The 2014-15 New York Rangers won the Presidents Trophy, reached the Eastern Conference Finals, played the Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink of elimination and proved to be a team with consistent talent from top to bottom.
The 2015-16 Rangers continued that run of form, starting the season 17-3-2. While New York’s possession numbers were ugly, the team simply found ways to win and jumped out to a start that put them ahead of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately, that stellar stretch has ended. Since the 17-3-2 start, the Rangers are a horrid 2-9-2, finding themselves not only out of the lead in the Eastern Conference, but also trailing the top of the Metropolitan Division by eight points. Their recent play has led many to question whether the Rangers are capable of contending this season.
New York can certainly remain a threat in not only the Eastern Conference, but also the NHL, as long as head coach Alain Vigneault optimizes his lineup and manages his assets in the best way possible. The players are there for a championship team, but their usage has been faulty.
Consider this: when the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy last season, the team featured 17 of the 21 players currently employed by New York. The only key components that left in the offseason were Carl Hagelin in a trade to the Anaheim Ducks and Martin St. Louis to retirement. Hagelin was a valuable player who the Rangers have missed, but he has put up seven points in thirty games with the Ducks, hardly numbers the Rangers could not replace.
Martin St. Louis was a solid contributor early on in the 2014-15 season, but his play tailed drastically in the latter half of the season, to the point that the Rangers’ play suffered whenever he was on the ice. By May 10, St. Louis had not scored in seventeen games, while not scoring on the power play in forty games. Although the Rangers have not missed his play this season, they have found themselves missing a fill-in for his second line role.
Emerson Etem, Oscar Lindberg, and Viktor Stalberg have been called upon as the replacements for Hagelin and St. Louis, finding varying levels of success. Etem has shown great potential, but has rarely been used by Vigneault. Lindberg is tied for third on the team in goals, but was recently an unwarranted healthy scratch. Stalberg has found himself in and out of the lineup, not being a negative, but not being much of a positive, either. Etem and Lindberg have been fine replacements for the Hagelin-St. Louis pair, but their usage in the lineup has been flawed.
With the recent return of Derek Stepan and the upcoming return of Kevin Klein, the Rangers have the personnel to ice one of the best rosters in hockey on a nightly basis. The players are there, as proven by their recent runs to the Eastern Conference Finals and even the Stanley Cup a couple of seasons ago. But, the system has been tinkered with and broken down.
For the Rangers, the issue is relatively simple. The personnel, filled with valuable assets who would thrive when used properly, have been mismanaged to the point that they find themselves unable to produce. Alain Vigneault has changed line combinations quickly and often, even putting Tanner Glass on the power play for a stretch. He’s consistently paired the Rangers’ best defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, with the teams worst defensemen. In addition to Kevin Hayes switching between wing and center and the bottom six failing to have any consistent playing time with each other, has led the Rangers to break down and struggle.
The problems can be fixed, and the future can be bright. The New York Rangers are not without hope, nor are they outside of the race. Their motor just needs a bit of tinkering to smooth out the knocks.