The Road Toward Contention
By Carl Legg (CALlahan)
The NHL is on break due to the Olympics for the next two weeks. As the players are competing in Sochi, the New York Rangers management will be preparing to make the tough roster decisions that will come along with the upcoming trade deadline on March 5. They can use the chaos surrounding it to invest in the future or to gamble on players in hopes of reaching the Stanley Cup this postseason. Glen Sather must be wise in the moves he makes because while the Rangers may struggle to create a playoff run this season, the right moves can make them a contender for years to come.
Despite the Rangers’ success after the 2005 lockout, they have yet to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Their consistency in reaching the playoffs has been tainted by their early round exits. Winning one playoff series is no longer enough for the organization and its loyal fan base. To be satisfied, we need to see them continue to take steps forward instead of stepping back into obscurity. New York needs a champion.
When I look at the NHL, I see five teams that I would consider contenders this year. The Rangers are not one of them but their improved play of late has pushed them into the discussion. Simply put, in a seven-game series I cannot see them beating the Blackhawks, Bruins, Penguins, Ducks, or Blues. The strengths of those teams outweigh the Rangers’ strengths. Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Anaheim have the elite players that can win the game for them on any night. On the other end, Boston and St. Louis have an unrivaled scoring depth backstopped by an elite defense. After an embarrassing playoff defeat to the Bruins last season, the Rangers started to make the changes needed to stand a chance against these powerhouses.
The Rangers’ new direction to become contenders started with a bold move, the firing of John Tortorella. I firmly believe it was the right move to make now, but I hated it at the time because it cost me 20 bucks that I made in a bet to my brother. They needed to move away from the gritty and defensive mentality that Tortorella preached. It was their Achilles heel these past two post-seasons. Worst of all, his playing style wore out the Rangers and cost them the 2012 conference championship against a Devils team that they were better than.
Under Alain Vigneault, the Rangers are not only higher in the standings than Tortorella’s Canucks but are better prepared for the playoffs. New York has progressed throughout the season and has a newfound depth that will pace them for the playoffs. As a result of Vigneault’s patience, the Rangers’ bottom six has been contributing more than they ever could under Tortorella. The dynamic third line, featuring Mats Zuccarello, has contributed as much as the Rangers top two lines. They have even become their top power-play unit. It is the Rangers greatest offensive strength.
The entire bottom six is an important aspect for contending teams. The Devils and Bruins both had fourth lines that were a vital component of defeating the Blueshirts. This season, the Rangers brought in Dominic Moore and traded for Dan Carcillo to create a fourth line crucial to their own success. They wear out the other team, can play on the penalty kill, and have sparked the team with an occasional goal or fight.
The Rangers’ biggest strength is their overall strong defense. It is the reason why they are so close to becoming contenders. Their top pairing defensemen, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, are capable of shutting down any opponent’s top line. Earlier in the season, teams would take advantage of the exposed flaws of the Rangers’ bottom pairing defensemen. Fortunately, that problem has been fixed and defense is not a concern going into the deadline. The Rangers traded their biggest liability, Michael Del Zaster, for a reliable Kevin Klein. He has provided solid defense and durability for a cap friendly contract. More importantly, Henrik Lundqvist returned to his elite form. When all else fails, Lundqvist can now be counted on to always keep the game close.
There are still other problems in the lineup that the Rangers need to fix. Most importantly, the Rangers need to work on the offensive contributions from their own top six forwards. Their first line has been inconsistent throughout the season. Derek Stepan has struggled taking the full responsibility as the first line center. He is playing next to two power forwards and needs to use their forecheck to create more opportunities. Chris Kreider is a typical rookie who goes on streaks without scoring. It is his other contributions of his size and forecheck that allows him to play out these struggles. When Kreider and Stepan are on they can help complement a formidable first line. Their growing pains will have to stop soon enough.
The biggest problem with the first line is the star scorer next to them. Rick Nash has been the biggest culprit of inconsistent play due to his concussion injuries. He clearly has all-star potential with his offensive prowess. After scoring 11 goals in 11 games between Jan. 3 and Jan. 26 many thought that Nash had overcome his struggles and was finally able to play as the star we traded for. It was not to be as he has been incapable of scoring since then. In the past five games, the Rangers first line has had a total of zero points. That cannot happen in the playoffs where each player has to find a way to create the offensive production that they are capable of.
