‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Few expected the New York Rangers to be sitting on the bubble of the playoffs at the halfway point of the season. The Rangers begin their second half with 28 points and currently sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They’re aiming to climb up the ladder, though that ability may have taken a hit due to an unfortunate eye injury suffered by key defenseman Marc Staal.
Still, this team possesses the talent and locker-room personalities required to be an upper-echelon team in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. Rick Nash has gotten hotter as the season has gone on, and the Rangers are following his lead by winning five of their last six.
Rick Nash (A) – Nash has been everything that the Rangers expected him to be and more. While 23 points in 20 games is impressive, more telling is how the Rangers play without Nash in the lineup. He wants the responsibility placed on his shoulders, and that’s always a good thing for a star player in his first season in New York. Nash certainly does not shy away from the pressure — he embraces it.
Ryan Callahan (A-) – Heroic shot blocking, relentless forechecking, hard hits and now, Callahan has added a new dimension to his game — highlight-reel goals. Whether it’s on even strength, on the power play or in the shootout, Callahan has scored a number of stylish goals. That being said, he still scores a number of gritty goals in front of the net and has always been an underrated playmaker.
Carl Hagelin (B+) – Hagelin brings a lot of energy every night he laces up his skates. Whenever he and Nash are paired together, their lightning speed causes huge problems for opposing defensemen. The 24-year-old Swede has proven that last season wasn’t a fluke, and he has taken his game a step forward in his second season in the NHL.
Derek Stepan (B+) – Stepan has certainly elevated his game in all areas this season. In a full 82-game season, Stepan could be a 60-point player. More importantly, he’s developing into a very capable penalty killer. As far as the complete package goes, Stepan is playing close to the level of a No. 1 center. He’s become an all-situation player and is averaging 20:58 minutes of ice time per game.
Marian Gaborik (B) – This hasn’t been an ideal year for Gaborik, who has been dogged by trade rumors and has found himself in John Tortorella’s doghouse. At times, Gaborik has been sat down by Tortorella for large stretches of games and at other times, he’s been demoted to the fourth line. I can’t see Glen Sather dealing away Gaborik for depth parts. I’m certain Sather would only entertain a trade offer that would bring back another star player in exchange for Gaborik. His production — 17 points in 24 games — hasn’t been terrible, but perhaps his recent overtime-winning goal against the Islanders will give him the confidence he needs going forward.
Brad Richards (B-) – Richards hasn’t been a stranger to Tortorella’s doghouse, either. The pressure is on Richards to live up to his high-earning contract as the Rangers have the option of exercising an amnesty buyout after this season. It’s been a first half to forget for Richards, and he was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury after Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta ran him into the boards. Lately, Richards has scored goals in consecutive games, and the Rangers need him to play like the elite centerman of his Dallas and Tampa years.
Jeff Halpern (B-) – Obviously, Halpern wasn’t brought in to score goals. He’s yet to light the lamp this season, but that isn’t what Halpern’s game is predicated on. Halpern is a defense-first forward who excels on the penalty kill. While he doesn’t do a lot of things that immediately stand out, he brings consistent, hardworking attributes to the ice every night. His -4 statistic is misleading compared to what is seen by the eye if you watch him closely.
Taylor Pyatt (C+) – Pyatt is a physical, trustworthy winger who has earned the trust of Tortorella. He got off to a fine start offensively early in the season, but lately his production has dried up. Pyatt is the sort of player whom Rangers fans probably won’t fully appreciate until the playoffs roll around and he comes up with an important goal.
Darroll Powe (C+) – Similarly to Halpern, Powe’s role with the Rangers is to be a defense-first, checking-line forward. And like Halpern, he brings a lot of energy and tenaciousness. It was a smart move by Sather to offload Mike Rupp to the Minnesota Wild to bring in the versatile Powe.
J.T. Miller (C+) – Like Hagelin before him, Miller has established himself as an energy player in his rookie year. Miller seems to have plenty of confidence in his game and that’s something that has caught the eye of Tortorella, who opted to keep Miller up with the big club. There will be growing pains for Miller over the course of his rookie season, but he’s doing everything possible to keep his mistakes to a minimum. Tortorella has noted that Miller needs to improve his level of play when tired at the end of a shift.
Brian Boyle (C) – After making a big impression during the 2012 playoffs, Boyle was expected to take that wave of confident play into this season. Unfortunately, Boyle has struggled offensively by only scoring two points in 20 games and is a -6. Still, he’s a smart player in the defensive zone and a faceoff specialist. He finally scored his first goal of the season against the Capitals on Sunday and the Rangers are hoping Boyle finds his game in the second half. When Tortorella sat Boyle down, he appeared to receive the message, and that’s a good sign for Rangers fans going forward.
Chris Kreider (C-) – Much was expected from Kreider after his exciting performances last playoffs. Unfortunately, his production was lacking, he demonstrated poor puck control and suffered through defensive frailties. He’s currently working on improving his game in the AHL.
Arron Asham (C-) – Throughout his time playing for all four of the Rangers’ Atlantic Division rivals, Asham developed a reputation of being an effective and physical forward who was able to put up decent production for an enforcer. He’s currently on the injured reserve due to a back injury, and that might explain why Rangers fans are yet to see the best from Asham.
