MSG analyst Dave Maloney received a text from his daughter this week: “What is wrong with the Rangers?”
It’s the same question most Blueshirts fans are asking after the team kicked off the season with a 2-4-1 record. Such is the nature of the NHL’s unforgiving 56-game schedule, where a slow start can feel insurmountable and a losing streak of five or six games could derail all playoff hopes.
Maloney texted his daughter back: “The expectations got a little beyond where they are reality-wise.”
That’s the easiest explanation. The Rangers famously admitted to a rebuild in February 2018, and have since jettisoned nearly all of their veterans from their 2014 Stanley Cup Final team (forward Chris Kreider is the lone survivor).
As Maloney, a Rangers defenseman in the 1970s and ’80s, points out, it was a completely new approach for New York management. “They had never tried to build this way,” he says. The Rangers, especially over the past two decades, notoriously boosted their team by going after glitzy free agents and trade targets.
Management never assigned a timeline to the current rebuild, but expectations heightened when the Rangers won the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft lottery (to land Kaapo Kakko), and the No. 1 pick in 2020 (Alexis Lafrenière). Things also accelerated when they landed one big free agent prior to the 2019-20 season, Artemi Panarin, and he was so outstanding in his debut season, he finished in the top three in league MVP voting.
There’s no question the Rangers had legitimate postseason expectations this year — or, at least to take a step forward. A thrilling win against the Sabres on Thursday — which saw Lafrenière score his first NHL goal, in overtime — quelled some of the panic, but there are some fundamental issues with this team preventing them from being a true contender. Here’s a look at what has gone wrong, and what aspects are fixable.
Is it the goaltending, or the defense?
The simplest place to start with Rangers is their goaltending, which ranks 24th in the league in save percentage (.894) through seven games.
“Those of us who have been around in the [Henrik] Lundqvist generation, were treated to spectacular goaltending night in and night out, and that was the outlier,” Maloney says. “There weren’t many franchises that got that goaltending. So it’s not as much what’s wrong with [Alexandar] Georgiev and what’s wrong with [Igor] Shesterkin. It’s that this franchise was accustomed to goaltending that was out in his own universe, relative to the rest of them.”
It’s a fair point, but the Rangers chose to buy out Lundqvist this offseason — in large part because they had so much faith in the 25-year-old Shesterkin, long viewed as one of their best prospects. Management also had firm belief in the 24-year-old Georgiev, and prioritized re-signing him as a restricted free agent this offseason.
Kevin Weekes, the longtime NHL goaltender (including two seasons with the Rangers) and NHL Network analyst, says it’s too early to push the panic button on Shesterkin, given his track record.
“I think it’s more of an ‘everybody relax’ situation, because this is uncharacteristic of him,” Weekes says. Shesterkin had a .953 save percentage in his last season in the KHL, before coming to North America. He was so good in the AHL as a rookie last season that the Rangers called him up in January, and he posted a .932 save percentage through his first 12 NHL starts.
“One thing that is different right now is he’s allowing goals through his body,” Weekes says. “Like [opponents are] finding holes, which most goalies in the NHL don’t do — unless you’re going through a rough patch. But everyday NHL goalies don’t allow them very often. For that reason, he looks smaller in the net, even though he’s not a small guy. I think it’s a confidence thing. I know from putting myself in the spot in terms of positioning, and you know you’re in the right spot, and somehow the puck can find a hole. If that happens once, you shrug it off. If it happens two, three times you start second-guessing yourself, and the next thing you know you’re misplaying pucks that would hit you routinely in your body.”
Weekes played under Benoit Allaire, who is still the Rangers’ goalie coach.
“Benny has always been a big advocate of, you have to stop the first [shot],” Weekes says. “Don’t worry about the second or third one yet, but you have to stop the first one. He works a lot on guys’ ability to react to the first shot to be able to make a save on the first shot. And for whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case for Igor so far.”
According to Weekes, Allaire also is “one of the best in the business” at getting goalies extra practice time to do goalie drills — which has been challenging due to the condensed schedule. “It’s just a very different setup this season,” Weekes says. “And then someone will say, ‘Well what about John Gibson [who has thrived so far this season]?’ Well I know for a fact John Gibson was skating with [Ducks goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj] early. That’s paying a lot of dividends for him. I’m not suggesting that Igor hasn’t been skating early, but I do know that has helped John Gibson.”
