With Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich out for multiple weeks, the offensive depth that everyone has lauded will be the key to the New York Rangers success.
With five weeks of games in the books, the New York Rangers have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL.
Coming into 2016, the organization looked like one that was in line for a rebuild. Instead, the Blueshirts were revitalized, as an up-tempo offense, a refreshed defense, and a one-two punch of Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta has helped lead the Rangers to a 14-5-1 record, good for first in the Metropolitan division.
But what’s the biggest recent behind the team’s success?
That’s easy. It’s their depth on offense.
The Rangers currently lead all teams with 81 total goals. The team that follows them — the Tampa Bay Lightning — has 61. Out of the 12 starting forwards on Opening Night, 11 of them have 10 or more points. From the first line to the fourth line, there have been mismatches all over the ice.
But now, the team’s embarrassment of riches has taken a hit.
The first of which is Pavel Buchnevich, the lone forward who has yet to reach 10 points this season. The rookie sensation has shown flashes of brilliance in his first taste of North American hockey, but back spasms have plagued him since the start. After missing a handful of games with the issues, he will now be sidelined for two to three weeks.
Losing a young player with top-six potential was tough. But missing Mika Zibanejad may be ever harder to overcome.
The 23-year old center made his way to Broadway in an offseason trade for former fan favorite Derick Brassard. The former Ottawa Senator was arguably the Rangers’ best center this season, as he’s posted five goals and 10 assists while winning more than half of his faceoffs. Zibanejad suffered a gruesome fibula break on November 20 and will be out of action for six to eight weeks.
Both losses will be tough to endure. Despite playing in a bottom six role before his back acted up, Buchnevich was a member of the second line. Zibanejad, meanwhile, floated between the first and second lines, centering the likes of Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Jimmy Vesey, and Chris Kreider. On top of that, both talents were fixtures on the Rangers’ power play, one that ranks eighth in the NHL.
Head Coach Alain Vigneault won’t have a tough time reinventing his groups, as there are enough players to fill the voids left by Buchnevich and Zibanejad. It’s the talent, however, that will need to do their job.
It’s hard to ask for more from Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, two free agents who inked modest deals with the Rangers this past offseason. With Grabner leads the team in goals, the opposition will be focusing on him. He’s going to need to take on a role as a playmaker to help get his teammates involved. At the same time, Pirri has been a force on the power play, and he needs to help pick up the slack left from the banged-up duo.
At the same time, fellow rookie Jimmy Vesey can help fill the shoes of Buchnevich by his mature play. There’s no denying that Vesey has lived up to his sky-high expectations, but the youngster is also experiencing growing pains. Because of this, he needs to continue to fly under the radar — something Buchnevich was able to do — and make an impact with his intangibles.
Derek Stepan, too, needs to step up. While he’s been positioned as the number one center in the past, his weakness on the faceoff dot has plagued the Rangers for years. With Zibanejad out, the alternate captain is going to have to step up as a middle man and earn possessions for his team.
It’s not going to be easy. Just because Buchnevich and Zibenajad are 23 and 21, respectively, doesn’t mean they didn’t bring a lot to the table.
But the Rangers have proved that their depth has been the key to their success.
Now it’s time to see what they do in the face of adversity.