Are the New York Rangers doomed?


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.



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