(Editor’s note: Apologies in advance if any of the players mentioned in this story were signed between the time it was written and the time it appears in today’s blog post).
New York Rangers: Size Matters
By Michael Aker
Early in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings it became evident that while the Rangers had enough speed and skill to win the flawed Eastern (or Leastern as Carp likes to call it) Conference, they lacked the size accompanied with grit to compete with the powerhouses of the West including the champion Kings, Anaheim Ducks, or even St. Louis Blues. The $69 million salary cap limit led to the departures of Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, and Anton Stralman to free agency, Brad Richards to buyout, and Derek Dorsett to trade. These players allowed coach Alain Vigneault to roll four lines and six defensemen, and offered numerous options and combinations on special teams.
Replacing this personnel with veteran defenseman Dan Boyle, gritty sparkplug Tanner Glass, and having to sign restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello (all arbitration eligible) in addition to John Moore (not arbitration eligible) will change the makeup of this team, but how has this turnover impacted the roster?
Dan Boyle will slide into Stralman’s spot and be paired with Marc Staal in hope that he can increase the offense at even strength and quarterback the Rangers inconsistent power play. Boyle who will be 38 when the season begins, has had a decline in production in recent years and battled injuries such as a concussion he suffered last season. He might offer more offense than Stralman, but he is not nearly as good a skater or defender this late in his career. Only possessing average size (5-foot-11) for an NHL defenseman, he will not present the Rangers with a large crease-clearing option to keep players like Boston’s Milan Lucic and newly-acquired Patric Hornqvist of Pittsburgh out of Henrik Lundqvist’s real estate.
Ultimately the question will be whether Dan Boyle’s defense at even strength combined with the power play will be greater than Stralman’s even-strength work, and Richards’ production on the man advantage. Based on his recent numbers and the fact that players at his age often rarely if ever improve, the Boyle for Stralman swap is a gamble at best. Also factor in that there is a decent chance Boyle will not play all 82 games this season because of various nagging injuries, rookies Connor Allen and perhaps Dylan McIlrath could see spot duty.
The forwards that departed will hurt the Rangers special teams and physicality. Dorsett and Brian Boyle helped create an effective fourth line that was physical and could control the puck in the opponent’s zone, with the later a primary penalty killer, while Richards was a streaky but at times clutch power play quarterback (scoring the series winning goal against Pittsburgh, for example). Glass will receive time with the man down and also help Dominic Moore create a new fourth line that might not be as good as last season’s, and with salary cap constraints and baring a major trade, the Rangers will have to rely on their young players such as J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, and perhaps a dark horse such as one of the two Ryans (Haggerty or Bourque) or Marek Hrivik to become a fulltime NHL player.
Currently there is no proven third-line center on the roster to replace Richards’ moderate production, and to help win faceoffs and kill penalties. The versatile Miller can play center, but how much will coach Vigneault trust him with his defensive shortcomings and off-ice maturity issues? The Rangers desperately need Miller to grow up and take more responsibility. Lindberg, a faceoff specialist, put up solid numbers in the American Hockey League is his first season after coming over from Sweden, but is he ready to compete against NHLers only one year removed from his North American debut and can he be at least half as effective as Brian Boyle was on the penalty kill and winning faceoffs?
Fast, a player similar to Ryan Callahan (albeit more skilled and less physical) did not look out of place in his time with the varsity club, and proved to be a decent penalty killer who can block shots, but will he add enough muscle to be stronger on the puck, and will his offense warrant top nine minutes?
The problem with these neophytes and also water bug Bourque is that while they offer potential (and entry level contracts), only Miller is over 200 pounds and can provide at least some of the physicality and net presence that players like Brian Boyle, Dorsett, and Pouliot offered. Also, besides Dominic Moore, what center is going to win a faceoff and will the Rangers have to rely too much on their top nine including Nash, Martin St. Louis, and Zuccarello to not only work on the power play but to kill penalties? Putting complete faith in rookies is admirable and something that would have been foreign to this franchise during the dark ages of 1997-2004, but it can backfire. An insurance plan is needed.
There are some bargain unrestricted free agents still available who can be brought in on cheap one-year contracts that will address size, grit, and faceoff concerns. Names like Lee Stempniak, Devon Setoguchi, and the troubled Mike Ribiero might seem like good ideas, but these are one dimensional scorers past their prime who will not address what the team lost.
Veteran winger Daniel Winnik had inflated numbers playing on the offensively superior Ducks but being 6-2 and weighing over 200 pounds, he offers an option on the penalty kill and has size and grit. The fact that he is still unsigned is shocking and someone the Rangers should look into immediately as he is also versatile enough to play either third or fourth line. Center and wing Steve Ott may only be 6 feet tall, but coming off a bad ending to his season after being acquired by St. Louis from Buffalo, he offers another affordable faceoff option, plays with sandpaper, and can center the third line if Miller or Lindberg or not ready for fulltime duty. There is always Dustin Penner who offers size, but his inconsistency has driven many coaches crazy and his “saving it all for the playoffs” mentality would make even post-1994 Esa Tikkanen blush.
With limited options because of the salary cap and prospects that can be good NHLers but offer limited size, the Rangers roster is not as strong as the one that finished 2013-14. There is time for more work to be done before the season begins and for the current roster to gel, but unfortunately as presently constructed the lack of size, grit, and a possible over reliance on the top nine to kill penalties make this a flawed group that will have a much harder time repeating their playoff success of the past season. Veteran bargain free agents on cheap deals can help to alleviate some of the concerns if the Rangers can somehow create cap room, but even if they can ultimately win the East, their chances of defeating a Western powerhouse in a seven-game series will need to be addressed at the trade deadline by adding players with not only size and grit, but substantial offensive production.
Photos by Getty Images.
(If anybody else wants to contribute a guest blog post, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.—Carp)