Meanwhile the second line has been consistently average. They seem to provide the minimal amount of production that is acceptable. At this time, Brad Richards is second on the Rangers with 42 points and is a solid fit as the second line center with the hockey sense that he brings through his experience. Ryan Callahan is known for his strong effort that he brings each game but his production is not as consistent. He has been frequently injured this season and has yet to hit his stride with his lowest points per game average since 2009. Carl Hagelin is young and contributes through his speed and defensive play. He has a respectable 23 points this season but his main contributions remain in other facets of the game. While this second line provides typical production, they are made for their versatility and intangibles.
However, the NHL is a league of professionals where these intangibles are more than common. If a player is not capable of giving their hardest effort on any given night, he will not last long. That is why I believe Callahan, Hagelin, and Richards are all replaceable. While they are some of my favorite players, trading some of them may be the right move to make in this business. I believe that the Rangers must be prepared to alter their second line to become a contender.
The right deal may not come their way over night. It took them months to trade Del Zotto. The Rangers cannot have as much patience with Callahan because of his contract demands. If he is not traded at the deadline, he will leave for free agency. The way I view it, everyone knows that Callahan is an injury risk, including himself. For his protection, he needs to take the longest contract for as much money that he can get. The Rangers would love to keep him but cannot meet the price that he would get on the open market. Furthermore, they do not have the money to resign Callahan and Giradi, and their top defenseman is more important. This sets up one of three options for the Rangers on the trade deadline:
1. Trade Callahan and more to improve the second line. The names that we hear such as Chris Stewart and Paul Stastny are not good enough to make the Rangers contenders. They need a player with the talent of Andrew Ladd or Cam Atkinson for that, but they will cost more.
2. Trade Callahan for future help. Get his value in draft picks and prospects to protect the long-term future. If the Rangers stay in the playoff picture for years to come, it will eventually open up for them to win it all one year.
3. Keep Callahan and let him leave after the season. He is still their captain and can contribute plenty. The Rangers are on a roll right now and may want to ride it. If they cannot get the right help, then they should get the most they can out of him.
To become a contender, the Rangers have to focus on their long-term success and play to their strengths. The Rangers need to secure their defense by extending Girardi and Marc Staal. They need to continue to infuse youth throughout the line-up. There are plenty of players in Hartford knocking on the door of the NHL. Some of them may need more time in the minors but they cannot be ignored. The Rangers cannot tie up so much money to Richards if J.T. Miller will be able to mirror his production for less.
If the Rangers are smart, they will realize that their best chance to win a cup will be in one of the next three seasons. They will go into next season comfortable with their head coach, the younger players will have more experience, and the top line will be more comfortable with each other. This offseason, there will be more opportunities to find a player to improve the top six forwards and someone to help ease Miller in to replace Richards’ production.
The Rangers need scoring depth and these free agents may be able to help with that: Paul Stastny, Milan Michalek, Radem Vrbata, Marian Gaborik, Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, and Mikhail Grabovski. In an ideal world they would be able to sign one or two players to a reasonably priced and short-term contract. However, this is the NHL world where the Rangers have to compete with 29 other teams. If I said the Rangers needed to sign Vrbata for two years and $10 million, then I would be taking a shot in the dark. There are too many factors for the Rangers to be certain about anyone, although it is fun for us fans to predict. To become a contender, the Rangers need to keep on making the decisions that give them the best chances of taking the next step forward. At the same time they must protect the future with prospects and depth because each roster decision is also capable of sending them a few steps back.
Let’s all sit back and enjoy this because there are many great conversations to have around the Rangers. I have several favorite players around the league and I get excited about the idea of watching them play for the Rangers. I would love to keep Callahan for the right amount of money but I would be ecstatic to see Andrew Ladd in a Rangers Jersey. All that matters is enjoying the hockey that our Rangers are providing us. Hopefully they will stick around until June this time around.
(If you enjoyed my article, please check out my blog TriStateSports that I run with several talented friends. We are all college Journalism students who are all trying to gain more experience by writing about our favorite sports teams in an honest and professional fashion. Follow us on our domain: trisportsny.wordpress.com.)
Photo by Getty Images.