Many believed the New York Rangers would take a step back this. Not only did they keep winning but can also surprise people this postseason.
Heading into the season, many thought it was the beginning of a new chapter for the New York Rangers.
The team has made the playoffs in every season since 2010. Over that span, they’ve won the Presidents’ Trophy, made it to three conference finals and competed in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. They’ve ascended into one of the premier franchises in the NHL as they on-ice product has matched their big city expectations.
But when the Rangers were trounced in the first round of the playoffs last year, a shakeup of the roster was needed — and that’s exactly what happened.
Derick Brassard led the Blueshirts in goals, was second in points, and was third in assists. Despite being a top-line center and beloved member of the roster, the front office sent him to the Ottawa Senators.
Keith Yandle brought a different — and much-needed — element to the Rangers’ blue line, as his offense first mentality complemented stalwarts like Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. But after seeing what long-term contracts turned into, GM Jeff Gorton traded his rights to the Florida Panthers.
The Rangers were going to look different in 2017 which had many believing their record would follow suit.
Mika Zibenajad was brought to New York in exchange for Brassard; he showed flashes of elite play, but at 23, he was still considered raw. Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, Adam Clendening and Josh Jooris were signed as depth pieces. The Rangers were able to bring highly-touted prospect Pavel Buchnevich to the NHL and also won the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes but their inexperience led to tempered expectations.
Was it a complete rebuild? Not at all. But retooling the roster could take time in terms of watching it all come together.
Fortunately for the Rangers, it manifested sooner than many believed.
With three games left in the regular season, they’re 47-27-6 with an even 100 points. The Rangers have already clinched a playoff berth and if it would start today, they’d be the fifth seed and matched up with the Montreal Canadiens.
How did they overachieve, you ask? The answer is simple: they’re getting contributions from top to bottom.
Four Rangers have over 50 points this year — Mats Zuccarello (15 goals, 44 assists), J.T. Miller (22 goals, 34 assists), Derek Stepan (16 goals, 38 assists) and Chris Kreider 28 goals, 24 assists). With Kevin Hayes sporting 49, there’s a realistic chance the team can have five 50-point players for the first time since Brian Leetch, Petr Nedved, Theoren Fleury, Radek Dvorak, Mark Messier and Jan Hlavac did so in 2000.
A combination of Zuccarello and Stepan being table setters and Miller, Kreider, and Hayes growing as offensive talents has been a focal point behind their success. But it’s their depth, too, that has this team firing on all cylinders.
Rick Nash has dealt with nagging injuries all season long but has been arguably the most well-rounded forward on the roster. Grabner was picked up off the scrap heap and is second on the team with 27 goals. Jesper Fast and his defensive-minded game have been an asset as a bottom-six winger while Tanner Glass has given the Rangers a much-needed edge ever since being recalled from the Hartford Wolf Pack.
When it comes to the defense, long-term injuries to both Girardi and Klein were believed to hinder the group’s potential. But in their absence, Holden has stepped up and has performed admirably while top prospect Brady Skjei has thrived in a larger role. In another domino effect of the injuries, the Rangers acquired Brendan Smith at the trade deadline, and he’s helped stabilize the blue line. With Girardi and Klein now healthy, the team has a great amount of depth at the position — something that will bode well during the exhausting playoffs.
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Of course, everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows.
Henrik Lundqvist has long been the star of the franchise but the 35-year-old has regressed this year. Currently sporting career-lows in save percentage (.910) and goals against average (2.75), the Rangers need him at a premium level as the postseason begins. If there’s one positive for The King, he will be fresh — and that’s something that’s plagued him throughout his playoff career.
Consistency has also been an issue as the season has gone on. Too often, players disappear for games at a time; for a while it was Stepan, and now Grabner seems to be following suit.
But when accounting for the good and bad, it’s hard to deny that the Rangers have overachieved in 2016. At the same time, they’re not the force that they’ve been in recent seasons.
That combination could be the difference between a first-round exit and another improbable playoff run.