The New York Rangers are getting healthy again, and that means the offense should be clicking. But what does the return of Nash and Zibanejad mean for the Rangers’ play in their own zone?
It is no secret that the New York Rangers have some issues on the blueline. For years, people who pay attention to advanced stats have been screaming that the Rangers need improvement on the back end. Last year, with the disastrous playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins fully exposing the Rangers’ issues on defense, even the people who prefer “stay-at-home” defensemen like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal had to admit that there were problems in New York.
Last year, with the disastrous playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins fully exposing the Rangers’ issues on defense, even the people who prefer “stay-at-home” defensemen like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal had to admit that there were problems in New York.
When Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton traded away Keith Yandle and acquired Nick Holden from the Avalanche this past summer, the consensus was that the Rangers would struggle again.
Spoiler alert: they’re struggling again.
Outside of the always-steady Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers have a bunch of borderline second/third pairing defensemen and a couple who may or may not be NHL-quality at all. Tuesday night’s debacle against the Dallas Stars was just the most visible example of how flawed the Rangers are on the blue line.
The result has been a much-increased emphasis on the forwards using their speed to play a 200-foot game and help out low in the defensive zone.
Early in the season, this strategy was working well. The Rangers’ remarkable offensive depth meant that head coach Alain Vigneault could bury opposing teams with endless waves of skill coming over the boards. Skaters like Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, and Jesper Fast were playing on the fourth line, with predictably positive results.
But when the injuries began to mount, even with reasonably good depth replacements coming into the lineup like Marek Hrivik and Matt Puempel, the Rangers started getting exposed.
They couldn’t run four lines of skill and wear teams down with a 200-foot speed game. The losses of Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich—two-thirds of the Rangers’ most explosive line early in the season—and noted two-way monster Rick Nash were felt keenly.
May 22, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers left wing Rick Nash skates across the center ice logo before game three of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
However, this past week saw the returns of Nash and Buchnevich; Zibanejad took the ice for the first time since November 20th. The three formed a line and immediately provided the kind of depth, speed, and two-way acumen the Rangers used to so much effect in October and November.
Indeed, the line combined for 3 goals, 4 assists, and a plus-4 rating in their first game together. With a tighter effort from the defense and continued contributions at both ends of the rink from the forwards, the Rangers can still be a deadly team.
After two months of staying afloat in the league-best Metropolitan Division, the Rangers are healthy. Zibanejad and Nash are the types of players who will help the Rangers do more than just keep above the water line—they’ll help the Rangers prove they can play with the league’s best.