To figure out where the New York Rangers are going after being dumped out on their ass by the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s important to retrace how, and especially why, they got here.
Last offseason, owner and walking ED med ad James Dolan decided he’d had enough of the Rangers rebuild (that rebuild is pretty much the entire crux of the Rangers’ success this year, but we’ll get back to that). He canned president John Davidson, GM Jeff Gorton, and head coach David Quinn, and there was a lot of bleating about how the Rangers were soft and needed a lot more grit/sandpaper/FAAAAARRRRRT because the way Gorton and Quinn were leading the team meant that they would always be rolled over. It was the kind of overcompensating you’d expect a guy like Dolan to do.
But it was ice cream for the stupid in the upper levels of MSG. In came Chris Drury and coach Gerard Gallant, the latter having a track record of success, a track record of burning out everyone around him within two seasons, and a track record for turning his team into a legion of world-class assholes. The priority on the roster was the usual caveman hockey claxon of “being harder to play against.” The Rangers traded useful, middle-six winger Pavel Buchnevich to St. Louis for glorified battering ram Sammy Blais. Buchnevich piled up 30 goals for the Blues, while Blais only managed 14 games before getting hurt. But in those 14 games, as throughout the rest of his career, Blais definitely managed to… tie his skates correctly most of the time. Funny how when the Rangers came up against one of the league’s best and lacked scoring beyond the top line they could have used a player like… Buchnevich.
Barclay Goodrow, who had never managed more than 26 points in a season, was maniacally signed to a six-year deal. But hey, it inspired him to a magical 33 points this season. Ryan Reaves and the geode that stands in for his brain was also brought in, and any team that voluntarily signs Ryan Reaves should probably be disqualified from the playoffs before the season starts.
All of it left the Rangers as essentially a one-line team with a world class goalie, something they’d only tried to win with the previous decade through Henrik Lundqvist and managed all of one Final appearance, where they were summarily popped by the Kings and never heard from again.
But hockey being hockey, you can look like a real powerhouse by only doing a couple things well. The NBA standings almost always tell you the whole story. In baseball, 162 games generally separates the wheat from the chaff, though the ever-expanding playoffs will do their best to erase that. But in the NHL, if you have a goalie having a historic season and your power play hits a season-long heater, you can fool most of the people most of the time.
Because the Rangers weren’t actually good at the things that the league’s truly great teams are. They were 24th at even strength in Corsi share (the amount of attempts at net they take vs. the amount of attempts they give up). They were also 24th in expected goals percentage at 47.4 percent. Much was made about the Rangers having the second best goals-against during the regular season, but that was almost all down to Igor Shesterkin and Shesterkin only. The Rangers had the 19th-best expected goals per game in the league. It’s not like they limited chances. Shesterkin just wiped out all he saw before him.
But they did have Chris Kreider shooting 40 percent on the power play for the whole season, leading to his 52 goals. That’s eight percentage points higher than he’d ever managed before. Kreider’s expected goals did see a slight tick up at both evens and on the power play, but nothing that suggests 52 goals is going to be the norm.
Granted, the Rangers were supposed to crack the code of getting secondary scoring for minimum money, thanks to their back-to-back top-two picks in Kaapo Kakko and Alex Lafreniere. Lafreniere has occasionally flashed being a contributor, as long as he gets five minutes of time and space no more than 20 feet from the net. Kakko has been such a force he was a healthy scratch with the Rangers facing elimination last night. Filip Chytil was able to elevate that line for a while in the playoffs, until the Lightning stubbed them out like a cigarette.
The Rangers got a lot of mileage from being the youngest team in the playoffs, but progress isn’t linear and dig under the surface and other than Shesterkin the path to stardom isn’t laid out for any of the other young players. Lafreniere has miles to go and may need a lot around him to score consistently until he proves he can create his own shot. Kakko may be lost. Adam Fox spent the playoffs proving that he’s Torey Krug with some New York hype and lighting attached to him (43.6 xG percentage throughout the playoffs as teams targeted him in his own end). For every promising rush K’Andre Miller displayed up the ice, he was also getting his brains turned to pudding in his own end as well (30.8 xG percentage throughout the playoffs). Combined with Artemi Panarin circling around the outside the offensive zone for an entire shift before trying a pass that bounces off three guys and the Rags didn’t provide much of a threat. And yes, I realize Panarin scored one of the biggest goals in franchise history in Game 7 against the Pens. But a Round 1 winner on the power play being one of the most important goals in Rangers history pretty much tells you everything about Rangers history.
And really, the Rangers spent most of the playoffs getting crushed and having Shesterkin pull their ass out of a sling and receiving some fortune. The Penguins were on their third-string goalie and had to go without Sidney Crosby right when they were positioned under the guillotine. The Hurricanes were on their second-string goalie.
But once Jacob Trouba ran out of players he could behead, and they saw a real goalie (quite possibly the realest goalie), and an opponent that knows what the spring is all about, they weren’t all that close. And that’s the Lightning without their No. 1 center in Brayden Point. The scores may look close, and they are, because that’s how hockey works, but the Lightning worked the Rangers all over the ice, especially in their four wins in a row. Here’s what the Rangers expected-goals share was in Games 3-6: 43.3, 40.3, 34.5, 36.3. That’s getting your ass rubbed in all the moonshine.
But because this season happened after Dolan made his decree in search of something to make him feel better about his own masculinity, and the Rangers can look and say they were only a couple goals from toppling the two-time defending champs, it is far more likely they double down on this ethos on roster. But if Kreider doesn’t bag every shot he takes again, and Lafreniere and Kakko add up to nothing more than a third liner, and Fox and Miller continue to need a GPS in their own zone, the percentages will probably reverse on them simply because. Shesterkin will always make them viable, and you never know what can happen in a division that appears to be on the way down instead of on the way up, especially if Trouba can remain just mobile enough to maim the opponent’s best player. Then again, if things get rocky, Gallant is likely to once again be left on the side of the road, and the Blueshirts may never get out of the mud.
Which way will it go? Well, have you ever known a Dolan team to be big on self-reflection?