At the All-Star break there is a huge amount of excitement surrounding the Rangers. Most fans know that New York is tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division, with a record of 30-13-4. The Blueshirts have amassed 64 points in 47 games, a tremendous accomplishment for team that has not been in the playoffs since the rebuild began. But, let’s be honest and admit that Carolina has the same number of points in 5 less games played so far this season (we call it 5 games in hand), and given that that the Canes have only lost 9 games out of 42, it would be highly unlikely that Carolina would lose every single one of those games, so effectively the Canes are leading the division.
So, more realistically New York is in second place, which is quite a feat in itself. But, we do have to look at the schedule going forward, which favors the Rangers enormously. First, the team gets to rest now and (for quite a few players) recover until their next game on February 15; the team then plays only 35 games in 11 weeks. More importantly, the Rangers will have only four back to backs in that period of time and only travel to Phillie and Boston in April; otherwise, the Blueshirts either play at home (where they currently have a 15-4-2 record) or one each game in New Jersey and on the Island during the month. Compare that to a team like Carolina that now has to play 39 games in 12 weeks (which for them starts tomorrow evening), i.e., more than three games per week through the rest of the regular season; it also includes six back to backs and eight overnight away games in April (including a trip to Arizona and Colorado in the middle of the month). And if you don’t think that playing fewer games down the stretch and playing at home during the last month is advantage, ask any NHL player how much better of a schedule they could have going into the playoffs.
So, lets just say that, unless there is a drop (off a cliff), the Rangers will make the playoffs for the first time since the rebuild began in 2018. But, before we give the Blueshirts and Gerard Gallant an A+ for the season thus far, let’s again be honest and say that, although the team has been (over?)performing, the defense still leaves some to be desired to be successful in the playoffs. Yes, the team’s showing against Florida (currently one of the top two teams in the league) last week was incredibly impressive–especially because Adam Fox was not suited up for the game, but there are still too many missed coverages, gap control errors, and (except for Fox) outlet pass errors.
Additionally, the team’s third pairing is just not good enough. The addition of Braden Schneider will help to stabilize the pair, but there needs to be a stronger player, than Patrik Nemeth, on the other side. Especially because Schneider needs some guidance and leadership from a veteran partner. This is where Brendan Smith would have been perfect to bring Schneider along. I say again that it was foolish not resign Smith, who would have been more than willing to fill that role.
Finally, the Rangers could really use a bottom six center whose face off percentage is over 50%. Barclay Goodrow is right at 50%, but he and Mika Zibanejad are the only regular centers at or over 50%. There is a definite need for at least one more center who can fill that void. It is possible that Morgan Barron could be that center, but it remains to be seen whether he will get that opportunity.
So, lets get to the grades. Just so you know, I am not going to grade how every player is doing thus far, just some highlights and lowlights–all my opinion, of course. Let’s call it an educated opinion. But before we get to the players, lets grade the head coach.
Gerard Gallant—A: No matter what you thought of David Quinn’s coaching style or the fact that he was let go when he was, no one can argue with the fact that Gallant’s style has this set of players playing as a team and generally at or above their individual abilities. A coach always has to operate with the players that he (or she) has been given and within the parameters the powers that be dictate. Gallant’s style of team unity and of rewards fits this team as a team right now. He has an excellent record of taking teams to the post season and he seems to have a plan that almost all of the team has bought into. In addition, Gallant rewards third and fourth liners who perform well with more ice time and rewarded a very productive bottom six forward line with power play time just a couple of games ago. It says a lot about Gallant caring for his players and how he gets the players to buy into his plan.
Now onto the players.
Adam Fox—A+: Although some would say that Chris Kreider has been the best player on the team, after al he leads the league in scoring at the break, but I truly believe that this honor goes to Fox. Fox makes the plays happen, Fox sees the ice and development in his head before anything happens, and then he actually makes it happen, just the way he imagines it. Not only does he have one the best hockey minds from the blueline in this era, but Fox puts it together with an amazing physical skill set in a small (for a D-man) body. He can skate, he can pass, and he can (mostly) avoid being hit (we have seen what can happen when he does get hit and it is not pretty). Despite missing the last three games, Fox is tied for the league lead in points for a defenseman He is the engine that makes the team go, and New York would not be anywhere near the top of the standings without him.
Chris Kreider—A: A player that every Ranger fan has waited on since the day he was drafted 19th overall in 2009, Kreider has finally become the quintessential power forward. You could say that, at age 30, has finally reached his potential. Kreider currently leads the league in goals at 33, one ahead of Leon Draisaitl. Although Kreider was very raw when he was drafted out of high school, he was big and could skate. After learning more more of the game in three years at Boston College and during his time in Hartford, he showed only flashes of his talent during his years in the NHL. Kreider would have streaks of being brilliant with and without the puck, and then he would disappear while still on the ice–this went on for months and months, season after season. It was frustrating to watch. People in and out of the league had begun to question his hockey sense. It got so, many in and out of the industry thought that Kreider should have been traded rather than giving him such a huge salary increase and a long-term contract that commenced at the start of the 2020-21 season (he signed for 7 yrs at $46 million, with a no movement clause until the beginning of the 2024-25 season). There is no talk of that now, as Kreider uses his wheels to get to the front of the net, uses his big body to stay there after positioning himself properly, and then uses his soft hands to get the puck past the netminder. Kreider says that he is just the recipient of his talented teammates’ passes and shots, but its so much more than that. He is finally the power forward in the right place at the right time.
Igor Shesterkin—A: Shesterkin is performing as expected; in other words, he is almost flawless. Its a weird expectation to presume that an incoming goaltender will be as good as a retiring soon to be hall of famer, but that is what was laid on Igor’s shoulders and thus far, he has delivered. Shesterkin has the highest save percentage of all the regularly playing netminders in the league (with a record of 22-5-2). He makes the saves without much emotion shown and keeps the team in every game he appears. At times, he leaves rebounds in front of the net, which he will need to clean up if he wants to win in the postseason, but he has stolen more than one game for the Blueshirts this season, and is expected to continue doing so. There is that word expectation again; after all, it is only in his third NHL season.
Mika Zibanejad—A+: Sometimes general managers take chances and they work out, and sometimes they do not. We often focus on the trades that do not (e.g., Ryan Graves) or players they let go for nothing (e.g., PA Parenteau), but two recent or semi-recent trades were terrific ones that were steals for the Blueshirts. The first is when Glen Sather brought/stole Ryan McDonagh from Montreal to New York in 2009, and the other was Jeff Gorton’s 2016 trade with Ottawa that sent 28-year-old Derick Brassard and a 7th round pick for 22-year-old Zibanejad and a second rounder (which wound up bringing the aforesaid Brendan Smith to NY). Oh, what a steal it was–it wound up being Zibanejad and Smith for Brassard, a third rounder in 2017, and a seventh in 2018. But I digress. Zibanejad, now Brassard’s age at the time of the trade, is now an all-star. He is a premier top line center in the league, who has one of the best shots and is one of the top face off winners on the power play in the league.
Artemi Panarin—A: Panarin is an artiste. He is a threat to score or make the pass that becomes the primary assist. Leading the team at the break in points (at 52), almost half of those points are on the power play and are assists. Panarin and Ryan Strome have amazing chemistry on the Blueshirts second line, with most of Panarin’s nine goals at even strength involving Strome. At age 30, in 2021-2, Panarin is on track to equal or better his best season points-wise (in 2019-20, he posted 95 points for the Rangers). He shows no signs of slowing down, which is good because he is signed for 4 more years after this one.
Jacob Trouba—B+: Trouba is on track to have almost as many points as he amassed in his best season as a member of the Winnipeg Jets in 2018-19. This year has been paired with K’Andre Miller, a young defenseman that Trouba has been asked to mentor, and his numbers look fine, but yet we cannot give him an A for this half season. The reasoning for that is watching him, he is making defensive mistakes that a mid-career, high profile, number three (second pairing) defenseman should not be making.
Ryan Reaves—A+: Reaves was not brought in to score goals or create offense, yet he does both. Once thought of as mostly a tough guy that would be brought in to make sure no one ever messes with Artemi Panarin again, Reaves is so much more than that. He has changed the culture in the locker room: he is an energy creator and he can play hockey too. Reaves was a great addition to this team and he is playing his role to perfection.
Braden Schneider—A: True, Schneider has not been in New York very long (he has played just 10 games), but he has made an enormous impression during that time. Coach Gallant already trusts Schneider to put him out there in many different situations and Schneider has shown that he belongs on Broadway. Not that he does not make mistakes, he does. And he could really use a mentor pairing, which he does not have yet (although he has played alongside Ryan Lindgren since Fox has been out). Schneider is a potential number two or three defenseman and he may be ready for that role before the Rangers expected. It is a nice luxury to have, but there also is a great responsibility to the young player to develop him properly.
Alexis Lafreniere–-C: Speaking of proper development, Lafreniere appears to have become an NHLer too soon. There was a lot of pressure to keep him in the NHL after he was drafted first overall in 2020, but it appeared last season that he was not ready. This year, it appears that he is stronger on the puck, he has gained confidence, but his -is not quite up to what it should be and Lafreniere is taking penalties at very inopportune moments. Despite being given skating minutes on the top line, Lafreniere is not producing in a way that was expected. The fact that he spends time in the AHL is not a bad thing when a player needs that time to develop; however, there is a window to do that (not talking about waivers). That “emotional” window is closing, if its not already closed. But something needs to be done.
Kaapo Kakko—C+: When Kakko was drafted second overall in 2019, it was thought that maybe the Rangers had gotten a steal in getting Kakko over Jack Hughes. Although those days of hoping for a top offensive days appear to be gone, the Rangers are now expecting that Kakko will become a solid two-way player. In his third season as a Ranger, before he was injured in January, Kakko was getting top six minutes and producing but not putting up the numbers that the Rangers were originally hoping for.
K’Andre Miller—C+: Miller is another player whose numbers look good and he is playing close to 20 minutes per game, but he often looks lost on the ice. Yes, he is still learning and he is only 22 (defensemen take longer to fully develop than forwards), but sometimes its painful to watch out there. Miller needs time and he is getting plenty of minutes, but the jury is out as to whether he will be a top four defenseman on this team.
Julien Gauthier—D: Yes, Gauthier is big–very big. But his numbers are not good, he is not a very physical player, and he does not look good out there. I am not sure why he is being played over Morgan Barron, but he is out there more often than not. Someone really has to explain this one to me, because it makes very little sense to me.