Defense is the next issue of concern for the Rangers. The blue line was shaky all of last season, and their only offseason fix was trading Marc Staal and replacing him with Jack Johnson (who was bought out by the Penguins). Things are looking up, and the biggest pleasant surprise of New York’s season thus far is the emergence of rookie K’Andre Miller. The 21-year-old looks poised and plays confidently, mostly playing with Jacob Trouba on the first pairing.
Johnson has become a target of negativity for fans, especially when paired with Tony DeAngelo. Both players have been healthy scratches on occasion so far.
“Johnson has been around for 14 years, and he has a certain style,” Maloney says. “The question is: Does it work with Tony? Is he Marc Staal with Tony? The reality is, he likes to move around, he likes to be perhaps a little too aggressive at times, and it’s just figuring out where it all fits.”
More changes ahead?
The Rangers have shuffled around their line combinations so often, it sometimes feels like coach David Quinn is treating the regular season like an extended preseason — which teams weren’t afforded in this accelerated season.
“It’s a little bit of the chicken or the egg. If you’re winning, you don’t have to change anything,” Maloney says. “There’s a valid argument to letting things grow a little bit, and develop. [Quinn] is looking for that combination that’s going to work, but there just hasn’t been enough consistency to stick with a set of lines.”
Last season, Panarin and Ryan Strome were a magic combination, and the Rangers outscored the opposition by 23 goals at even strength when they were on the ice together. This season, Quinn has kept the duo mostly intact, but he has tinkered with their third linemate nearly every game, and puts the rest of the lines in a blender regularly.
Yet outside of Panarin (eight points in seven games), the top veteran players — Strome, Mika Zibanejad, Kreider — have not been producing at a high level, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.
“It is an obvious question and the obvious answer is, ‘Yes, we’re not getting enough from our top six,’ for sure,” Quinn said after Tuesday’s frustrating loss to the Sabres.
Weekes, who attended last week’s game at Madison Square against the Devils, put it bluntly.
“I don’t really know what their identity is this year,” Weekes says. “Last year, as the season went on, they established their identity and how they wanted to play. Even with Mika out, they still played well. And obviously ‘Breadman’ [Panarin] was the best athlete in New York sports last year and Zibanejad was a game-breaker. You knew what you were getting from them as the season went on.
“This year, they haven’t established their identity: Are we a pressure team? Are we a forecheck team? Are we an off-the-rush team that attacks? Are we a shutdown defensive team — well, we know they’re not that. Are we a physical team? Well, there’s some elements of physicality with Trouba, [Brenden] Lemieux and Kreids, but as a team they just look disjointed to me.”
There’s no doubt the Rangers have high-end skill players, and they should be a team that relies on its own energy, but they haven’t been able to sustain it through full games — and have often lost confidence and looked dejected when adversity hits late.
A spotlight is on Lafrenière as the No. 1 pick. Asked what he sees in Lafrenière, who scored his first goal with an overtime winner Thursday night, Maloney said: “A 19-year-old that’s still feeling his way around. A little bit nervous.”
It should be noted that the 2019 No. 1 pick, Jack Hughes, also didn’t have a standout rookie season in New Jersey, but looks much improved as a sophomore.
“A lot of times this generation, a top player who is a top pick is deemed to be the next one,” Maloney says. “Like, [Lafrenière] is the next [Sidney] Crosby because he won back-to-back player of the year awards [in the CHL] just like Sid. Or Kakko is going to be the next [Mikko] Rantanen in Colorado; he took two and a half years until he was strong enough, or whatever. Not everyone is Sid, and not everyone is [Connor] McDavid.”
Kakko, Maloney noted, is also still figuring it out. NHL personnel folk often say it takes about 150-200 NHL games to know who a player truly is; neither high draft pick is even close to that number. According to The Athletic, the Rangers’ average age this season is 25.6, the lowest in the league. New York has just four players over age 27.
“If you look at the Islanders, Washington, Boston, they’re all heavy teams,” Maloney says. “I wouldn’t consider the Rangers a heavy team. As your young guys get older, they’ll be heavier. Not as much weight as much as they’ll be heavier on their ability to know how to play. You’re a different guy at 19 than you are at 21 and 22 let alone 23 and 24. So there’s so many things here; if you take an honest, not-panicked assessment of where you are, there’s a lot of things in place here, it’s just not there yet.”
So maybe it’s not about “fixing” what’s wrong, as much as it’s about easing off the panic button after a bad stretch that unfortunately happened at the start of the season.