By Sean Hartnett
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With 42 games under their belt, it’s difficult to determine what the Rangers are.
On occasion, the Blueshirts (22-15-5) have summoned come-from-behind heroics to defeat division rivals and have largely delivered encouraging special teams play. But they’ve also suffered through stretches where they’ve lacked any modicum of structure while displaying horrific puck management and a lack of requisite compete level.
The goaltending tandem of Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec has often stolen points in games where the Rangers deserved losses. Counting on exceptional netminding to cover up recurring team-wide blemishes is not a sustainable form of winning.
Given the collective talent at head coach Alain Vigneault’s disposal, the Rangers shouldn’t be hovering on the playoff bubble at a shade past the halfway mark. Whether their current situation is more an indictment of the players or the coaching staff is hard to say.
The Rangers have long needed to bury their bad habits of getting off to awful starts, and chasing and losing the territorial battle.
Here are some keys to a more successful second half:
GET MCDONAGH BACK TO HIS BEST
It’s no secret that Ryan McDonagh is playing well below his usual high standards.
McDonagh had largely been one of the league’s most dependable, all-around defensemen during his first seven seasons. But health problems have hampered him so far in 2017-18.
The 28-year-old blue liner struggled during the season’s early months. He missed four November games due to an abdominal strain. After the Rangers’ current five-day bye week ends, they will desperately need their captain to lead the way in all situations.
McDonagh has not scored in 38 games this season and doesn’t have a point in his last nine. Perhaps more unsettling than his glaring lack of offensive production has been the cracks in his all-around game. The Rangers need him to get back to being the 23-minute-a-night rock he had proven to be in the past.
DEFINE BUCHNEVICH’S ROLE
Pavel Buchnevich deserves to be a lead dog given his production and sizeable offensive potential. The 22-year-old wing leads the Rangers with 2.58 points per 60 minutes (excluding rookie Vinni Lettieri, who has appeared in three games) on the strength of his 11 goals and 15 assists in 41 games.
Buchnevich initially received an uptick in ice time due to Chris Kreider’s indefinite absence due to rib surgery. Buchnevich skated for 18:22 against the Chicago Blackhawks and 15:33 against the Arizona Coyotes last week, but was scratched for Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to the Vegas Golden Knights.
I don’t think the yo-yoing of Buchnevich between the first and fourth line is doing him or the Rangers any good. If Rick Nash and his 1.43 points per 60 minutes (lowest among Rangers regular forwards) isn’t cutting the mustard offensively, Vigneault would be wise to lock Buchnevich into a top-six role.
MANAGE LUNDQVIST’S MINUTES CAREFULLY
Lundqvist’s remarkable play between the pipes has been the biggest positive of the season. Though he will turn 36 in March, the Swedish stopper remains unquestionably a world-class netminder. Lundqvist’s .924 save percentage is four points above his career average.
The fact that he has played 35 games is as important a stat as any. Lundqvist is on pace to finish the season with 68 appearances. The last time he appeared in that many games was during the 2010-11 season.
Pavelec’s performances as the backup have been a welcomed surprise, considering he saw scant action during his final two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. The 30-year-old netminder has posted a .926 save percentage in 10 appearances this season.
Vigneault will be tempted to ride Lundqvist down the stretch. Should the Rangers continue to be a bubble playoff team as winter turns to spring, the coach won’t have any choice but to pile a heavy workload on his franchise goalie’s shoulders. That said, there’s always the risk of burning Lundqvist out as the Rangers attempt to punch their postseason ticket. It’s going to require a careful balancing act to ensure Lundqvist is fresh when the Blueshirts need him most.
TRUST SHATTENKIRK AND BE REWARDED
Kevin Shattenkirk arrived this summer with heavy expectations. Vigneault must resist trimming his minutes due to the perception that other defensemen are safer options. Shattenkirk has often been featured on the third pair, and Vigneault described him as a “work in progress” on Dec. 31.
While the 28-year-old offense-driving defenseman is not playing the best of hockey of his career, and trust is earned in this league, Shattenkirk was brought here — and paid handsomely — to be a difference-maker.
Shattenkirk joined the Rangers as one of four defensemen to total 30 assists and 40 points in six different seasons (Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, and Keith Yandle were the others) since he began his career in 2010-11.
But his usage seems strikingly familiar to how Vigneault underused Yandle during his season and a half in New York. Yandle was largely pushed down the pecking order to third-pairing duty and the second power play unit. It should be noted that Shattenkirk leads Rangers defensemen with 3:16 power play minutes per game and only trails McDonagh in total minutes per game.
But Shattenkirk hasn’t been trusted in high-leverage situations.
For a coach whose system requires fleet-footed defenders who can beat the forecheck, Vigneault’s usage of Yandle and now Shattenkirk has been puzzling.
Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) of The Athletic recently offered analytics-based evidence on the Rangers’ season. He wrote:
“The Rangers find themselves in a troubling spot. Since December, the team has slipped its way into a shot-share plunge, currently clinging to a lowly rate of shots for (about 46.7 per 60 minutes of even-strength play) and an awful rate of shots allowed (about 53.6 per 60). League average currently hovers around 50 shots for and against per 60, which helps to contextualize the Rangers’ freefall. Only the Arizona Coyotes allow more shots per hour.
“So, how has the team managed to stay afloat, going 5-3-2 in their last ten games? There are two answers. The first answer, as usual, is Henrik Lundqvist. The aging star is posting yet another stellar season, managing the NHL’s fourth-best rate of goals saved above average and trailing only Andrei Vasilevskiy, Corey Crawford, and Cory Schneider. Excellence in goal is one way to head off the potentially crippling effects of poor shot share.
“Second, despite routinely losing the Corsi battle, the Rangers have managed to hover around or above the break-even mark in terms of expected goals for percentage for long stretches in the season. This suggests that, although the team is allowing many more shots than they take, the Rangers are managing to contain opponents to less dangerous shots.
“In the end, this is a team that continues to rely on its best player to carry the load.”
HARTNETT’S FINAL THOUGHTS
The Rangers have a lot to prove and are by no means a lock to make the playoffs. If this group trends too far in the wrong direction, general manager Jeff Gorton should not be hesitant to make major changes.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey