Last night’s game in Winnipeg is the first of a short two-game road trip, and it will be a different group of forwards in Rangers’ uniforms than it was two weeks ago. Many injuries have allowed Florida, Buffalo, and the Islanders to beat the Blueshirts, and were at least part of the reasons that Carolina played competitively against them (and eventually lost) twice last week. That’s four out of the bottom five teams in the conference defeating the team that was atop the Metropolitan Division at the start of the two-week period.
There is no doubt that all teams will have injuries during the season. But the Rangers have been particularly hard hit at this point. Thus far, seven players have missed games to injury, including top three six forwards, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich (Kreider and Buchnevich have each been out twice). Zibanejad is not expected back until sometime in January. Now, add Rick Nash with a groin injury (who is expected to be out in approximately one week) and Matt Puempel, who is out indefinitely with a concussion (on the IR as of yesterday). In addition, Jimmy Vesey is iffy for the game against the Jets tonight, as it appears that he sustained a forearm injury in the game against the Isles on Tuesday.
That is too much talent out of the lineup for any team to be successful, and when you add to this the fact that Kreider has not played consistently well since the first time he went down in October with a neck strain, the cost can be a precipitous drop in the Rangers’ standing in the Metropolitan Division.
This is especially true when you consider the possible replacements for the top players that are now injured. Called up this week were Marek Hrivik and Nicklas Jensen, not exactly top-six forward prospects. Either can play on the fourth line, and possibly the third, but who can fill in on the top two lines? The truth is that, although players will fill in, there is just not enough talent in the organization to represent a powerful offensive threat.
And this is where the lack of first and second round draft picks, and trading prospects with top potential (eg, Anthony Duclair) really comes home to roost. Yes, signing top free agents is great, as Kevin Hayes and Vesey have already proven, but nothing really can take the place of homegrown prospects coming up through the system. It is true that maybe Robin Kovacs (3rd round, 2015) becomes a top two line player in the future, but right now (with three points in 22 AHL games), he looks far from ready. Boo Nieves (2nd round, 2012), with borderline second-to third-line potential, is doing better in his rookie pro season at Hartford, but he is currently not ready either.
No one expects this number of injuries to top players. But a team needs to have a good number of potential excellent prospects. The Rangers have exactly five. Seven if you include two goaltenders who are just starting college and have very unpredictable futures. Don’t let anybody tell you that its not a problem–it is. Although it looks like going forward, the Rangers have a different plan on how to use their draft selections, absent an amazing trade, the organization will suffer for the next few years. It’s the price the Rangers have to continue to pay for the pasts’ failed “win now” strategy.