By Stu Hackel
You can't make the Stanley Cup playoffs in October, but you certainly can miss them. Play badly enough in the early going -- drift too far off course during the season's first month -- and it's possible you'll never be able to navigate back into contention. That's what the New York Rangers are facing.
Wise observers of the NHL's frozen waters always caution against over-reacting to results this early, claiming to need about 10 contests to fairly evaluate a team. It's a fair point and the Rangers have played only half that number. But they've played terribly -- and look completely lost on the ice.
This is a team considered by many to be one of the NHL's better outfits. The Hockey News, for example, picked them to finish second in the Metropolitan Division. But under new coach Alain Vigneault, the former Vancouver coach who essentially swapped places with John Tortorella, the Rangers have lost four of five and looked spectacularly bad doing so, especially over the last three in which they were outscored by a combined 20-5.
What's wrong? Nearly everything. They're not scoring much, not defending well and not getting good goaltending. Clearly lacking confidence, they have trouble putting two good passes together, they turn over the puck to the opposition at very inopportune moments and they always seem outnumbered in their own end, even when the teams are at even strength. The one game in which they played solidly -- a 3-1 win in Los Angeles in their second outing of the season -- was followed the next night by the awful 9-2 spanking from San Jose, a game made famous thanks to Tomas Hertl's between-the-legs shot for his fourth goal of the game. As more than a few commentators pointed out, Hertl didn't embarrass the Rangers that night as much as they embarrassed themselves with a shocking lack of effort.
In recent seasons, the Rangers -- renowned as a character team -- would bounce right back from a stinker, but not this time. A better effort still didn't get results two nights later in Anaheim, a 6-0 loss. Captain Ryan Callahan called it "unacceptable," adding, "I expected a little bit more from the group after what happened in San Jose and we didn't get that."
Then it was on to St. Louis last Saturday, where the Blues tagged New York with a 5-3 loss. After that one, the weary road team could only console themselves with having played decently for a stretch of the second period and keeping the score close, although by the third period of their fourth game in six nights they were spent, decisively outshot and outclassed.
The Rangers' problems start in their own end: They've allowed 25 goals, tied for worst in the league with the always-porous Edmonton Oilers. However, sloppy "D" is not part of the Rangers' rep. Just the opposite. They had the fourth best goals-against mark in last year's shortened campaign, and third best in the season before that. In fact, in every year of the salary cap era, dating back to 2005-06, the Rangers have been among the 10 best defensive teams in the regular schedule, often in the top five.
What has changed? At the root is Vigneault's new scheme for the Rangers defense. Tortorella restricted how far defensemen could wander up the ice, and once the other team got possession, he instructed the Rangers to fall back into their end and collapse around the net, pretty much setting up a zone defense. The idea was to keep the opposition to the perimeter and for the Rangers to use their bodies to block shots and passes. It worked well, getting them to the Conference Championship round two years ago, two wins short of the Cup finals.
Vigneault has let the defensemen roam more offensively and abandoned the zone coverage for man-on-man coverage. He encourages defensemen to pressure the puck carrier along the boards and in the corners, asking forwards to be more responsible in front of the net. But his team has yet to adjust and is often alarmingly caught out of position. Time and again, opposition forwards don't get picked up, escaping from Rangers checking for a pass or rebound, too many of which end up in the net, like this goal last week by the Ducks Ryan Getzlaf…
…or this deflection goal by the Blues David Backes, who was unchecked driving to the net…
…or all four goals 19-year-old Hertl scored in his amazing night of Oct. 8...
The plus-minus stats for some of the Rangers top defensemen reflect how badly things have gone for them: Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are both minus-7. Michael Del Zotto is minus-6 and Ryan McDonagh is minus-5. All were plus players last year except Girardi, who routinely plays against other teams' best forwards, and he was just minus-1.
This surplus of quality scoring opportunities has created difficulties for All-Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who has been sub-par in his response thus far. You expect a goalie of Lundqvist's caliber to make all the saves he should and steal a few that he shouldn't, but that's not how he's playing right now. "I have to be better and step up here and try to help everyone," Lunqvist acknowledged. Some believe that Lundqvist's struggles can be traced to the smaller goal pads the NHL has mandated this season -- for his part, the goalie said last month that, while feeling a bit quicker in the new gear, "I feel like I'm covering less area." His backup, Marty Biron, fared badly in his only start on Saturday, allowing some routine shots to leak through him before Lundqvist took over for the last 20 minutes.
It's possible that Tortorella was able to succeed with this team because his defense-first system fit the Rangers' collective talents and what Vigneault wants to accomplish -- more skating, more creativity with the puck -- may be a stretch for them. Or it could be that Tortorella's constant and legendary badgering was the only way to get the best out of this group. Or it could be that once the Rangers figure out the new system, they'll flourish again.
It might help if they were able to practice what Vigneault is preaching, but they have had little time for that. They were on the road since the third week in September, playing the end of the preseason and the start of the regular schedule entirely out West as Madison Square Garden wraps up its three-year renovation project. They slept in 11 different cities over 25 days before finally flying back to New York after losing in St. Louis. And they still won't play on home ice until Oct. 28, traveling first to division foes Washington, New Jersey and Philadelphia. At least those are quick trips.
The other good news for Rangers Nation is that those teams -- and everyone except Pittsburgh in the newly formed Metropolitan Division -- are also struggling to varying degrees. The Capitals goaltending has not been good and they have trouble scoring five-on-five. The Devils have trouble scoring at all. The Hurricanes lack depth on defense, as do the Flyers -- plus Philly has injury problems at forward. The Blue Jackets and the young Islanders are still searching for consistency.
So the Rangers' misery has company. But the new playoff format may do this sorry grouping no favors. The top three teams in both the Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions will qualify for postseason play and the remaining two playoff clubs will be wild cards -- the two best remaining records in the Eastern Conference. The Atlantic appears to be a much stronger division top to bottom and could yield five clubs. So if the star-studded Penguins stay healthy and productive to finish first, that means only two of the remaining seven Metropolitan teams will be playoff-bound. Unless they all continue to fail, any team that doesn't recover from a bad start will be doomed.
Of course, there's a lot of hockey to be played. The Rangers -- and any of their fellow Metropolitan messes -- could right their ship and sail into the spring tournament. It's way too soon to panic.
But it's not too soon to be concerned.
The former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.