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Evaluating Rangers Forwards As "The Rebuild - Year 1" Comes To An End

Strome

As 2018-19 ends for the NY Rangers, it’s hard to evaluate their first full rebuild season with a whole lot of positivity. Technically speaking, it was an improvement over a year ago – they went from 77 points to 78, which puts them on a pace to challenge for a postseason invite in about 20 years. But if you take out a scorching 9-1-1 stretch from around Halloween to Thanksgiving, the Blueshirts challenged the Sens as the worst team in the league. The numbers certainly support that:

– 6th worst goals for total, 8th most goals against
– 3rd lowest shots for total, 3rd most against
– Most PIM, majors and bench minors in the league
– 5th worst PK
– 3rd most giveaways
– 2nd worst on draws

Other than a mediocre power play & the ability to push their opponents to the brink on a nightly basis before losing (3rd most one-goal games, 3rd most one-goal losses) there wasn’t much to take pride in overall as a team. Still, under a rookie head coach and a severely underwhelming roster around him, there was one individual who’s game took a tremendous leap.

Mika Zibanejad finally broke out as a certified stud who the Blueshirts have locked up for another 3 years at less than $5.5M per. That’s robbery. Zib set career highs in virtually every statistical category – 30/44/74 & 23 PPP while also posting personal bests in PIM, hits, blocks, shots and TOI (over 20:30). That’s indisputable 1C stuff and managed not to fall off the map after the deadline when his already slim supporting cast got significantly worse. Throw a C on his chest, Panarin on his wing & watch the soon-to-be 26 year-old DJ ZBad soar as the next face of the franchise.

Chris Kreider was another guy who looked primed to vault his game after a torrid 23 goals through 50 contests. Instead, as Kreider has built a bit of a reputation of doing, he disappeared from February on with a mere 5 finishes in 29 tilts. Yikes. At this point it’s hard to argue that Kreids has hit his ceiling as a 25-30 goal scorer. He’s lived at that pace for 3 seasons now and, while it’s certainly a respectable total, the days of waiting on the speedster to step up among the league’s elite power forwards are over. Kreider has said he wants to get a new deal done this summer with just one year left on his current one, but it’ll be hard to justify a significant raise for a long-term contract that’ll kick off when he’s 29.

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Pavel Buchnevich finished real strong after a difficult time adjusting to Coach Quinn’s demands of aggressive, hard-nosed hockey. That doesn’t always mean throwing the body or physicality in general. Buch needed to learn to keep his effort level up without the puck, fight harder in battles along the boards and be more assertive in his decision-making. He’s still got some room to grow all-around, but he closed his second full season with 12 & 10 in his final 29 games thanks to shooting often & earning more important skilled minutes. Next season will be the first where he’s not yo-yo’d all over the lineup, so there’s reason to believe a 50-60 point breakout is coming. I’d love to see the offensively-challenged Rangers take a risk & be a little aggressive for a long-term bargain here. Skip the 2/$2.5M bridge deal. See if 4/$4M would get the job done before he drives that price tag up with a Kreider-like stat line.

After that, there’s not another player that’s proven to be a bona fide top-sixer. Ryan Strome is just 25 & matched Buch goal for goal down the stretch – but he also shot an absurd 24% which is entirely unsustainable. He’s still relatively young & certainly has a role on this team but, based on his history, to assume he’s all of a sudden anything more than a third liner on a quality team is wishful thinking. Let’s see what he does for an encore. Stromer is certainly more skilled than the next few guys I’ll mention & might start next season as 2C by default. I just wish he’d play a more straight-line game instead of the overly predictable “slam on the brakes and spin on your backhand along the boards” move. EVERY. TIME. Kills any offensive advantage by allowing the D to get back and set. Mix it up buddy.

Namestnikov, Vesey & Fast are essentially the same players. All solid bottom-sixers. The difference is there’s no real offensive expectations weighing on Jesper. The hopes for Vlad & Vesey were higher in terms of scoring but they’ve both disappointed. Namestnikov is nothing more than a 30-point guy. He fooled some people when he racked up an impressive line playing alongside Stamkos & Kucherov for a chunk of last season. I could do that too. He plays a very solid depth role but 35 points in 98 games in a Rangers sweater doesn’t even begin to justify $4M a year & 16 minutes a night. Vesey seemed a lock to break the 20-goal threshold after a solid start but finished his Year 3 with one lone goal and zero apples in his final 19 games. His problem, to me, is simple – his hands are doo-doo. He’s not much of a creator and if a passing opportunity does present itself, he misfires on more than anyone else. At this point, he is what he is.

Brendan Lemieux was the Rangers lone tangible acquisition at the deadline this year. Claude’s kid plays hard & unquestionably brings an edge the Rangers haven’t seen much of in recent years. Still, he’s got a long way to go before sniffing anywhere near the offense his dad brought to the table along with that sandpaper. He’s an RFA this summer though and NY will be able to bring him back real cheap to see what he can do after an offseason with the promise of consistent playing time ahead of him.

Chytil, Howden, Andersson – listen, I know these kids are babies. It’s just hard to be positive after three rookie seasons that were in large part rather uninspiring. That doesn’t mean to write them off. Speed bumps are expected, especially during rookie campaigns – but is there ANYTHING good we can say about Lias yet? Howden started off in a big way with 13 points in 23 games but then went ICE cold the rest of the way (an injury didn’t help) – 10 points in his remaining 43 tilts means the jury is still out on the kid’s offensive game. He’s definitely a favorite of coach Quinn though which is pretty hard to do. He should get ample opportunity next season as the regular 3C. As for Chytil, it’s unfair to have expected more from a 19 year old – although recent rookie seasons as teens from Marner, Aho & even Tkachuk this year have me wanting more. He looked severely overmatched as a C and often spent time on the 4th line, bench or in the Quinn Bin. Still, the offensive skillset is indisputable. Chytilmania had some highlight reel moments and, although it might take a couple years for the rest of his game to catch up & allow Quinn to fully trust him, he’s easily the best homegrown top-six candidate.

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Although Kravtsov might beat him there as a 19 year-old rookie himself. And Panarin is coming like I’ve promised all along. So help is on the way.

Overall, as with most teams in rebuild mode, the Rangers biggest issue offensively is simply not having enough talent. They work hard and all which is certainly part of being a good team – but they miss the target on simple passes far too often, take too long to fire off a shot (for the love of god can someone besides Zib let a one-timer rip) or mishandle pucks entirely too much. They’ve got a blue collar coach preaching a blue collar message to a squad of largely blue collar guys. As the Rangers proved, a high compete level can keep you in games against any team. But without true talent to capitalize on those opportunities all year long, NY is on the outside looking in by a big margin for the second season in a row. These young pieces they’ve acquired over the last couple seasons not only need to pan out as respectable NHLers, but a couple will need to be stars if this rebuild is of the short term variety. True young star power hasn’t revealed itself yet.

No pressure, Vitali…although Hughes/Kakko would help share the burden. We’ll see tomorrow night at 8 how the lottery shakes.

For shits & giggles:

Panarin – Zib – Buch
Kreider – Strome – Kravtsov/Chytil
Lemieux – Howden – Vesey
Namestnikov – Andersson – Fast