the net can be maddening at times, needs to shoot more, tied for team lead in scoring with 9 points. Ranks second among Ranger forwards with 30 SOG.
DALE PURINTON- Grade “INC” Rangers pugilist was suspended for seven games for high sticking incident against Washington in home opener. Suspension ends 10/27 against Boston.
MIKE RICHTER- Grade “B+” Has bounced back nicely from second consecutive season ending knee surgery. Has been outstanding early on, single-handedly kept Blueshirts in game against St Louis making 19 saves during 20 shot first period onslaught. Has been given day’s off in between starts unlike last season’s heavy workload, has gone respectable 2-3-1 in six appearances.
PETER SMREK- Grade “D” Second year man has been inconsistent to say the least Has dubious distinction of being a whopping -7 through first ten matches. Saw some power play time early on, may be sent to Hartford after suspensions to Purinton and Ulanov expire. Looks like he may need some more time on the farm.
IGOR ULANOV- Grade “INC” Free agent signee was also suspended for high sticking incident following his Garden debut against the Caps. Was guilty of several unforced errors in first two games as a Ranger. Should also improve as the season moves along. Could form quite an imposing duo if teamed with Kloucek.
DARREN VAN IMPE- Grade “D” Waiver pick up has appeared in 6 games after brief stint in Hartford. Has averaged 10-14 minutes a night and has seen limited work on the power play, always makes the safe play, is a solid sixth defensemen.
MIKE YORK- Grade “B” Smallish forward comes to play every night, is a solid two way player but is too small to match up against large eastern conference centermen so has been moved to the wing. Must show more of an ability to finish and improve on last season’s 14 goal output. Has gone 2-1-3 in ten games.
RON LOW- Grade “D” Head coach needs to find a way to get the team to think defense first, need to look across the Hudson to see what type of style wins these days. May have to implement the dreaded trap if all else fails, if not he could be back in Edmonton for Christmas.