Heading into this season, it's fair to say both the New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks had pretty high expectations. But these two teams have gone in opposite directions as they've opened the final month of 2013. And the reason behind the Rangers' struggles and Ducks' success can be pinpointed to a few basic principles.
Right now it's a very critical time for the Rangers. It's New York. It's an Original Six team. It's the biggest market in the NHL. The Rangers have got to get in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and their current franchise-record nine-game homestand is the perfect place to start that run.
Unfortunately, they started the homestand with an 0-3-1 record, including a 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
They're playing an inconsistent brand of hockey right now. The saving grace for them is they know they can play better, and they're in the Eastern Conference and not the West. My challenge with the Rangers right now, based on their makeup, is I don’t know if they have enough skill to be a purely skilled team and I don't think they're gritty enough throughout their lineup to be able to play a power game. They're caught in between. They're capable of doing both of those things well. But what are they committed to?
Chris Kreider has made major strides this season, but is one of few playing up to their potential. (Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI)
We've seen some strides. Brad Richards has been their most consistent forward. Chris Kreider has made major leaps this year and is playing well. Mats Zuccarello has been a great value piece. But there are a lot of guys who leave you wanting a lot more. A lot of guys are not playing up to their potential right now, and can and should be better. They're not getting enough offensive plays consistently from their defense. They're not making enough east-west plays. And when they were going well, they were doing a lot of those things, especially making more east-west passes using the width of the rink. Right now they're stagnant offensively, they're too predictable.
With Ryan Callahan out 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee and Marc Staal out indefinitely with a concussion, it's certainly going to be a big challenge for them to turn it around. But even if those guys are healthy, Callahan is not playing the way Callahan fully can play. He has another two or three levels to his game. Obviously it's been tough for Staal coming off the concussion and the eye injury, but he hasn't fully rediscovered his form. But at the end of the day, there are guys who can and need to be better than they have been in that lineup. That's the bottom line.
Cam Talbot has been amazing and Henrik Lundqvist has been fairly good by his standard, but do you expect your goalies to put up a .940 save percentage every night? That's a pretty tall order. The other guys get paid on the first and the 15th too.
Is it personnel? Yes, it's personnel. But it's also mindset. Look at the way the Los Angeles Kings own the boards all the time. The Chicago Blackhawks don't have guys playing up front that are huge. They still play a skill game, but it has a power element to it. The team I think the Rangers can embody is the Anaheim Ducks. Like the Rangers, they have world-class talent. But they also have role players that can do it all too.
A few under-the-radar players that are playing very good hockey are in Anaheim, especially Daniel Winnik and Andrew Cogliano.
Talking to the star players on the Ducks, like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, those guys are happy that a lot of these guys continue to get better. Winnik played very well with the Colorado Avalanche, but has improved a lot since coming to Anaheim. Cogliano was a solid player with the Edmonton Oilers, but his game is continuing to improve and round out in Anaheim.
One tangible example of Anaheim's role players complementing their stars is the sick goal Perry scored the other night against the New York Islanders with two seconds remaining in the second period. That was a great play that he made going down to his knees. But look at the way Winnik drives the defense back on that play. He basically had his helmet taken off, but he drove the D toward the net to open that seam for Perry and also distracted Anders Nilsson in the crease. As much as you had the artistry and unbelievable talent of Corey Perry, you still had the blue-collar work from Winnik. You don't see enough of that from the New York Rangers.
You can see some of those secondary guys, including Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bonino, want to improve. They don't want to just be on the penalty kill. They take pride in having those roles, but it's not just about being in those roles.
For the Rangers right now, some of those guys in those roles need to be a lot better.