NEW YORK — Alain Vigneault stood before his disheartened New York Rangers players, who are on a 1-5-2 skid to start the 2017-18 season. Away from the frustrated fans and the critical questions from the media. Just a coach and his charges, trying to find a way to dig their fingernails into the walls and climb out of this hole.
“We have two choices here,” he said, as relayed by goalie Henrik Lundqvist. “We either feel sorry for ourselves, or we go out and make the most of this situation.”
There’s a micro and a macro way of looking at that advice.
On the smaller scale, the Rangers have played their best hockey when staring into the abyss, like in the third period of Thursday night’s OT loss at home to the rival New York Islanders. But the abyss is one of their own making, thanks to an inexplicable string of pathetic first-period performances that have led to a string of early season losses.
On the larger scale, “this situation” isn’t one created by Vingeault, but by Rangers management, who traded 27-year-old Derek Stepan — the team’s top-scoring center, with 55 points last season — to the Arizona Coyotes in June. It wasn’t a hockey trade, but rather a financial transaction: Stepan makes $6.5 million through 2021 and had a no-move clause that kicked in on July 1.
Long term, this could turn out to be a shrewd decision, especially when Rangers GM Jeff Gorton isn’t tethered to that cap hit on a player with trade protection while chasing another player via trade or free agency. Short term, it meant that the Rangers went to war this season with a lineup that’s a donut: Tasty on the outside, not much in the middle.
They have Mika Zibanejad, an established top-six center, and the hopes and dreams that either Kevin Hayes or David Desharnais can become a serviceable No. 2. It’s a stop-gap decision, as the next wave of Rangers centers — the potentially brilliant 18-year-old Filip Chytil and 19-year-old Lias Andersson, who was acquired with the pick from that Stepan trade and is now playing overseas — weren’t quite ready for the show.
(And, contractually, it makes sense to leave both out of the NHL for this season so they can maintain their entry-level contract status.)
So, for now, it’s Hayes and Desharnais. The latter is what he’s been for years: diminutive, speedy and inconsistent. It’s the 6-foot-5, 25-year-old Hayes whom the Rangers hope can blossom into a No. 2 center.
“In Kevin’s case, there’s room for improvement there, on both ends of the rink. But he’s done some real solid things defensively. I’m counting on him to be a 200-foot player,” said Vigneault. “He’s learning, each game. Like [against Pittsburgh], he’s going against [Evgeni] Malkin most of the night. We’re showing faith in him. And I’m confident that faith is going to pay off.”
So far, Hayes has two goals and an assist in eight games, on a team that’s No. 27 in the league in goals-per-game, at 2.50. (The Rangers’ defense, with a 3.63 GAA, has contributed to the minus-10 goal differential for a team that was plus-36 last season.)
This is going to be the situation.
The Rangers will have to make the most of it.
But one deficient area of the lineup can’t be blamed for the freakishly systemic problem that’s led to the Rangers falling on their collective face off the starting blocks: Those consistently bad starts.
The Rangers have given up the first goal within the first 5:29 of the game five times in eight games — all losses (0-2-3). In four of those games, the goals were scored in the first three minutes of the first period.
“It’s too many games now that we give up the first goal. We have to be better,” said Lundqvist, “to give ourselves a chance to feel good about ourselves.”
“It goes back to something we’ve said many times: Our decisions with the puck. We made some unfortunate, uncharacteristic decisions with the puck that have led to really good opportunities for the other team. Hank will make a save and we’ll make better decisions in front of him so he won’t have to make that initial save right off the bat, and we’ll be in better shape,” he said. “That first minute of a period … that last minute of a period. You have to make the right plays to build that little momentum. That’s what, in our case, has been lacking a little bit.”
(A word on Vigneault. One assumes that, this being New York, he’ll pay for a disappointing season with his job, especially with assistant Lindy Ruff right there ready to take over, but this is clearly a problem with construction and not coaching.)
It’s a mental block. The Rangers vow to pay attention to the little things, and end up overthinking everything. They try to get away from the bad habits by stressing out about the good habits, which leads to more bad habits.
“If you look back at all our starts, it’s a lot of swinging in the neutral zone. No one is staying in their lanes. It’s way too many turnovers. It’s been killing us. Putting us behind the eight ball,” said forward Rick Nash. “We want to have good starts. And it’s a snowball effect when you don’t have a good start.”
But the snowball started rolling down the hill during the summer. The Stepan trade weakened the lineup, at a position that was already in transition. Dealing Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes left the 35-year-old Lundqvist with Ondrej Pavelec as his backup, and hence without a safety net. The snowball’s still rolling in October, collecting mass with each terrible start in a games and the terrible starts by key players. Nash (one goal in eight games) is yet again the best player in the NHL at getting quality chances — and perhaps the worst at converting them when he’s stuck in one of his many scoring ruts.
“Sooner or later, you have to convert,” said Nash. “It’s tough right now. Goals come in bunches. When you’re in a drought, it’s always tough. Opportunities are there.”
The opportunity is there for the Rangers to turn this season around, even in a Group of Death like the Metropolitan Division, which now counts the resurgent New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers teams among its contenders. But if this slide continues, if this is indeed a momentary step back from contention for the Rangers, then call this what it is: a flawed lineup for a franchise in transition, with a giant flashing question mark around Lundqvist’s future.