As we rapidly move into April, we ask ourselves the important question surrounding the New York Rangers: Are they Stanley Cup contenders?

Should We Believe?

Oct 13, 2016; New York, NY, USA; The New York Rangers salute their fans before an opening night game against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Every March since 1995, as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, I find a way to convince myself that this will finally be the year that the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup again. And every June since 1995, I’ve been disappointed.

There have been plenty of legitimate reasons to put my faith in a Blueshirts pre-playoff team over the years. In 1995-96, they had both Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky on the same team. A couple of other times they were good enough to win their division. During the 2014-15 season, they won a Presidents trophy as the league’s best regular season team.

Even when they haven’t been that great over the last 12 years, they’ve had Hank, so they’ve always possessed a chance.

Unfortunately, no matter the reason for my optimism, the Rangers have found a way to come up short every time. In ’96, Eric Lindros and company were too big and strong. The next 10 years, no one could score on Martin Brodeur. In 2015, there were those torturous Cup overtime losses to the Los Angeles Kings. Then, last year, after a 101-point season, we had to watch Sidney Crosby and company completely dominate the Rangers and send them home for the summer after just five games.

So, this year, I’m going to change. I’m going to try my best not to be so gullible. I’m going to take a good-to-honest look at my team and determine if I’m going to believe again. I need to decide if the 2017 New York Rangers are Stanley Cup contenders or pretenders?

The Record

MetropolitanGPWLOTPTSROWGFGADIFF
1x-Washington71461781004522815969
2x-Columbus71471861004522816464
3-Pittsburgh7145179994224919851
AtlanticGPWLOTPTSROWGFGADIFF
1-Montréal7241238903819918019
2-Ottawa713924886351881853
3-Boston7138276823620518817
Wild CardGPWLOTPTSROWGFGADIFF
1- NY Rangers7245243934223118942
2- Toronto7032231579312122084

Why It’s a Positive

After 72 games, the Rangers (as of 3/19/17) have the fourth most points (93) in the Eastern Conference and fifth most in the NHL.

Despite their league-wide standing, the Rangers currently sit in fourth place in their own division. The Metro division is stacked and the Rangers are chasing the three best teams in hockey. They currently rest seven points behind the 100-point Capitals and Blue Jackets and eight behind the 99-point Penguins.

If the Rangers were in any other division in the league, they’d be in first place. But as it stands, they’re in fourth and that means they’ll likely have to settle for the first wild-card spot in the playoffs.

Fortunately, because of the NHL’s unique playoff structure, the first wild card team will likely be the only team in the conference that doesn’t have to face a Metropolitan division foe in the first round.

A first round playoff matchup against the 88-point Montreal Canadiens or 86-point Ottawa Senators would appear, at least on the surface, to be a better option than an intra-divisional war with one of the other Metro division powerhouses.

The real downside to finishing as a wild card is ceding home ice advantage to your division-winning opponent. Fortunately for the Rangers, their 26 road wins lead the league by a considerable margin. A great road win against the Wild in Minnesota on Saturday further cemented their standing as the league’s best road team.

If you can win on the road, you can win in the playoffs and the Rangers can win on the road.

Why It’s a Negative

So, we’ve established that the Rangers can win on the road. But it’s at home that they have issues. With four home games still remaining on the schedule, the Rangers have already lost 18 games at the Garden this season.

Of all teams currently in playoff positions, only the Ottawa Senators have more home losses. The Rangers’ 15 regulation losses are also indicting. No other team in playoff position has more.

The Rangers started the season well and were playing good hockey consistently as recently as early February. However, they’ve been pretty dreadful recently. Over the last 12 days, they’ve lost to the tenth place Lightning, the eleventh place Panthers, and the twelfth place Hurricanes. They’re barely an NHL .500 team for the past month or so.

The Rangers will need to starting building momentum for the playoff run pretty soon. With their playoff seed already pretty much locked up and ten games still to play, will they have the motivation necessary to build momentum against teams fighting for their playoff lives?

Decision

Contender. The Rangers are near the top of the standings. That counts for something. Their fortuitous spot as the first wild card in the East will aid them in their quest for the Cup. It basically delays a matchup against any of the top three teams in the NHL for at least another round.

The Coach

Mar 9, 2017; Raleigh, NC, USA; New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault reacts during the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Hurricanes defeated the Rangers 4-3. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Why It’s a Positive

Alain Vigneault has been the Rangers coach for four seasons and has at least 45 wins in each of them. He is one the best coaches in the NHL today and is gaining statistically on some of the all-time greats as well.

Vigneault is the 15th winningest coach in the history of the game with 611 victories and counting. His 127 playoff games coached are the 11 most ever. AV has the experience and the record to captain this Rangers ship to the Promised Land.

