Before the puck dropped on the 2012-13 season, it wasn't hard to find prognosticators willing to say the New York Rangers were going to win the Stanley Cup. On this web site alone, six experts picked the Rangers to reach their first Cup Final since 1994 with three of them choosing the Rangers to win it all.
It wasn't tough to see why the Rangers were among the favorites to win the Cup. They were coming off a season in which they finished first in the Eastern Conference with 109 points and reached the conference finals. The Rangers did it all with a young, developing core and appeared to improve in the offseason, adding Rick Nash in a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets without losing a top-six forward or key defenseman in free agency in the process.
An unexpected bonus to the offseason was the delayed start to the season, which allowed Marian Gaborik to recover from shoulder surgery that would have sidelined him for at least the first month of the season.
Yet through 27 games, the Rangers are 13-12-2 and sitting in 10th place in the East, three points out of a playoff spot. They have lost three in a row in regulation for the first time this season, and despite the addition of Nash, are scoring fewer goals per game this season (2.33) than they did last season (2.71).
There are many reasons why the Rangers aren't living up to expectations, those outside and inside the locker room, and here's a look at why a Stanley Cup Playoff spot -- never mind a trip to the Final -- is far from a guarantee with 21 games remaining.
Nash came at a higher cost than expected
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 23
SOG: 99 | +/-: 10
Dig up any column that was written around the time the Rangers traded for Nash, and it's very likely the story will talk about how Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson was fleeced by Rangers general manager Glen Sather. However, the early returns are showing that deal wasn't as lopsided as it seemed.
The Rangers gave up a pair of third-line forwards, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, minor-league defenseman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft in order to acquire an elite scorer in Nash. Howson was roasted for not making the deal at the 2012 trade deadline, when he reportedly could have received more than he did in late July, and he eventually lost his job this season.
With an eye on adding Nash and his $7.8 million cap hit once the offseason began, the Rangers were forced to make some tough decisions about their free-agent depth forwards. Brandon Prust said he wanted to stay in New York, but he couldn't say no to a four-year, $10 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens. Forward Ruslan Fedotenko received a slight raise with his one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Forward John Mitchell, a fourth-line center who played 63 games with the Rangers last season, saw his salary nearly double when he agreed to a two-year, $2.2 million deal with the Colorado Avalanche.
Nash has been terrific -- he has nine goals and 23 points in 23 games -- and carried the Rangers for most of the first half of the season. Even when he had just two goals during his first 10 games, he was using his size, speed and skill to create chances for teammates. But the lack of offense from the Rangers' bottom-six forwards has been a problem and their downfall in many of their losses.
Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan and Nash comprise the Rangers' top-six forward group. Removing them from the equation, the Rangers have received a total of nine goals from their forwards in 27 games, with two of those nine goals coming on the power play. Taylor Pyatt has four goals, but three have come during his brief stints while playing as a top-six forward, with the fourth coming on a power play.At 5-on-5, the Rangers' bottom two lines are not winning the scoring battle on most nights.
Meanwhile, the forwards the Rangers lost from their roster during the offseason either have improved or held steady offensively with their new clubs. Dubinsky has a goal and nine points in 17 games; Anisimov has six goals in 20 games; Fedotenko has a goal and eight points in 29 games; Prust has four goals and nine points in 25 games; and Mitchell has eight goals and 13 points in 25 games.
Individually, the departures of those role players didn't seem like a huge loss, but they have totaled 20 goals in more expansive roles with their new teams than they had in 2011-12. The Rangers found success last season with a team that was greater than the sum of its parts, and many of those parts are playing far better than their replacements.
A preseason Calder Trophy candidate, Chris Kreider has spent the majority of the 2012-13 season with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford. (Photo: Getty Images)
Arron Asham has one goal and hasn't played in nearly a month because of a back injury. Jeff Halpern has one point in 27 games. Pyatt had three goals in his first four games, but just one in his past 23. Darroll Powe, acquired from the Minnesota Wild in February for Mike Rupp, has helped solidify the penalty kill but has zero points in 24 games, the past 16 with the Rangers.
Chris Kreider was considered a Calder Trophy candidate after scoring five goals in 18 Stanley Cup Playoff games last year, but he was assigned to the American Hockey League after posting just one goal and one assist in 11 games. Fellow rookie J.T. Miller has played a steady overall game, but has only two goals and two assists in 19 games.
Forward Brian Boyle has been a healthy scratch four times and has just one goal and one assist in 23 games after scoring 11 goals last season.
Injuries also have exposed the Rangers' lack of depth. Stu Bickel, a defenseman by trade, has served as a fourth-line forward in 10 games this season. The Rangers have turned to the likes of Brandon Segal, Brandon Mashinter, Benn Ferriero, Kris Newbury and 20-year-old prospect Christian Thomas to fill holes with key forwards out of the lineup for brief stints. Those six players have one assist in 28 combined games.
Matt Gilroy and Steve Eminger served as the Rangers' extra defensemen to start the season. But with Marc Staal out indefinitely with an eye injury, the Rangers claimed Roman Hamrlik off waivers. The 38-year-old Hamrlik has been ineffective in his four games (zero points, three shots, minus-2) and has received limited ice time as he tries to improve his fitness levels after sitting most of the season.
The Rangers opened the season with five new forwards among their usual group of 12, and whether it's a lack of chemistry or a decline in overall talent, the depth that was there in 2011-12 nearly has vanished in 2012-13.
With Nash in the fold, the Rangers became a top-heavy offense, especially when it comes to salary. Nash, Gaborik and Richards combine for a cap hit that is a shade under $22 million, but their play in the first two weeks of the season justified those numbers and had some arguing they were the best line in hockey.
But while Nash excelled no matter who was on his line, Richards and Gaborik lost their way and have yet to return to form.
Richards had two goals and four assists in his first five games; he has two goals and six assists in his last 20 games. Gaborik had five goals and three assists in his first five games; he has three goals and six assists in his last 22 games.
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Tortorella has said that the Rangers need their best players to be their best players, and he has benched Richards and Gaborik on separate occasions for their poor play. Shuffling lines hasn't worked, either: Tortorella has used Richards with a slew of forwards to no avail and even has used Gaborik as a third-line forward for a few games.
It all came to a head following a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, when Tortorella took a flamethrower to his team for losing a game he felt his team never should have lost.
"I'm not going to give Buffalo any credit," Tortorella said to reporters in Buffalo. "Well, I will give their third line credit. They outplayed our top players, and that can't happen. I couldn't be more disgusted and disappointed with the way our top guys played, the way we handled ourselves through it."
Richards has looked slow and unsure of himself at times, especially when carrying the puck in the neutral zone. Gaborik's once-deadly snap shot seems to have less steam on it than it had when he first arrived in New York as a free agent in 2009, and the 31-year-old has just one goal in his past 14 games.
Confidence appears to be the biggest issue for both players right now, and for most of the team in general. If they don't figure out a way to recapture it, the Rangers are going to be hard-pressed for offense the rest of the season.
Safe is turning into death
When Tortorella won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, the team had what has become a legendary motto: "Safe Is Death." Those words were on a sign that was hung in their locker room by Tortorella, and in an era when teams were clutching and grabbing their way to success, the Lightning used an aggressive, never-sit-back style to win the franchise's first championship.
Since Tortorella took over as Rangers coach during the 2008-09 season, safe has been the life blood of the team.
It's unfair to criticize Tortorella for instilling a defense-first, shot-blocking mentality into the Rangers when he arrived in New York. He was handed the reins to a team that was young, lacked mental toughness and didn't play the game "the right way," as Tortorella likes to say.
As the years passed, Tortorella's teams began to take on his image. The Rangers grew into a resilient team that didn't wilt at the first sign of adversity. They are tough in their own zone and below the goal lines at both ends. Getting through the neutral zone and finding room in the offensive zone against the Rangers was a nightmare for teams last season, a sign that the Rangers finally had grown up, as they were playing the game "the right way" more than ever.
The Rangers' coach since 2008-09, John Tortorella has instilled a defense-first, shot-blocking mentality that they still employ, despite having a deeper offensive presence on the roster. (Photo: Getty Images)
It was a playing style that was a necessity during Tortorella's early years, as the Rangers lacked a lot of top-end talent and getting into run-and-gun contests with teams would not have been advantageous. Even after Gaborik arrived as a free agent in 2009, he was the lone game breaker on an inexperienced club that still was finding its way.
This season's team has all the ingredients for a club to be more aggressive, to take more chances and be able to win. The Rangers' top-six forwards are responsible defensively and among the most talented and quickest in the League. Coupled with a strong group of defensemen (that was much stronger before Staal's eye injury) and a reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Henrik Lundqvist, opening things up a little more would seem to make sense.
While the Rangers do their share of forechecking, usually they are content to sit back and wait to capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents in the neutral zone, especially once they secure a lead. It's a philosophy that almost always pays dividends against lesser opponents, as they are the teams more likely to commit costly mistakes. But against teams that are less likely to cough up the puck on their own side of the red line, that strategy has not been working.
The Rangers are 10-2-1 against the six Eastern Conference clubs currently outside of the top eight. However, against East teams currently in a playoff position, the Rangers are just 3-10-1, with two of those wins coming in January.
It's a carryover from last season's playoffs, when their penchant for playing things close to the vest resulted in a pair of seven-game series against the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals, two inferior clubs who were happy to play that same style against the East's top seed. But when the Rangers were matched against a New Jersey Devils team that furiously forechecked and was ultra-aggressive, the Rangers' tired legs combined with fewer mistakes by the opposition led to a six-game loss to their rivals.
The Devils used a "safe is death" mentality to vanquish the coach that popularized the sentiment.
The notion that the Rangers should part ways with Tortorella this season is premature and unfair. The team rewarded his work following the 2011 season with a three-year extension through 2013-14, and Tortorella rewarded the team's faith the following season by getting the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997.
The Rangers are a tough, resilient team largely because of Tortorella. The players have shown frustration this season, sure, but their effort on the ice hasn't diminished and they show no signs of a team that has quit on its coach. To fire Tortorella because of a sub-par 27, 30 or 48 games seems very unlikely and counter-productive.
Of the Rangers' final 21 games this season, 12 are against the East's top eight teams. If the Rangers don't adjust their philosophy, they likely will be counting on defense and the mistakes of others to make a push to the playoffs.
Perhaps this is who the Rangers are
A team doesn't reach 109 regular-season points without some breaks along the way. It's better to be lucky than good, the old saying goes, but for about three months last season, the Rangers were extremely lucky and good, according to advanced statistics.
On Oct. 30, the Rangers were 3-3-3, not exactly a stellar mark but an acceptable one with the team spending the first month on the road -- including a pair of games in Europe -- with Madison Square Garden undergoing renovations. But starting with a 5-2 home victory against the San Jose Sharks the next night, the Rangers enjoyed a dominant run that thrust them to the top of the standings.
From Oct. 31 to Jan. 10, the Rangers went 24-6-1, picking up 49 of a possible 62 points. That translates into 130 points over an 82-game season, and that stretch -- along with a 10-4-1 roll that followed -- cemented the Rangers as one of the NHL's top teams.
A look at the Rangers' PDO during that 46-game clip shows it may have been more of a mirage than a trend that was likely to continue. PDO is a five-on-five statistic tracked by Gabriel Desjardins of behindthenet.ca, and it is defined by Desjardins as "the sum of on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage while a player was on the ice. It regresses very heavily to the mean in the long-run: A team or player well above 1000 has generally played in good luck and should expect to drop going forward and vice-versa."
During that 34-10-2 stretch, the Rangers had a PDO of 1033, an unsustainable figure that regressed over the final six weeks of the season, when they finished 14-11-2 in their final 27 games. The leaders in PDO in 2011-12, the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, finished the 82-game season at 1014.
Last season the Rangers had a PDO of 1010, the sixth-best mark in the NHL and the best they've had under Tortorella. The numbers indicate that last season was more of an outlier than an indicator that the Rangers were ready to take the next step this season.
When Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy, he did so with a .930 save percentage, his best mark in that category in eight seasons. But from Oct. 31 to Feb. 14, he was in another stratosphere, posting a .944 save percentage (.952 at 5-on-5) and six of his eight shutouts.
After a career season in 2011-12, Lundqvist is putting up solid numbers in 2012-13, but nothing like last season. He ranks eighth in save percentage among regular starting goaltenders, but hasn't been anywhere near as dominant as he was last season, when he was carrying the Rangers for months at a time.
With the Rangers scoring fewer goals this season, it doesn't take an advanced statistic expert to figure out that translates into more losses. But a look at the Rangers' PDO the past four seasons shows maybe everyone should have been ready for this type of season.
The Rangers' PDO in 2009-10, when the club missed the postseason by a point with a 38-33-11 record, was 1005, ninth in the League. In 2010-11, when the Rangers qualified as the No. 8 seed with a 44-33-5 mark, their PDO was 1007, seventh in the League. This season the Rangers' PDO is 1003, good for 11th. That's a sign there is room from improvement based on past data, but those figures are based on an 82-game season, not a 48-game season. That leaves less time for the numbers to correct themselves.
Since that 34-10-2 run that ended Feb. 14, 2012, the Rangers are 37-33-4, which includes a 10-10 mark in last year's playoffs. That translates into a points percentage of .527, a number that's a lot closer to what the Rangers did in Tortorella's first two full seasons than what occurred last season.
The Rangers are a team that relies heavily on capitalizing on bounces that go their way. The numbers show that this season there have been fewer bounces going their way and fewer instances of the Rangers capitalizing on them.
If that doesn't change for the better, the Rangers could finish with one of the more surprising postseason misses in recent history.