With yesterday’s 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Rangers made it six wins in a row. This was after a dismal 3-7-2 start to the season. So, what has changed, besides the Eastern Conference standings? What made the team go from bottom of the Conference to a Wild Card spot (just two points out of first place) in two weeks?
There are five new players on the roster this season. The new additions are David Desharnais, Paul Carey, Boo Nieves, Ondrej Pavelec, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Gone are Derek Stepan, Oscar Lindberg, Antti Raanta, and Dan Girardi.
This change was at least part of the issue at the beginning of the season. Chemistry and adjustment to the players’ styles are not spoken about much when a player comes or leaves a system. In thinking about a team, we almost always look at the offensive and/or defensive quality of that player and consider what he brings to the team (and how much he will cost against the cap). But players bring more than their talent and work ethic. There are intangibles too. Although we usually think of this more in the area of character, it is not always that quality that is being referred to.
It is my contention that the loss of Stepan in the room was a shock to him and to the team and affected early season play. Everyone knows that without a no-trade clause, any player can be gone without warning. As Stepan has stated, when he signed, he wanted and expected to complete that contract in New York. Although none of us know the exact nature of the negotiations that led to his signing back in the summer of 2015, it is quite certain a move to Arizona was not contemplated by his team of negotiators. Nor was it expected by his teammates–Stepan not only was the team’s number one center, he was part of the team’s core in the locker room. And so, his loss, without a replacement, required the team to make a huge adjustment to start the 2017-18 season. At the start of the season, Rangers management said that it felt that Mika Zibanejad truly was a number one center, and they were going with that (although GM Jeff Gorton stated they are always willing to contemplate trades to make the team better). As it turns out, the brass may be right (Zibanejad currently has 18 points in 18 games and a face off win percentage of 52.5%). But, the adjustment of the team took longer than expected.
And it would also take some time for the excellent chemistry between Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich to pay off. Buchnevich was drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft. He came as a highly touted sniper last fall, speaking (almost) no English. He did, however, make a real connection with Zibanejad. So, when training camp started this fall, it was almost immediately obvious that the two loved playing together. They would spend time on the ice at the MSG Training Center passing to each other, working on their shot (Mika is absolutely deadly from Ovechkin’s circle), and joking around.
But, it did not immediately translate to game chemistry, and they were not kept together on the top line. But now, Buchnevich has 15 points (including five in the last three games while playing with Mika) and the team is doing well. Mika’s new role and Bucher’s ascendency are not whole story of the turnaround, but both are part of it.
Another part has to do with Shattenkirk. And Girardi. No matter what you may think about Girardi’s play in blue for the last couple of years, the statistics (and my eyes) say that, although he has slowed down somewhat as he aged, Girardi did an adequate job on the blueline for the last few years. And there is no question that Shatty was not very good in his own zone when he first got here. That was to be expected, however, as, although most recently he was a third-pairing defenseman in St. Louis and Washington, he was now asked to face other team’s top offensive players on the Rangers top pairing with Ryan McDonagh. Not only was he not up to the task, but his errors appear to have taken away from McDonagh’s play.
So, it was no surprise that the defense was horrible to start the season. To top it off, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who himself has aged and cannot be counted on to make every save the way he did in the past, needed better D, not worse. But, under the gun, Head Coach Alain Vigneault tried several pairings, and now appears to have found a top defensive pairing that is working—McDonagh and Nick Holden. Not a favorite of Rangers fans, Holden does not look great at times, but he posted 34 points last season with plus 13 rating. And although a left handed shot on the right side, he has proven to be an adequate right side partner for McDonagh. Not a sexy partner, but Holden has helped to stabilize the play of the captain, which has proved to be extremely important.
The defense as a whole is still a work in progress but without a doubt, the addition of Shattenkirk has many more positives than negatives. Since he has been moved down to the second pairing with Brady Skjei, Shatty has been getting better on the defensive side of the puck. And as everyone by now knows, he is the key to the Blueshirts’ power play. And the power play, which has not been the Rangers’ strong point over the past few years (okay, couple of decades), has been the key to the six victories the Rangers have just put on the board. What Shattenkirk brings is a monster shot and terrific puck movement with the extra man. He sees the play so well, it is, frankly, astounding. And (here comes the intangibles), he so wants to be here. He loves playing in New York (his home town for his home team). He is excited. The team is excited. And everyone wants to be out there on the ice.
There is no substitution for having fun. Now, if the Rangers can just find a way to put Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey together on a third line (they too had amazing chemistry in training camp) when they eventually call up another true top six center (Filip Chytil, who has nine points in eight AHL games), this team could be a Stanley Cup contender.