This might be the last blog post under the old format. We’re scheduled to make the switch today. Fingers crossed.
Here is my Rangers’ season preview, etc.:
Can consistency be fixed?
GREENBURGH – You can fix things like depth, speed and skill, and it appears the Rangers have done that. You can fix things like defense and special teams, and whether the Rangers have checked off those items remain to be seen.
But the Rangers’ main head-shaking deficiency last season, the one that baffled the organization and its coach, was their consistency, or lack thereof. How do you fix that?
“Consistency is all about being a professional,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, when asked that question Tuesday, two days before the franchise’s 90th season begins Thursday against the Islanders.
“Coaches and management, since the beginning of camp have made sure to explain what is expected of the players as far as their on-ice performance, off-ice demands, the way they’re supposed to conduct themselves in different situations. Once you know that, and know that that’s being a professional, then you know that it’s up to you to go out and do it.
“We’ve asked our leadership group this year, that when we (the coaches and management) are not around to make sure players are conducting themselves the way they’re supposed to, that they’ve got their priorities in order. That’s what we expect from this group and that’s how we’re going to get the consistency that I believe they can bring on a nightly basis.”
As a follow-up, Vigneault was asked if that means he felt the professionalism or the priorities had slipped the year before, when they bobbed and weaved to 101 points, third place in the best division in the league, and a five-game playoff exit at the hands of the Stanley Cup champs.
“I don’t know if it slipped,” he said. “I would say the right answer to that is everybody would have their theory on last year. Some people might say it’s priorities, some people might say the demands of all those playoff games caught up a little bit, and it might have been a little bit of mental and physical fatigue.
“Whatever theory you subscribe to, I would say right now that I feel about this group. I feel the energy from them. I feel the energy from our fans. There seems to be a heightened state of awareness on everything that we’re trying to do, and whether that was … the priorities or those other possible explanations, right now I feel really good about where we are mentally and where we are as a team on the ice.”
The Rangers do look quicker and more skilled, and certainly younger and energetic. It remains a truth that they won’t improve if they don’t defend better, kill penalties better, protect their goalies better. They won’t improve if they don’t get turnarounds from key players (Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal) and more consistency – that word again – from Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and others.
Finding a level, as a group, and reaching it more frequently is the key. Can that be done?
“Absolutely,” Lundqvist said. “We had it for a lot of years. Last year the expectations were high. It was a little bit of an up and down year, but still we made the playoffs. You have to realize, too, it’s not easy to make the playoffs anymore. It’s not just something you can take for granted, even though you have high expectations and have a good team. There’s a lot of good teams that will miss the playoffs.
“So, should we set a high goal? Absolutely. But you can never guarantee anything. You have to go out and make sure you do whatever you can to be as good as you can. But consistency, I think that’s the key to being a good team. It’s not about reaching the highs. It’s about finding that consistency where you manage to win games when you’re not at the top of your game, because that’s going to happen.”
So it can be done? But have the Rangers done it? For that we will have to wait and see.
NOTEBOOK: Klein’s status for opener in question; Rangers submit roster, Nash gets an ‘A’
Kevin Klein (back spasms) did not practice for a second day in a row and went for an MRI exam, and his status for Thursday’s opener is uncertain. Hence the Rangers have altered their plan to get down to seven defensemen, which would have meant waiving or trading Dylan McIlrath or Adam Clendening, or (unlikely) sending Brady Skjei to Hartford. …
Oscar Lindberg (hip, out 2-4 more weeks) would go on IR to get the Rangers to the maximum 23 players by Tuesday evening’s deadline for salary cap complicity. …
Rick Nash was named an alternate captain, joining Derek Stepan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and captain Ryan McDonagh. Vigneault said he and McDonagh made the decision. Nash said he was “honored.” Asked if that means he made the team – in reference to his early camp declaration that he didn’t feel his job was guaranteed – he smiled, “still a lot of forwards here.” …
Asked what his biggest surprise was during training camp, Vigneault said it was the play of rookie Pavel Buchnevich. “He’s come in and fit in real well, a real good personality … He’s been fun to be around.”
Rangers preview: Position-by-position:
Forwards – There are certainly some new faces, and some new wheels and skill and youth among Mika Zibanejad and rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. If Rick Nash finds his offensive touch and Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes find more consistency, this could be a very quick and balanced top-nine attack when added to Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller and possibly Brandon Pirri.
But the Rangers’ forwards need to defend better, and to pay more attention to taking care of the puck, and their responsibilities when the opponent has it. For a number of those mentioned, that is not a natural strength.
Defensemen – The Rangers added Nick Holden and Adam Clendening, and lost Keith Yandle (ouch) and Dan Boyle. But it’s the play of the returning regulars that will determine the group’s effectiveness – Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein. Whether Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath can earn regular minutes remains to be seen. Skjei obviously has more upside.
Goaltending – Henrik Lundqvist faced more dangerous scoring chances than any goalie in the league last year (he faced 397 high-danger shots-against last season according to the stat-tracking website Corsica, 73 more than Washington’s Braden Holtby, who was second in that category) and still it was mostly his play early in the season that allowed the Rangers to put up 101 points despite their many woes. Lundqvist, the team’s best player, will need to be that, of course. Antti Raanta provides a quality backup option, which will be more important in a compacted (due to the World Cup and a new five-day break for each team) season.
Special teams – The penalty kill cannot be worse than it was last year. Can it? See above, the forwards’ deficiencies defensively, and the struggles of the returning defensemen. Both the plan and execution need to be much, much better. The power play at times last year was good, at times awful (see history of the Rangers since Brian Leetch). The team lost pass-first guys in Yandle and Derick Brassard and added some shooters, including the crucial right-handed shot on the left side in Zibanejad.
Coaching – It’s a big year for the coaches. Alain Vigneault had a lousy season last year, his team looking unprepared at starts of games, unable to close out games, and often unable to play the full 60 minutes; and a defense and penalty kill that were never fixed. A lot will fall upon Rangers’ ’94 alum Jeff Beukeboom, who replaced Ulf Samuelsson and will be mostly in charge of said defense and penalty kill.
Prediction – Despite their faults, the Rangers ought to be a top-three team in the Metropolitan Division. Third place.
Rangers preview: Five keys to the season:
1. Rick Nash – Just named an alternate captain, Nash had the worst offensive season of his career last season. Coming off of a 42-goal season in 2014-15, he followed that up with a 15-goal effort in 60 games in 2015-16, including missing almost two months with a broken leg. The Rangers need him to be an elite scorer again, plain and simple.
2. The defense – It’s as much about system and the forwards, but the Rangers cannot/will not be a good defensive team without significant improvements from Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and, to a lesser degree, Ryan McDonagh.
3. The young veterans – A lot is expected of new center Mika Zibenajad, 23, and rightfully so. But the Rangers need much more consistency in overall performance, and in offensive production from the likes of Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes.
4. Jeff Beukeboom – The new assistant coach in charge of the defensemen and the penalty kill has a lot on his plate, as the team was awful in both departments last season. It’s not all on him and not all on the defensemen, because the forwards’ defensive play contributed too. But there’s a lot that needs to be fixed.
5. Henrik Lundqvist – This doesn’t really need to be said. But the Rangers’ most important and most highly-paid player needs to be their leader and will need to win some games by himself. He needs to bail out whatever mistakes are coming, because the Rangers shouldn’t be expected to be great in front of him.
Photos by Getty Images.