Why It’s a Negative

Alain Vigneault can’t finish. Despite winning three regular season Presidents Trophies with the league’s best record and making it to two Stanley Cups, AV has never been able to finish the job.

The 2017 Rangers, like all Vigneault teams, are built on depth. Throughout the regular season, the Rangers roll four forward lines. The hierarchy of the first three is interchangeable on a nightly basis.

Three lines playing equally though out the season is genius. It allows players to stay fresh, gain experience in all situations and also builds the depth necessary to deal with injuries.

In the playoffs, this strategy is counterproductive. While there are countless minutes to fill during the regular season, minutes in the playoffs must be considered a commodity. They should be allocated only to the players most likely to provide a positive result on that shift.

 NEXT: Could Raanta Actually Replace Lundqvist In the Playoffs? 

For context, consider this: in the 2016 playoffs Penguins defenseman Kris Letang ranked fifth in minutes per game with 28:53. His stellar play on the Pittsburgh blue line was instrumental to their Cup run. In the same playoffs, Keith Yandle led all Rangers with 20:43 minutes played per game.  That per game average was good for only the 65th best average in the NHL.

In the playoffs, your best players have to play the most minutes. Vigneault needs to abandon the equal play time philosophy in 2017 or this Rangers team will suffer the same fate as all the AV teams that have come before it.

Decision

Contender. AV is one of the best coaches the game has ever seen. He will win a Cup one day. Let’s just hope he’s still with the Rangers when he does it.

The Goaltenders

Mar 6, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Rangers goalie Antti Raanta (32) celebrates with goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 in overtime at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Why It’s a Positive

The Rangers goaltender duo of Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta lead the league with 47 quality starts in 2017. On a night by night basis they are as consistent a pair of goaltenders as I’ve ever seen.

While Henrik Lundqvist is widely considered one of the best goaltenders in the game, Antti Raanta has more than filled in for the King when needed throughout the season.

Either Ranger goalie is capable of an elite performance on a given night as evidenced by their 5 combined shutouts.

The Rangers goalies will give them a chance to win every night, and in the playoffs, that’s exactly what you need, a chance.

Why It’s a Negative

Statistics don’t lie. The Rangers are 11 in the league in Goal Against Average and Save Percentage. They’re going to need to be better than around league average if they’re going to stand any chance in the playoffs.

Henrik Lundqvist is the Rangers number one goaltender and potential playoff starter, but he’s currently hurt. While this would normally be disastrous for New York, this season it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Believe it or not, Antti Raanta has, at least statistically been the better goaltender this season.

  • Raanta: 15-7-1, GAA 2.3, SV% .921
  • Lundqvist: 30-17-2, GAA 2.65, SV% .913

No matter who gets the nod in the playoffs, the Rangers goaltender will need play considerably better than how they have played throughout the season to consistently beat playoff caliber teams.

Decision

Pretender.  The Rangers goaltending has gone from their biggest strength to their biggest question mark. Antti Raanta has filled in admirably in limited regular season duty but the playoffs are a whole other ballgame. Hank has had an up and down season in 2017. Even if he does come back for the playoffs, which Hank will it be?

The Defense

May 2, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) splits the defense of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) and defenseman Dan Girardi (5) during the third period in game two of the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers defeated the Capitals 3 – 2. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Why It’s a Positive

Team captain Ryan McDonagh stands head and shoulders above his fellow Blueshirts on the Rangers blueline. In his seventh season on Broadway McDonagh has become the unquestioned leader of both his team and his defensive unit.

The Rangers D has certainly taken on his their captains no-frills, lunch pail personality. They pride themselves on working hard, making the right play, blocking shots and grinding out good shift after good shift.

While none of the Rangers d-men’s numbers jump off the page at you, the group does have one amazing group stat. Every single Rangers defenseman in 2017 has a positive plus/minus number.

Of course, McDonagh leads the way with a plus 19. In second place, not too far behind his mentor McDonagh, is rookie Brady Skjei with a plus 16. Revelation Nick Holden is holding firm with the third highest total of plus 14.

Overall, the group is greater than the sum of its parts. They do enough in all phases of the game to earn wins. They’ll continue to do so throughout the playoffs.

Why It’s a Negative

Ryan McDonagh leads the Rangers in assists, points, plus-minus, blocked shots and shots on goal. Yet he only ranks in the top ten amongst NHL defenseman in blocked shots (eights). Nick Holden surprisingly leads the team with 10 goals. That’s good enough to be ranked 19th best among NHL defensemen.

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No other Rangers ranks in the top 20 of NHL defensemen in any other category. The Rangers defensemen are not generally strong offensively.

Unfortunately, they’ve had significant lapses in their own end as well. The Rangers allow over 30 shots per game and allow goals on 8.5 percent of those shots. Neither of those numbers is much better than league average.

Luckily for the Rangers D, Lundqvist and Raanta have been there between the pipes to bail them out more often than not.

