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NY Rangers Mailbag: AV, Prospects, Hank & A Superstar

AV

Last week I asked Twitter to shoot over any questions they had regarding the Blueshirts. I received a ton regarding the trade deadline which I’ll cover in a separate post – although I did go over McDonagh & Nash in recent blogs. Here’s the rest of what readers asked (prior to going 0-2 this weekend).

Shest

Let’s start with the second part because Igor Shestyorkin (not a teenager, he’s 22) may very well be the most important future piece this team has. The question surrounding any Rangers success is how much longer the soon-to-be 36 year-old Henrik Lundqvist can continue to play among the league’s elite & what happens after him. Well Shestyorkin has been absolutely dominant in the KHL. Since last season he’s posted a 51-8-9 record (including playoffs) with peripherals around 1.70/.935 & 14 shutouts.

Now he does backstop the most dominant offensive team in the league by a long shot which makes his job easier at times. But there’s no questioning his athleticism & ability. He’s under KHL contract through next season but could make his way to the NHL for 2019-20. There’s no guarantee & holding anyone up to Lundqvist’s standards is unfair – but yes, Igor is absolutely the real deal to succeed the King.

As far as young prospects and players, that’s a different story. In four drafts prior to their most recent one where they snagged Andersson & Chytil in the first round, they’ve made just 2 picks higher than the third. One of which was a goalie (Brandon Halverson) who’s struggling to stick in the AHL let alone step up to the big stage. So as far as position players go, the Rangers have one of the worst prospect pools in the league.

They’ve made up for a lack of draft participation with college free agent signings (Hayes, Vesey, Lettieri, Pionk, etc.) & have plenty of other young core pieces on the active roster (Skjei, Miller, Zibanejad, Buchnevich – 3 of these 4 were Rangers picks). Prospect-wise though, this team is severely lacking in comparison to most other squads. Still, their only critical “aging” piece is Hank. Nash, Grabner, Holden and Desharnais are all 30+ pending UFAs so they’ll get younger with some subtraction. Outside of them, only Zucc & Staal are 30+. They need to replenish over the next couple years but they’re absolutely fine for the immediate future.

Hank

I don’t know how anyone can realistically say yes. He’s under contract for 3 more years (it’s not happening this one) & that’ll be all she wrote for Hank’s career. If the Rangers were to retool tremendously (and get lucky) to win the Cup next season, Lundqvist would be the second-oldest goalie to hoist the trophy in 50 years (Hasek would have him by a couple months). So for him to win in his remaining window, it’d have to be a historical run.

Is Hank capable? Based on his resurgence this year, absolutely. Is it likely? Obviously not – but it has a lot less to do with him than the squad he anchors & how fortunate a run any team, even the best, need to pull off an NHL championship in the first place.

Superstar

Recent history makes it hard to argue against. Last 9 Cups – Pens 3, Hawks 3, Kings 2, Bruins 1. That’s Crosby & Malkin. Kane & Toews. Kopitar & Doughty. Bergeron & Chara. Hank can go toe-to-toe with any Cup-winning netminder, but the Rangers have never had the skaters anywhere in their lineup that could match the names on this list. McDonagh is great but he’s a level behind Chara (in his prime) or Doughty. And they’re a long way from Mark Messier manning the middle. Since the Messiah, they’ve consistently lacked a true top-flight C. The one superstar they thought they acquired was Rick Nash who’s fallen well short of those expectations – especially in the playoffs when it matters most.

The Blueshirts have relied on balance when it comes to scoring. Outside of a Nash outburst in ’14-’15 it’s been a steady diet of several guys hovering around 25 goals & 45-60 points. It’s obviously a good thing to be able to generate offense from anywhere in the lineup – but as fans have seen year in & year out, they’ve never had a go-to guy. Rangers playoffs runs always end with everyone helplessly looking around hoping someone else steps up instead of having a leader with the instinct to take over. Players like that don’t grow on trees. The Pens & Hawks had to hit rock bottom for years at just the right times to draft their superstars. But that’s why Cups ain’t easy.

AV

I get the AV hate & don’t disagree that it might be time for a new voice. But we’ve been here before with Tortorella so be careful what you wish for. The Rangers had their best season under Torts in ’11-’12 when they finished tops in the East before bowing out of the playoffs in the Conference Final. After losing in the second round following a lockout-shortened season, Tortorella was given the axe and all people wanted was his polar opposite. He was accused of restraining skill players by having everyone focus overtly on the defensive side of the puck. Strange part about that was, the season that got him fired was what fans wish this team was now. A fancy statistician’s dreamy blend of stifling the opposition while keeping busy in the offensive zone.

Whether or not Torts deserved his pink slip is another argument altogether – but AV was brought in to transition the team from a deliberate, grinding, shot-blocking warrior mentality to a style more conducive to speed, skill & finesse. The transformation didn’t happen overnight though. Although Vigneault’s debut had his Blueshirts in the Cup Final, there were plenty of Tortorella remnants that helped get them there. They weren’t lighting the lamp any more than they were used to & still actually understood what it meant to defend. But it’s hard to argue that each year after, as this squad began to fully adapt to AV’s brand of hockey, the results have gotten worse. My point? The grass isn’t always greener.

Is it all Av’s fault though? Of course not. Jeff Gorton has failed in acquiring the right players to play the style Vigneault demands. It’s also on those donning Rangers sweaters for their individual failures on the ice. Let’s recognize that this roster isn’t a championship-level group being wasted away. Still, AV is the leader. A leader who has proven to be too stubborn to adjust & consistently get the max from the pieces he’s got. A coach closing in on 650 career wins got there by doing things his way, but that way hasn’t worked here. Or anywhere for that matter where a championship is the goal. No coach gets every lineup or in-game decision correct. Vigneault is far from the only one to be accused of a short leash with youngsters & a strange affinity for under-performing mainstays. Regardless, his message has grown ineffective. Stale. And as is the case in all sports, it’s the coach who eventually takes the fall. If the Blueshirts miss the postseason for just the second time since 2004 I’d be shocked to see him back.

This isn’t an in-season situation where Gorton can “flex his muscle”. Not how it works with a veteran head coach unless you’re dishing out walking papers. As far as calling up younger blueliners, this team is still fighting to keep their playoff spot. Right or wrong, the Rangers aren’t going to risk it by sitting the vets who got them here to experiment with kids the jury is still out on. Playing NHL-caliber D is a lot to ask of a couple 22 year-olds. Graves projects to be the better defender of the two but is in the midst of his 3rd AHL season for a reason. Pionk is fresh out of college & essentially behind Tony DeAngelo for the spot he backs up for Shattenkirk. I know it’s easy to say “how can it be any worse” based on what your eyeballs tell you but fact is, until NY severely fumbles away the postseason invite they’re currently (barely) sitting on, it CAN be worse. There won’t be on-the-job training for these kids unless they have no choice or the season implodes.

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