Rangers week that was, three up and three down, Lundqvist HHOF
The Rangers swept all three home games last week. While each wasn’t a work of art, the adages of a win is a win and better an ugly win than a pretty loss, all good true. New York is in the midst of a five-day break in their schedule, which hopefully will help some of the injured players heal.
Rather than a game-by-game recap, I thought focusing on three up and three down made more sense:
Alexis Lafreniere: the talk of Lafreniere as a bust has died down for now. Last year, Lafreniere netted goal #7 in February. This year, that marker occurred in game 14. In sports in general, we are not known for our patience. This is especially so in New York. Instant gratification has become the hallmark for any draft pick, especially high ones, so when that player doesn’t dominate the league immediately, the boo-birds come out in full force.
Lafreniere has found his game skating on his off-wing opposite Artemi Panarin. With Filip Chytil, Vincent Trocheck stepped in as that line’s center, which resulted in seven points in four games for Laf. The scoring and production is nice, but more impressive has been the style of play from Lafreniere. He no longer is a passenger or bystander, but has been a player driving play, including on the boards, resulting in the uptick of production. It’s that change which makes me more confident that we have seen is sustainable.
Artemi Panarin: when we saw Panarin at the end of last season, he had just suffered through a nightmarish post-season. Whispers had started - again from some - that Panarin needed to be moved. The narrative, which won’t be fully answered until the spring, is that Panarin is only a regular season play, but more telling, that the decline had started. Ignored was the fact that Panarin posted 90+ points each of his first three full seasons in New York.
While those years were impressive, this year to date is at another level. With 24 points in 14 games, hitting the scoresheet in each contest to tie Rod Gilbert’s (1972-73) team record point streak to start the season, Panarin has been on a major heater. But it’s how he looks in the ice. Panarin isn’t settling to just pass the puck or gaining the blue line and curling back to create space, but he has shown an increased willingness and desire to shoot and drive to the net. Breaking the 100-point barrier certainly looks possible.
Depth: teams can’t win with just studs at the top of the roster. Look at Edmonton to start the season. Depth up and down the roster, including offense, defense and in net is needed. New York looks to have that depth with additional options available in Hartford.
Adam Fox, Filip Chytil and Igor Shesterkin missed all three games last week. Yet, New York didn’t miss a beat. Erik Gustafsson, ridiculously underpaid at 825K this off-season, stepped in seamlessly for Fox, both at even-strength and on the power play. With Chytil out, Trocheck became the 2C and that line was the team’s best trio last week. Jonathan Quick and Louis Domingue, when Quick missed a game, backstopped the Blueshirts to three straight wins.
Will Cuylle made the roster with a solid training camp and has shown he belongs. Brennan Othmann will be in New York eventually. With Chytil out, Barclay Goodrow moved up a line, leaving a fourth line of Jimmy Vesey-Nick Bonino-Tyler Pitlick. That trio has started to establish a clear identity, which will be a key down the road. On the blue line, Zac Jones has been better, not great, but better. Max Hollowell is available in the minors if needed.
Mika Zibanejad/Kaapo Kakko: several Rangers are rolling, mildly masking the issues with both Zib and Kakko. Zib has 10 points, but six of those have come on the power play. In addition, his two goals were scored in October 28 and 30, meaning that in his other 12 games, he has been shut out. Zibanejad - and the first line overall - have yet to score much 5x5, despite the solid advanced metrics. Beyond the advanced metrics, from just the eye test, Zibanejad is not carrying play even-strength as we have seen at times in years past.
A myriad of factors resulted in Blake Wheeler moving up to the top line. One, and not the least of it, was the struggles of Kakko. I think if you asked anyone prior to the season, would Laf or Kakko have that breakout year, betting odds would have been on Kakko. Fourteen games into the season, it’s been the exact opposite. Kakko is having difficulty finding his game. The warts we saw in Laf, skating issues, inability to finish, etc. all have come to the forefront for Kakko. Maybe the return of Chytil and his likely placement on a line with Cuylle and Kakko will rejuvenate the Finnish winger, because right now, he looks lost on the ice.
Inconsistent play: as noted above, not every win has been a work of art. The wins are great, but I am also a believer that the process needs to bolster the wins even they don’t create them. Not for now but for down the road.
The Rangers are still learning coach Peter Laviolette’s, so there will be growing pains, as we have seen. But the third period against Detroit, when the completely took their foot off the gas pedal up big was not ideal. In that game, though, they had a big lead, so that bobble was not damaging. The second period versus Minnesota could have been, as New York was cratered. If not for the play of Louis Domingue between the pipes, the end result must have been vastly different. Sunday’s contest required a tying goal with 11 seconds to go.
Consistency shift to shift and especially period to period will be a focus moving forward.
Injuries/Loss of Kris Knoblauch: I debated which one of the two include so just added both. The team depth, lacking in the past, has been a major plus, as noted above. Knoblauch may have been a big part of having those players ready to go when needed, even though the systems might have been different.
Getting the injured back when fully ready will be key. The hot streak buys the team time to give those players extra time if need be. With Knoblauch now the coach in Edmonton, aided by his prior relationship with Connor McDavid, despite what may be publicly said by that organization, the new administration in Hartford needs to keep the beat rolling. This is especially key for Othmann, who likely will get a look see at some point this season.
Congrats to Henrik Lundqvist who was officially elected to the Hall of Fame this past weekend and yesterday. A no-doubt, first ballot selection, Lundqvist was everything you could have wanted in a franchise goalie and representative of the organization. The only “blemish” on his mark is not winning a Stanley Cup, and I still believe if they win Game 5, no way they lose Game 6 at home. Then it’s winner take all in Game 7 and we all know how dominant Hank was in net in those situations.