On Thursday, the New York Rangers lost the season opening game to the Islanders by a score of 4-0, and then turned around and won a game 5-0 against those same Islanders two days later. Although these two games provided entertainment at the start of the 56 game regular season, and they provided the coaching staff with some information about strengths and weaknesses, without any pre-season games, it is hard to believe that those contests told anyone much about how this team will perform over the course of the 2020-2021 season.
Teams generally use the entire training camp (including five or six pre-season games) to see how players have progressed (or regressed), put together line combinations and then see how they work under game conditions, and work at length on changes that need to be made. This shortened season, with its injuries and COVID issues, has not allowed for that. So, although when you have 56 games in a regular season, you need to get off to a decent start, one cannot judge if a team goes one and one or even 1-2 or 0-3 (if the games are close). (It is one thing if you are the Chicago Blackhawks [0-3] and quite another if you are the San Jose Sharks [1-2].)
It is true that some of the best teams are already at the top of each of the four divisions, but we have to remember that no matter what happens in games over the next week or so, it is not a strong indication that the Rangers will be in the bottom half of the divisional standings at the end of 56 games. Given the team’s youth and the many veteran losses during the off season, it is not surprising that this young team saw a wild swing in the first two games. And there may be more to come before the team settles in and plays a steady game. Head Coach David Quinn’s reference on Saturday night after game 2 to those giving up already (“I hope that everyone is off the George Washington Bridge by now”) really applies to fans’ reactions to the results during most of January.
Is this a team that will be competing for first place in the division at the end of 56 games? Almost certainly not, but given the young talent, we really have little idea of how fast the team will coalesce and how soon the young stars in the making will develop and settle in. Remember, the structure of the 2020-21 NHL season’s play is not ideal for development of a very young team. Just take a look at which teams are on top of their divisions. And don’t judge the Rangers or their coaching staff too quickly.
Tonight, the Rangers will play a one-game “series” against the New Jersey Devils and it will tell us a bit more. But remember, it is just a bit.