Obviously, rebuilding the defense is priority No. 1 for the New York Rangers. Next on the list is the fourth line.
Rebuilding the defense is far and away the top priority for the New York Rangers this offseason. There’s no arguing that point.
The second order of business to improve the future, though, it should involve a quick glance at the recent past.
It’s time for this team to toughen up.
No, we’re not talking about a change in roster-building philosophy: The Rangers are fortunate to have Alain Vigneault as coach, and he isn’t abandoning his skill-and-speed approach to turn the Broadway Blueshirts into any semblance of Broad Street Bullies — or even the San Jose Sharks or Columbus Blue Jackets, two of the heavier teams in the current NHL.
Yet another playoff disappointment this spring has laid bare how desperately the club needs to rebuild its “throwback” (and not in a good way) defense corps to better blend with the guys up front. That task should prove challenging and more than just a little but painful.
In addition to taking a wrecking ball to the blueline, the recent second-round playoff exit should have also convinced the Rangers (i.e. Vigneault) once and for all that grit is desperately needed up front after years of ignoring the problem. And this project doesn’t have to constitute a full renovation, just the equivalent of a quick trip to the nearest home center.
A new fourth line, one whose sole purpose is to provide physicality and jam, has to be constructed, and it shouldn’t be terribly difficult or expensive to do so.
The notion that physical play is no longer useful in the modern NHL is endlessly advanced by most media outlets nowadays, but it simply isn’t true. The Rangers need to look no further than Vigneault’s decision to employ Tanner Glass liberally in the playoffs.
Glass was simply one of the Rangers’ best forwards during the Ottawa series, changing the complexion of it with his hitting and relentless forechecking while bringing edge and spark to a team starved for it. Glass was so effective that the Senators were forced to insert 37-year-old goon Chris Neil into the lineup for the sole purpose of neutralizing him, with Neil playing a whole nine shifts over the final two games of the series. Forcing an opponent to react to you rather than the other way around is generally a winning strategy in sports, isn’t it?
If Vigneault still isn’t certain that he needs to add some muscle up front, he might want to take a walk down memory lane to 2013-14. Perhaps largely forgotten now or even under-appreciated then, a crucial element in that team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final was its formidable fourth line.
With Dominic Moore at center, playoff warrior Brian Boyle on the left and Derek Dorsett or Daniel Carcillo on the right, Vigneault could change the tone and pace set by his high-octane top three lines by deploying this unit — as he often did that season, to generally excellent results.
That injection of physical play allowed those Rangers to keep opponents off balance and prevented them from defending the same way shift after shift. Moore, Boyle and Dorsett/Carcillo brought edge and hitting, but also some speed and skill that put other teams on their heels, forcing those opponents to try to handle a formidable fourth line that was anything but a bunch of guys who got an occasional spin around the rink. They were of course at their most effective in the more physical postseason, when the voices that proclaim hitting to be all but finished in the NHL always tend to pipe down.
What makes this potential fix all the more appealing is that the solutions are right there for the taking.
First, Gorton could bring back Glass on a low-cost, one-year contract, continuing the 33-year-old’s redemption tour from forgotten man in the minors until late in the season to valued member of the roster. He doesn’t have to play every game, he shouldn’t play in big situations, but he can be added to the lineup when desired. Long layoffs don’t hurt Glass’ game and might even help it, as evidenced by his startling effectiveness when he rejoined the club in March and into the playoffs. There’s no risk in re-signing him, and no reason not to.
Speaking of 2013-14 (and old friend Neil), how about a familiar face to join Glass at center? Boyle can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 after finishing up last season with Toronto following a deal with Tampa Bay before the deadline. Boyle wasn’t great with the Maple Leafs, recording three assists and a minus-2 rating, but he had a strong season overall with 13 goals, 12 assists and a plus-3 rating in 75 games.
The big guy didn’t leave the Rangers as a free agent on the best terms three years ago, hinting that he wanted more responsibility, but time heals all wounds, right? A two-year reunion with the 32-year-old who loved playing in New York seems anything but a long shot or a bad move.
As for the final forward spot, it’s anyone’s guess. The Rangers are so loaded with skilled forwards that one of them could end up in that spot, though it might be good to hunt around the bargain bin for another physical player who could join this theoretical grouping. The likely candidate for the spot regardless of personnel is frequent fourth-liner Jesper Fast, who should be on the roster next season following hip surgery that will probably remove him from consideration by Vegas in the expansion draft.
Plenty of change will have to occur for the Rangers to even have the chance to construct this kind of forward unit. The depth up front proved to be one of the team’s biggest advantages last season, but it was also apparent at times during the regular season and especially the playoffs that the fourth line morphed into nothing more than a dumping ground for skill guys who weren’t getting top-nine assignments. More often than not, the club overwhelmed opponents by rolling four strong lines; too often, though, the Rangers were too homogenous, sending four similar forward units at the opposition.
A new-look defense almost certainly means the departure of some of the Rangers’ young forwards in trades, and incumbent fourth-line pivot Oscar Lindberg seems the odds-on favorite to depart in the expansion draft. Spots up front will probably be open.
If the Rangers are determined to make meaningful changes, this muscle makeover qualifies and can be accomplished for relatively little of the club’s approximately $10 million in cap room – without compromising the team’s philosophy. The purpose of a fourth line is still to provide a change of pace. Even the Rangers, who epitomize the go-go nature of today’s NHL, should be painfully aware how much they need a new one.