However, in order to have a positive impact in the playoffs, the defense will need to either contribute more offensively or prevent more chances than they have been in their own end. As of right now, it’s the Rangers goaltending that is making the defense appear much better than it actually is. They’re average at best, and that won’t be good enough come playoff time.

Decision

Pretender.  The Rangers Defense is average at best. They’ll need someone besides Ryan McDonagh to get hot in the playoffs if they have any hope of making a Cup run.

The Offense

Mar 13, 2017; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers right wing Michael Grabner (40) scores against Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Peter Budaj (31) during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Why It’s a Positive

The Rangers have the third-most goals in the league with 228 so far. Their 180 even strength goals are also third best in the NHL.

They are scoring 3.17 goals per game and their 10.55 shooting percentage is second only to the Washington Capitals. As a whole the Rangers offense is elite.

It’s not so bad individually, either. Three Rangers already have 20-plus goals in 2017. The steal of the offseason, Michael Grabner is leading the way with 27. Chris Kreider has quietly netted 26 and JT Miller has 20 on the nose.

Two other Rangers forwards should finish with 20 goals, as Rick Nash has 18 and Kevin Hayes has 17 with 10 games still to play. The offensive productivity is not limited to those five players either. 10 players already have at least 10 goals this season with a few more knocking on the door to double digits.

By season’s end, the Rangers should have around 250 goals with five players accumulating more than 50 points. Their scoring depth provides matchup problems for most NHL coaches and should continue to come during the playoffs. In other words, offense will not be a problem for this team. They will score goals in the playoffs, the question is will they score enough?

Why It’s a Negative

The Rangers started 2017 with the ability to seemingly scoring at will. Their league-best shooting percentage and near five-goal per game output had some thinking that this offense could approach historic levels.

As is usually case, though, statistical anomalies tend to regress toward the mean and that’s exactly what happened to the Rangers. Little by little their shots per game went down, their shooting percentage went down and, eventually, their goals per game average went down as well.

Since February 16, the Rangers have played 16 games and scored 39 total goals. That’s a 2.44 goals per game average.

Goals are much harder to come by in the playoffs than they are in the regular season. With their goals per game already trending in the wrong direction, there is no reason to believe they’re going to be able to reverse it in time for the playoffs.

If the Rangers offense is not able to produce at an elite level in the playoffs, this team has no chance at the Cup.

Decision

Contender.  While the Rangers offense may not be clicking on all cylinders right now, they have the talent and the depth to make a deep run in the playoffs. They roll three interchangeable first lines and their fourth line can be dangerous as well. They are a matchup nightmare for every team in the NHL and will score enough goals to contend in every game.

Special Teams

Dec 29, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Nick Holden (22) celebrates with center J.T. Miller (10) after scoring a power play goal in the first period against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Why It’s a Positive

The most positive thing one can say about the Rangers special teams is that the Rangers are excellent at even strength. The Rangers have scored 39 power play goals so far in 2017 while also allowing 39 power play goals against. Both ratios work out to .54 power play goals per game. Those are not great stats, but they’re not terrible either.

The Rangers special teams will likely not win or lose them many games in the playoffs.

Why It’s a Negative

The Rangers average 2.92 power plays a game and score on 18.6 percent of them. They also average 2.72 power plays against per game and allow a goal on 19.9 percent of them.

Both their power play and penalty kill units are in the bottom third of the league statistically and if you’ve watched either unit recently you’d have to think that it could be even worse.

While their net PPG for and PPG against is even for the season, this ratio needs to be positive in the playoffs for the Rangers to have any chance.  With each power plays importance magnified in the playoffs any stretch of futility could mean the end of the season.

Decision

Pretender. If there’s one thing the Rangers should be most concerned with heading into the playoffs it’s their special teams. An inept power play can be worse than not drawing any penalties in the first place. A single unsuccessful power play can change the momentum of a hockey game while multiple unsuccessful power plays can change the complexion of a series.

Conclusion

Oct 6, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony honoring the 2016 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Room at the White House. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY NETWORK

Contender. The 2017 Rangers have a great coach, a phenomenal offense, enough goaltending and a serviceable defense. Like any eventual champion, they’ll need a fair share of puck luck to win it all, but a Cup run is possible.

I think they win in the first round against an inferior opponent. If they do they should be fresher than a second round opponent that has emerged from one of the other first round wars.

Then, I’m thinking, this is finally the year that Hank takes over. He’s rested, he’s hungry and he’s due. If The King is at the top of his game this spring, this Rangers team could be scary good in the playoffs.

I may just be a glutton for punishment, and I know it’s only March, but I think this will be the year the Rangers win the Cup again. And if they don’t? Well, there’s always next year.

 NEXT: The Two Most Vital Rangers Pieces Towards a Stanley Cup Run 


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