“Clean Slate, Grab it!” With one simple message, head coach Alain Vigneault came into New York with a mantra that was supposed to change the often criticized culture of the New York Rangers. Gone would be the days of whipping boys, useless contracts, and dead weight players. A system that was ripped apart and ridiculed would be replaced with an offensive minded pace, that lead to more scoring, more puck possession and an overall better brand of hockey. Holes and weaknesses would be filled and fixed. The idea being, what you did in the past was irrelevant, and the players now would get a chance to go out and grab their place on the team.
Fast forward to now, one-third of the way through the season, and that slate is still marred with past failures. Whipping boys and dead weight players are still in the fold. While there have been some improvements, many of the holes and weaknesses that have been an issue in the past still haven’t been addressed. Team toughness is still lacking, a player who would deter other teams from running around is missing. The closest thing the Rangers have to a mean, crease clearing defenseman that brings an edge to the blue line is sitting behind the bench in a suit and tie. Most of all, secondary scoring, and a right-handed shot on the power play is all but nonexistent. The results: a different brand of hockey that looks all too familiar.
After Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Capitals, many fans and media members are calling for changes. The overwhelming feeling is that the players are complacent, there is no accountability and there needs to be a spark. The terms “Trade” and “Shake up” are being thrown around.
Personally, I agree that moves need to be made, but rather than trades, what if Vigneault actually gave players in the organization a chance to “grab” that opportunity, lead the charge and ignite the spark that changes the Rangers? I feel as if the answers to all their problems can be solved in-house, and by “in-house” I mean they need to go to Hartford and give four players that clean slate.
The way it is now, the 4th line is filled with marshmallows and dead weight. Derek Dorsett tries to play with an edge, but can’t do it all himself. Brian Boyle and Dom Moore do add value in the penalty kill, face offs, and for the most part you can count on them to do the right things, but the issue is they are they same player, with the same skill set. Lately, we have seen Taylor Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot buried on that line, almost acting as gate keepers. By now most Ranger fans have seen enough of Pyatt and Pouliot. They don’t add anything in terms of scoring, toughness or value to the team. When looking at the need for toughness and a spark, two names should immediately jump out to Rangers fans: Michael Haley and Stu Bickel.
I know, I know, Bickel? Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch. I’m sure by now you are pointing out that Bickel isn’t that great of a skater, has zero offensive upside and doesn’t even play forward! But what he does have is size, toughness, and a reputation. Down in Hartford, Bickel has bounced around the line up between defense and forward, and has shown improvements in his skating, positioning, and overall “Hockey IQ.” Bickel has also chipped in with eight points (1g, 7a), a plus three rating, and 52 penalty minutes. 42 of those penalty minuets are a result of fighting, which includes a 12 minute instigator for standing up for a teammate. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he should be an everyday player getting a lot of ice time. I’m saying that when the Rangers play teams like the Bruins, the Flyers and the Leafs, he would be a nice addition to the line up.
For more of an every day role that brings spark and toughness to the line up, Haley is the obvious choice. Haley is no stranger to fighting, mixing it up and being that guy who is willing to do anything for his team. If you need to see what Haley is about, Just watch this video , it should sum it up nicely. Down in Hartford, Haley has generally playing on the second line with the Wolf Pack. He plays on the penalty kill, he’s added five points (2 g 3A) and a minus one rating. He can play on the PK, he is responsible in his own zone, hits everything that moves, add in the fact that he is more known for his fighting ability and toughness than anything else makes this move hard to argue.
On the blue line, a transition is in place. Gone are the days of keeping everyone to the outside and blocking shots. Now all that is left are defenseman jumping in the rush, pinching in the offensive zone and more of a track meet style of hockey. Odd man rushes are common, lack of toughness is noticeable and most fans would kill for a stay home, crease clearing defenseman. Dylan McIlrath is the Rangers’ former first round pick who brings size, skill, and toughness into the mix; not to mention a mean and nasty attitude that these Rangers have looked for and the fans have called for. As far as the improvements happening down in Hartford, McIlrath is by far the most improved and is getting better everyday. The improvements he made on his skating and positioning on the ice are most notable, and the type that makes it hard argue against him getting a shot. He is making better decisions with the puck, faster decisions on his reads and anticipating plays instead of reacting to plays. This year already, McIlrath has set career highs with goals and points, (three goals and seven points ). If those stats aren’t good enough for you then standing 6’5 and weighting 230, fighting anyone and every one, hitting everything and destroying anyone that comes into the crease might speak better to you. Am I saying McIlrath needs to play 25 minutes a game in the top pair? No, but playing McIlrath 10-12 minutes on the bottom pair with John Moore would make for a great introduction into NHL hockey for the young-bred defenseman.
The final piece to the puzzle is adding secondary scoring and a right-handed shot on the power play. Danny Kristo is the perfect combination of size, speed and goal scoring ability that the Rangers are lacking. Looking at the system AV wants to run here in NY, it baffles me that Kristo isn’t getting a chance to “grab it”. Kristo plays a north-south game, is an extremely fast skater who has a quick first step, and uses his speed and size to create space and opportunities for himself and his teammates. Kristo has also proven that he can play just as fast with the puck, and developed the skill of being able to get a hard and accurate shot off from the wing, while skating full speed. With the puck, Kristo makes quick decisions, looks to shoot first and pass second. He has shown that if he sees a shot he likes he’s taking it, but doesn’t force his shots. The puck never dies on his stick, it’s moved quick and accurate or put on the net. Both of which are attributes the coaching staff is looking for out of the PP units. Admittedly, like most young offensive minded players, Kristo needs to improve his defensive zone coverage. While it’s getting better, it still needs work. On the other hand, his offensive skill set is NHL ready now. Kristo leads the Wolf Pack in goals (10) and points (18). He is also, tied for sixth in the entire AHL in goals, and tied for fourth in PP goals. So what can Kirsto add to the Rangers? A proven goal scorer at every level, a player who uses his size and speed very well, a guy who can cash in on the PP and more importantly, depth. Adding Kristo to the line up means a player on the top three lines needs to sit. Players would be put on notice and it would send a clear message saying that you need to figure it out or you get passed by.
The bottom line in all of this is that the compete level is pitiful at the moment and there is no one pushing the players to make them wake up. Up to this point, AV has used the media to make his points. Last night, he mentioned that it is time for actions and not words. AV should heed his own advice and rattle the cages of this team by performing actions that improve this team, and nothing improves a team like being put on notice that your roster spot is up for grabs.