Examining the impact of the newest New York Rangers
It’s been quite the start to the season for the New York Rangers. Ten wins from 13 fixtures, including eight of the past nine games, sees the Blueshirts sitting 2nd in the East and tied with the upstart Vancouver Canucks for 4th overall across the NHL.
The Rangers are playing splendid hockey right now, scoring for fun on the power play and proving miserly at the other end of the ice. Artemi Panarin is in the early throws of what looks like a career year and the youngsters are (mostly) finally starting to grow into themselves.
New York didn’t make any major off-season trades, but did make free agency moves around the edges of the roster. Those players have, on the whole, shown their worth since arriving on Broadway, too. That’s where our spotlight shines today: On the newest Rangers; both new to the club and those that have broken through from the minors.
Before we look at the players, though, let’s talk about the Rangers’ most important addition: Head coach Peter Laviolette.
The veteran coach, who has been leading NHL benches for more than two decades, despite being only 58-years-old, played the entirety of his 12-game NHL career with the Rangers, so his appointment was a homecoming of sorts. As a Stanley Cup-winning coach who has made the playoffs in 12 of his 18 seasons, Laviolette was always going to bring a certain gravitas to the bench, no matter his playing history.
Whilst Gerard Gallant did enjoy some success with the team through his stint behind the bench, he appeared to have lost the squad early last season and, despite a solid overall regular season, the team played with little zip and flair, looking as though hockey was just a job rather than their sport. That manifested itself in a frankly insipid effort against the New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the playoffs, where the team seemed to give up on their season.
Laviolette instantly installed more accountability into the locker room, as well as instigated much more conditioning work through the preseason. Both of these factors have impacted the way the Rangers play defense this season.
The Rangers were 4th in the NHL in goals conceded last season and 6th in shots conceded. Both numbers have improved this season, though neither dramatically. Where the Rangers’ stylistic changes have had an impact is in high-danger chances conceded per 60 minutes. Last season, New York was 18th in that particular metric, as per Natural Stat Trick and has improved to 11th this season, cutting down by over two chances per game.
Previously, the team simply went out to score and relied on Igor Shesterkin to bail them out, which he often did. That lack of a defensive system showed, though, whenever Shesterkin sat. Jaroslav Halak was awful last season and even Alexander Georgiev, the excellent backstop that he has proven to be, struggled in comparison to Shesterkin in his time as a Ranger. It’s no accident that new backup Jonathan Quick has rediscovered his touch with the defense playing so solidly in front of him.
That’s not to say that Laviolette is playing defensive hockey, far from it, in fact. The new coach is encouraging a defenseman to pinch into the play with a winger dropping deeper into the offensive zone as cover along the boards. The result is better puck retention and in turn less quality possession for the opposition.
Let’s turn our attention to the players, though…
Blake Wheeler – Free Agent from Winnipeg Jets
Despite his advanced age, Wheeler was by quite a way the highest-profile offseason signee by the Rangers. He’s been an All-Star and has both Selke and even some Hart votes on his resume. Whilst he is well past his prime, the long-time Winnipeg captain was coming off a 55-point campaign and was seen as a perfect insurance option for the Rangers’ weak right flank if the likes of Kaapo Kakko didn’t start to take off.
He started on the 3rd line and, whilst playing fairly well, just couldn’t get that opening goal or even opening point out of the way. That did lead to some murmurings of discontent from sections of the Rangers fan base, but it has to be said that Wheeler wasn’t playing badly – he just wasn’t scoring.
Now, with Kakko unable to find his scoring touch, Wheeler has been moved to the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad and … voila! He has a goal and an assist in three games. His goal in the Rangers’ last game against Minnesota could prove instructive as to how Wheeler could carve out his piece of real estate as a Blueshirt.
Wheeler’s skating has slowed somewhat over the years but he remains a massive unit at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. On this play he planted his frame in front of the net and scored a very Kreider-esque power play goal, screening the initial shot before slamming home the rebound from the follow-up shot.
With 262 career goals to his name, Wheeler’s instincts and touch are still intact. He could be the Kreider play-alike that allows New York to replicate its two power-play units.
Erik Gustafsson – Free Agent from Toronto Maple Leafs
A former 4th round pick of the Oilers – though he never played a game for them – Gustafsson has proved one of the best pound-for-pound signings of the season in the entire NHL to this point.
Whilst he started the season well, giving the Rangers 3rd defensive pairing – alongside the impressive youngster Braden Schneider – some offensive pop, he’s proven worth his weight in gold over the past week.
Since star blueliner Adam Fox went down with injury against Carolina, Gustafsson has stepped up as the 1st unit power play quarterback whilst also switching over to play on the right next to Ryan Lindgren in five-on-five action.
He was great against the Canes and in the three games since has picked a goal and four assists, taking his tally to nine points in 13 appearances. He’s currently on course for a 57-point season, which would fall just three shy of his 2019 career-high total and mark just the 2nd time he’s passed the 50-point plateau.
His smooth skating playmaking and underrated work in his own zone have made the absence of the Rangers’ best player hurt a whole lot less than it otherwise may have.
Jonathan Quick – Free Agent from Las Vegas Golden Knights
A boyhood Ranger fan, Quick’s signing was seen by some as more than a touch sentimental given the way his play has dropped off as father time caught up. It could be the misty-eyed feeling of pulling on same the famous blue sweater that he wore as a kid, but Quick has been nothing short of phenomenal as Shesterkin’s backup so far this season.
There might be a more tangible reason for Quick’s turnaround, however. Famed Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has gained fame for his work with younger netminders but perhaps we’ve overlooked his ability to rejuvenate veterans.
Whatever the reason, three wins and an overtime loss from four starts, with a 1.77 GAA and .935 save percentage are nothing to be sneezed at (and, yes, all the usual small sample theatre rules apply).
Will Cuylle – Elevated from AHL
We’re perhaps cheating a touch here, given that Cuylle made four appearances for the top team last season, without registering a point. This season, though, the 21-year-old from Ontario has established himself as a tough, all-action 3rd line winger.
Despite his ‘tender years and lack of experience, Cuylle has been surprisingly solid on the defensive side of the puck.
“There’s always something, right, defensively? He’s done a really good job of using his size and his power and his physicality and his speed to play good defense,” Laviolette recently said of his young winger.
The key word there is “physicality.” Cuylle is listed as 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, though looks bigger than that on the ice. He’s not looked at all concerned about getting roughed up out there, throwing his weight around and proving a constant menace to the opposition.
He has five points as an ever-present for the Rangers this season and you don’t have to squint too hard to see the Kreider comparisons that were mentioned when he was drafted.
Nick Bonino – Free Agent from Pittsburgh Penguins.
The journeyman centre was signed for under a million dollars from Pittsburgh as, at best, a 4th line stop-gap and at the very least solid depth. The 35-year-old has appeared in every game for the Rangers, thus far and is doing exactly what has been asked of him.
A defensive specialist who has received Selke votes in the past, Bonino has centred the Rangers’ 4th line well and with injuries hitting the team of late, has moved up to man the middle of the 3rd line.
He’s yet to score a point but he’s been excellent in the face-off circle and has been Laviolette’s go-to man for the shift immediately after the Rangers concede. He’s also been fantastic on the Rangers’ top penalty-killing unit.
Tyler Pitlick – Free Agent from St Louis Blues
Pitlick probably expected to play more than he has since coming over from the Blues. Bonino’s defensive excellence and the emergence of Cuylle have seen the 32-year-old Pitlick often cast as the 13th forward. He’s a solid depth piece, if nothing else. In his limited ice time so far, he’s barely put a foot wrong.