By Sean Hartnett
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Kevin Shattenkirk is meeting expectations – and then some. For the majority of the Henrik Lundqvist era, the Rangers have lacked genuine superstar castmates. The arrival of Shattenkirk has armed the Blueshirts with a truly elite difference-maker who has long been missing from the equation.
Aside from Jaromir Jagr and the version of Marian Gaborik before coach John Tortorella chipped away at his offensive instincts, the Rangers haven’t possessed skaters with an “it” factor during King Henrik’s 13-year reign. Both departed before coach Alain Vigneault called 2 Pennsylvania Plaza his workplace.
Brad Richards wasn’t as productive in New York as he was in Dallas or Tampa Bay. Martin St. Louis joined the Rangers in the twilight of his career. Rick Nash’s production has dipped below the 40-point mark in consecutive injury-shortened seasons. Keith Yandle was largely underutilized on the third defensive pairing and second power-play unit. As talented as Mats Zuccarello is, his career-high point total is 61.
Vigneault’s men have averaged 103 points through his first four seasons behind the bench, but there’s been a shortage of game-changers aside from the graceful Swede who stands between the pipes. Lundqvist has mostly been surrounded by very solid, dependable core member teammates – a lot of B-pluses, some B’s and B-minuses.
That is aside from Jagr and Gaborik. Jagr set franchise records with 54 goals and 123 points in Lundqvist’s rookie season. A year later, the Czech legend finished with 96 points. Gaborik was an 86-point man in the 2009-10 campaign. From the following season onward to present day, the highest output by a Rangers skater is Gaborik’s 76 points in 2011-12.
It’s no secret that Pavel Buchnevich has the skill set to become a star in the league. His 15 points through 18 games is especially impressive when you consider how often he was relegated to fourth-line duty early this season. His 3.37 points per 60 minutes lead all Rangers except for rookie Boo Nieves, who has only appeared in five games.
Buchnevich may go on to develop into the most dominant forward to pull on a Rangers sweater since Jagr, but let’s talk about the now. Lundqvist will turn 36 in March. His .905 save percentage is far below his usual standards, but he has allowed two goals in each of his last two appearances and saved 58 of 62 shots (.935 save percentage) in said appearances.
It’s unclear how much longer Lundqvist will be able to carry the expectations of the team on his shoulders. Shattenkirk was the Rangers’ marquee offseason acquisition, signing a four-year, $26.6 million contract when free agency opened. The New Rochelle native spurned seven-year offers to ensure his childhood dream of representing the Rangers.
Shattenkirk has collected 17 points through his first 18 games with the club. The Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg is the only defenseman who has recorded more points. Shattenkirk and Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers are the only defensemen to reach nine power-play points. No defenseman has accumulated more primary assists (9) and primary points (14) than Shattenkirk.
The 9-7-2 Rangers are riding a six-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. Shattenkirk has been key in the turnaround from a 3-7-2 start. The 28-year-old blueliner is currently on a seven-game point streak, amassing three goals and seven assists.
Shattenkirk’s individual statistics are particularly impressive given that he needed to adjust to a new system while Vigneault was experimenting with constantly shuffling defensive pairs. Now that Shattenkirk has been consistently teamed with Brady Skjei, the duo has excelled at advancing pucks and playing possession-strong hockey.
In 2017, the best attribute a defenseman can possess is the ability to skate the puck away from danger. Few in the league are better at advancing the puck through beating the forecheck and making crisp outlet passes under duress.
“Right off the hop, you saw the great talent that he has as far as being able to get things done on the power play and the passing and getting his shot through at the right time,” Vigneault said last week. “And his game has progressed into him understanding what we expect when we don’t have the puck. He’s a lot more comfortable right now, you can tell, in the way that we play at both ends of the rink. He’s making some solid reads, better gaps.”
Back in the preseason, I picked the Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup Final. That kind of bold proclamation probably raised a few eyebrows, but the evolution of the team shifting its trust from physical, punishment-absorbing defensemen to fast-skating, quick-thinking, offense-driving blueliners is what can separate the Rangers from the pack. As long as Lundqvist can perform close to his .919 career save percentage and the youthful-to-prime-aged members of the team continue to take strides forward, I don’t see why the Blueshirts shouldn’t be thought of as realistic contenders.
As I mentioned earlier, the pressure on Lundqvist to carry the franchise has been immense. Shattenkirk represents a new direction and a hope for the Rangers. His outstanding talent can help ease the burden placed on Lundqvist through his efficient puck-moving and the way that he’s ignited a formerly mediocre Rangers power play. The Rangers are clicking at 42.1 percent during their win streak and Shattenkirk is central to the cause — but there’s so much more to his game than power-play ignition. He’s breathing new life into a team that many thought was flatlining.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey