During the NHL lockout in 2004-05, leadership was a quality that the New York Rangers targeted for improvement. For years before then, they signed any big name free agent that agreed to play in New York without considering team chemistry. This culture shift did not happen overnight, but they at least narrowed their player search down a bit as of the lockout. This new era included the signings of Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, and Brad Richards.
Those players were brought in to provide the Rangers with a quality they were lacking in those pre-lockout years and bring a sense of accountability and discipline to an organization that wanted to contend. It was a noble effort by the front office to attempt to course correct a franchise. Unfortunately, those players were past their prime and the contracts they received did not match their production on the ice. However, the Rangers tapped into something that they would later build on.
Cut to the next generation of leaders. Guys like Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Ryan McDonagh brought a combination of on-ice leadership and overall talent. And they were not washed up old guys but young, upcoming talent. Stepan and Staal were draft picks. Girardi an undrafted free agent. And McDonagh came over in a trade that sent Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens.
Derek Stepan needs just one goal to move up the franchise’s all-time list. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
However, over this past offseason, the team bought out Girardi and traded away Stepan. Two of their long-time leaders. On paper, these seemed like good moves. Girardi was getting long in the tooth and the wear and tear on his body was becoming noticeable. The Rangers sent Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for some youth: a first round pick and young defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.
But as we sit here today, the Rangers have lost five of their opening six games. What stands out most is just how sloppy they are with the puck. Someone, somewhere, needs to step up and right this ship. Otherwise, the Rangers could be in for a lost season.
Sloppiness on the Puck Continues
Over the last two games, the Rangers started well. Against both the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, they opened the scoring. However, they could not hold onto those leads and dropped both games.
In last night’s game against the New Jersey Devils, the Rangers came out blazing. Dominating the Devils in the first, a period that has been an issue thus far, they out-shot them 14-3. Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid was the difference between a Rangers lead and a tie game. Then, early in the second period, the Rangers finally broke through on a Rick Nash goal.
With the way the Rangers were playing, it seemed as though that goal could be the start of something. Well, it was a start. Just not for the Rangers. Instead, the Devils used that goal to turn the game around. After that Nash goal, which occurred at the 5:31 mark of the period, the Rangers only managed one more shot on goal the rest of the period. The Devils took control and ended the period with a 2-1 lead. A lead they did not give up.
The goal that tied the game was the result of a sloppy turnover by David Desharnais, who failed to clear the puck in his zone. Then, a few minutes later, the Devils took the lead off another turnover. This one produced by DeAngelo, the young defenseman who came over for Stepan.
Sure, on that second goal the puck took about three deflections, including one off the post, but that is the sort of poor luck you should get on such poor clearance. If you can’t do the simple basics of clearing the puck out of your zone, you don’t deserve to win and both of those turnovers came under minimal pressure, which only makes the issue worse.
Who Steps Up?
Losing five out of six games is not an insurmountable hole, but man, is it getting close. And it’s not just the fact that they are losing. Bad streaks happen, even at the beginning of a season. But it is the fact that they are playing with a casualness that has rarely been seen in New York. Something is off. Maybe this is really just a poor streak where all the warts are showing at one time. Or maybe this is something bigger. We will find out soon.
With that said, someone needs to step up for the Rangers. Before the season started, Mats Zuccarello received the “A” on his jersey. This action came along with much praise for the diminutive Norwegian, who is a fan favorite on and off the ice for the Rangers. However, his early stint as an alternate captain is not going so well. If you get the “A”, you are looked on for leadership. Now is the time to display exactly why you received that honor.
The next culprit is Nash, who was honored with alternate captain duties last season. Nash has been a polarizing figure on the Rangers, as many feel he is not living up to his contract, which pays him nearly $8 million a year. But say what you want, Nash has demonstrated a good two-way ability in New York and is even counted on to kill penalties. But again, you receive the “A,” you are expected to lead the team out of slumps like this.
New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh and New York Islanders left wing Josh Bailey (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Lastly, we come to Ryan McDonagh, who is entering his fourth season as captain of the Rangers. For better or for worse, all eyes ultimately end up on the captain of the team, no matter the sport. It comes with the job. McDonagh has a team-leading 22:55 time-on-ice to start the year and has an expected plus-2.2, which is far an away the best on the team. Desharnais comes in second with an expected plus-1.1.
McDonagh, on the ice, is doing all he can and it may be unfair to scrutinize him too much. He is playing well and can only do so much as one player on a hockey team. But panic will set in soon if the Rangers continue to flounder and turn pucks over. As the captain of the team, he needs to change the attitude of the club more than anything. The casualness and poor defensive play need to stop.
Leadership is most apparent during trying times and these are as trying as any point in McDonagh’s career. Answers need to come from somewhere and that somewhere is him. The Rangers face a tough test Tuesday night when they take on the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. Expect an anxious home crowd as the Rangers look to bounce back.