Marc Staal (A+) – Before his unfortunate eye injury, Staal was the Rangers’ most consistent player of the first half of the season. When finally healthy, Staal had emerged as the Rangers’ number one defenseman and was contributing in all areas of the ice and in all situations. As a true shutdown defenseman, the Rangers are crossing their fingers that his recovery time will be weeks rather than months.
Ryan McDonagh (A-) – Last season, McDonagh was the Rangers’ best overall defenseman. He isn’t playing quite at that level, but McDonagh is still a tremendous minutes eater and hardworking all-situation player.
Dan Girardi (B+) – Girardi’s toughness is unquestioned, especially after he did not miss a game after taking a heavy slapshot from Montreal’s PK Subban off his ankle. Like Staal and McDonagh, Girardi is one of the Rangers’ three horses on defense whom Tortorella can heavily rely on. He leads the Rangers with 24:40 of total ice time per game.
Michael Del Zotto (B) – 2013 has been another opportunity for Del Zotto to take strides forward, and he has done so by adding further consistency to his game. Occasionally, you’ll see Del Zotto make positioning mistakes, but these kind of flaws have become fewer and fewer. There’s still a high level of potential for him to reach as an offensive defenseman, and he needs to improve on his physicality.
Anton Stralman (C+) – Stralman is the kind of player who blows hot and cold. On some nights he looks like a very capable offensive defenseman who can score from the point. Most of the time, Stralman isn’t very effective in his own zone and doesn’t bring much physicality.
Steve Eminger (C) – It’s been somewhat of a love-hate relationship between Tortorella and Eminger. That has a lot to do with Eminger’s inconsistency and proneness toward making errors in the defensive zone. He’s the sort of player who has the tools, but doesn’t necessarily know how to use them.
Matt Gilroy (C-) – In his return to the Rangers, Gilroy is yet to score a point and is -3. The Rangers need him to start contributing offensively soon, because his overall play is lacking.
Stu Bickel (D) – Bickel has long draw the ire of Rangers fans, yet somehow he often gets a pass from Tortorella. He frequently makes costly errors and finds his average ice time limited to 5:31 per game. When he’s not fighting, he isn’t doing much to justify his place in the lineup.
Henrik Lundqvist (A) – While Lundqvist isn’t playing at the level of last seasons’s Vezina Trophy campaign, he’s still been pretty exceptional between the pipes. Sure, you would expect a better record than 11-8-1 from Lundqvist, but anyone pointing the finger of blame at Lundqvist is looking at the wrong guy. His level of desire and accountability is second to none among NHL goaltenders, and King Henrik is a tremendous self-motivator. He’ll push himself harder than anyone to get the Rangers where they need to be in the second half.
Martin Biron (B+) – Biron, as always, has been a capable understudy when Tortorella calls upon him. In a shortened season, Tortorella would be wise to give Biron more starts to ensure that Lundqvist is fresh come playoff time.
Receiving incomplete grades (less than four games played:) – Roman Hamrlik, Michael Haley, Benn Ferriero, Christian Thomas, Brandon Mashinter, Kris Newbury and Brandon Segal.
John Tortorella (B) – While it’s easy to assign blame to Tortorella for the Rangers’ subpar record, it isn’t entirely fair as Tortorella has had to scramble to figure out how to incorporate new faces into his system during a short training camp. The pieces are beginning to fall into place and this time of year is when the Rangers can make their run.
He hasn’t seen elite production from Richards or Gaborik and wasn’t afraid to sit either down. Tortorella has always been a master motivator, as seen by the way Boyle responded against the Capitals. He clearly knows what he’s doing.
The Rangers’ penalty kill is near where it needs to be at 83.3 percent. That number will only increase as Halpern and Powe become more familiar with their new teammates. It’s very easy to poke fun at the Rangers’ dismal 15.8 percent power play, but I think they’re showing signs of becoming a more effective unit with the man advantage.
Glen Sather (B+) – You make the trade to bring in Rick Nash 10 times out of 10. For Sather to bring in a player like Nash without giving up any of the Rangers’ top prospects was an absolute steal. I’m not convinced by the Rangers’ depth on the blue line and that’s something Sather needs to address as the April 3 trade deadline nears. This was an issue even before Staal’s eye injury. Even with the waiver pickup of Hamrlik, the Rangers need to find a more consistent and responsible third defensive pairing. Another question mark is the Blueshirts’ lack of a heavy shooter on the power play. Rangers fans would like to see Sather bring in a defenseman who can cause havoc with hard shots from the point.
It seems that Sather underestimated the value of Brandon Prust, who has had no problem fitting in with the first-place Montreal Canadiens, and John Mitchell, who is taking advantage of an increased role with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Rangers are in the process of digging themselves out of the hole they put themselves into. Players like Nash, Callahan, Staal, McDonagh and Girardi are as dependable as they come, but the Rangers’ depth players need to establish themselves in the second half. Right now the Blueshirts are looking like a top-heavy team, and it’s time that secondary scorers like Boyle and Pyatt find their game.
Picking up Hamrlik doesn’t really address the Rangers’ needs. At 38, he’s not a power-play quarterback, and he needs to get into shape before Tortorella can place a heavy workload on his old legs.
Some of the Rangers’ depth players are on notice, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sather pull the trigger on a couple of trades and shake things up as the trade deadline approaches.
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