By Sean Hartnett
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Sometimes in order to go forward, you must first take a step back. Spurned on by injuries and a failure to meet expectations, the Rangers are in the process of undergoing a necessary selloff ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
The situation has opened the door for the youth movement.
The Rangers are currently without regular defensemen Ryan McDonagh (upper-body injury), Kevin Shattenkirk (knee surgery), Marc Staal (cervical strain) and Steven Kampfer (broken hand). Additionally, Brendan Smith’s substandard play has landed him a ticket to minor-league Hartford.
The injury pileup has afforded a slew of young blue liners regular NHL minutes. Neal Pionk, John Gilmour, Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Sproul have made the jump from the AHL and are making their cases to begin next season with the big club. Their infusion of hungry, desperate play has allowed the Rangers to win two of their last three games.
After a succession of win-now seasons, the Rangers aren’t in the business of adding veteran pieces at the trade deadline. The development of youngsters such as Pionk, DeAngelo, Gilmour and forward Vinni Lettieri isn’t being roadblocked by rental players and ambitious, expensive acquisitions. There appears to be a relaxed aura of clarity around the Rangers. The atmosphere is no longer about keeping up with the Joneses. It has shifted to, “We like and believe in our youth. Let’s see where it takes us.'”
Pionk, DeAngelo and Gilmour have added lifeblood to a Rangers team that was flatlining through their speed, puck-carrying skill, offensive instincts and playmaking vision. The trio combined for three points and 14 shots on goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 road defeat to the Minnesota Wild.
After the Rangers went down 3-0 in the opening six minutes of the first period, they were soon handed a power play opportunity. DeAngelo sent a cross-ice pass into Gilmour’s wheelhouse, and the 24-year-old uncorked a blistering one-timer past Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
DeAngelo and Gilmour have filled the void left by the absence of power play regulars Shattenkirk and McDonagh. They’re averaging 2:15 and 2:11 of ice time per game on the power play, respectively, and are running the man-up units with speed, urgency and crisp puck movement.
Gilmour’s power play goal was his first career NHL goal and point. He and DeAngelo tied for the game high with five shots on goal. Gilmour was credited with three hits across 18:06 of total ice time. Similar to Lettieri, Gilmour isn’t afraid to fire away when the puck is on his stick. He has totaled 10 shots on goal through his first three NHL games.
DeAngelo’s five shots on goal marked a career best. He also recorded two blocked shots to go along with his assist in 21:13 of ice time. The smooth-skating 22-year-old has collected an assist in two of the last three games and in four of the last 10 games. Four of his five assists this season have come on the power play.
Pionk recorded his first career NHL assist and point via a heads-up play on a second-period power play. The Minnesota native got down to block a Zach Parise shot and chipped the puck forward to Michael Grabner, who set up Kevin Hayes’ low wrist shot that deceived Dubnyk.
The 22-year-old registered four shots on goal on the night and added two blocked shots over 25:28 on the ice. Since the NHL began tracking ice time in 1997-98, Pionk is one of seven Rangers rookies to log at least 25:00 in a game. Fedor Tyutin, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer, Kim Johnsson, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal are the others.
Out of the bunch, Pionk is the first Rangers rookie to accomplish this within the first three games of an NHL career. Coach Alain Vigneault could have stuck with his usual convictions of piling minutes on Nick Holden’s back. For once, Vigneault took the correct course of action by trimming Holden’s minutes after the veteran began the contest with a costly play.
Holden failed to move the puck to safety and surrendered the biscuit at the red line, allowing an odd-man rush that culminated in Eric Staal’s game-opening goal. Rangers fans have begged for a sea change in Vigneault’s thought process. By taking away minutes from an underperforming Holden and handing them to a deserving Pionk, perhaps Vigneault is proving that a leopard can change its spots.
For too long, the Rangers have placed their trust in veterans to fill the final pieces on the back end. That kind of win-now, worry-later approach hasn’t resulted in a Stanley Cup Final appearance since Vigneault’s first season at Madison Square Garden.
The philosophy of continually going back to the well of trading picks and prospects for short-term acquisitions each spring was unsustainable and costly. Now, the switch has been turned in the opposite direction. The Rangers are about to gather an assortment of prospects and picks through shedding veterans at the deadline.
There’s going to be growing pains when a Rangers team that was reliant on veterans suddenly puts its faith in youth. But finally, the Blueshirts are valuing the process of developing youth over bottom-line results, and it could pay off for them in the form of a young, skilled, speed-based, exciting core in the future.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey