The New York Rangers would like to be a team that produces at five-on-five while reducing what coach Peter Laviolette calls the “noise” — mistakes that lead to high-danger chances, particularly off the rush. Whether it’s a turnover in a bad spot, a lousy line change or a missed assignment tracking back, the Rangers haven’t defended particularly well in that area all season long and especially so in the last 20 games, when their goaltending hasn’t bailed them out enough.
Even through this 11-11-1 stretch since early December, the Rangers’ high points have very much been the same as they were during the 18-4-1 start to the season. They are a highly skilled team at the top of their forward and defense groups, they have the most dangerous special teams in the league and their creative guys are good at being creative. Laviolette’s biggest asset so far in his Rangers tenure is leaning on his big boys and not hesitating to do so from the moment the season began.
The southern California split over the weekend showed that these traits are still evident and that this team, despite its hopes for better depth production or sturdier 5v5 play, may just be what it’s been. And it’s up to Chris Drury to decide if that’s good enough for this team to make a serious Stanley Cup run this spring in a wide-open Eastern Conference or whether he can navigate the team’s tricky salary-cap dynamics to add a key player or two before the March 8 deadline.
You could look at the 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in a couple different ways: The Rangers did not generate enough scoring chances, but they had at least a point on Alexis Lafrenière’s stick in the final two minutes — his rebound try with what looked like an open net was denied by the very end of David Rittich’s skate blade. Lafrenière is having an impact season and he’s part of the best line the Rangers have going at even strength, with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, but his finishing ability has been a source of frustration.
He’s scored 7.59 goals fewer than expected based on his scoring chances this season, according to Clear Sight Analytics. Only three players in the league have a worse expected goal differential. So he’s getting chances, which is good. But he’s not converting enough, which isn’t good.
As Laviolette pointed out after that very low-event game, the Rangers did have enough chances to win it. Each game has its own feel and the Kings, losers of nine of 10 coming in, definitely tried to put the clamps on this one early. So the Rangers were frustrated by a tight-checking loss, but Jonathan Quick was good enough, the team’s defense was strong enough and the offense did enough to earn a point or two. It didn’t happen.
Sunday’s bounce-back 5-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks has a couple different perspectives, too. The Ducks didn’t do a whole lot to generate offense but there were some noisy mistakes from the Rangers again — Panarin’s turnover at his own blue line led to chaos and Adam Henrique’s first goal — and the Rangers were a lucky offside away from being down two goals early in the third.
But they got back to their strengths to win this one. Two power-play goals, which they hadn’t gotten in a game since Dec. 19. A key goal from Chris Kreider late, one of the top-sixers who drives the bus offensively. And the nice wrinkle in this one was Will Cuylle’s work for the tying goal in the third, his first in three weeks and the third goal from a bottom-six forward this month.
Of course, Laviolette shuffled the lines when the team was down 2-0 on Sunday and Kaapo Kakko was the odd man out, playing just 8:08. Laviolette wouldn’t go into his reasons for the benching, but that’s what it was — and a hint that maybe the Rangers don’t feel Kakko is the right person for the spot alongside Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
Forward line data from Evolving Hockey says that Kakko has been the best third wheel for that line this season — the line generates 55.5 percent of the expected goals and 71.7 percent of the actual goals when on together compared to 44.7/53.3 with Blake Wheeler there — but Laviolette didn’t like what he saw with Kakko there on Sunday. We’ll see if there are changes Tuesday in San Jose.
But if Kakko isn’t the answer and Wheeler isn’t the answer, that means Drury’s deadline shopping list has to include a suitable wing for one of the top two lines. Old friend Vladimir Tarasenko has a full no-trade clause in Ottawa but he might be willing to waive it for a second year in a row to join the Rangers. Henrique put on a nice show Sunday and he’ll be in high demand as a pending UFA the next six weeks; if the Rangers can work his $5.825 million cap hit in somehow, adding Henrique could give the Rangers more of a third-line threat since either him or Filip Chytil would be in the middle there.
Chytil’s return is still up in the air but if he does come back it’s fair to wonder whether Laviolette sees Kakko as a better fit on a Cuylle-Chytil third line. Funny how Gerard Gallant ran with the Kid Line as his very effective third line after trying some of those kids in other spots and now we could see Laviolette put two-thirds of it back together to give the Rangers deeper scoring threats up front.
Adam Fox, who had a down game in Vegas, drove the power-play bus with two terrific setups on Sunday. For all the whinging about him not being at peak Fox since his return from a knee injury in early December, Fox is still far and away the Rangers’ top player by on-ice expected goal percentage this season and he’s got 33 points in 36 games.
Igor Shesterkin didn’t have much work on Sunday but pulled out a decent night after a debacle in Vegas. Once more, the Rangers win because their best guys are good and their best aspects, the power play most of all, are working.
It’s a formula that hasn’t changed much all season. This Rangers version may never be a dominant five-on-five team, it may never sort out the struggles defending the rush. But if the big boys are humming, it will win games. It’s not that complicated at the moment.
(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)