New York Rangers: Too good to tank, too bad to win

PLYMOUTH, MI – FEBRUARY 15: Kaapo Kakko #24 of the Finland Nationals controls the puck against the Sweden Nationals during the 2018 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament game at USA Hockey Arena on February 15, 2018 in Plymouth, Michigan. Finland defeated Sweden 5-3. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers are a team caught in the soggy middle of the league. Too good for a lottery pick but too bad to be a contender.

In the National Hockey League, good teams typically have a top five pick to select an elite talent. Every team that has won the Stanley Cup this decade has featured at least one if not two top five picks that have blossomed into one of the league’s very best players. The New York Rangers currently have two players that were drafted in the top ten, but none in the top five.

Mika Zibanejad was drafted number six overall back in 2011 and Lias Andersson was number seven overall in 2017. While these two players both figure into the team’s long term plans, neither is projected to reach that true superstar status. That is not an indictment of their respective talents, but of the difficulty of acquiring an elite talent.

Drafting prospects is not an exact science as players do slip through the cracks every single season. But, typically, the higher the draft pick, the better the value. The drop off in talent from pick one to pick two is far larger than the drop off of pick two to pick three.

The problem for the Rangers is twofold, being that the team is rebuilding, it needs to acquire elite talent. But, the team has too much talent on the roster to bottom out to the level necessary for a top five pick.

The only hope

So, let’s say the Rangers wanted to truly bottom out this year and approach Ottawa Senators’ level bad. The only scenario in which this would be possible is if the defense is even worst than last year’s disaster.

The forwards on this year’s team are just better, plain and simple. With a coach that uses logic instead of randomness to develop line combinations, the team should get more consistently play from its 12 forwards. Instead of going from healthy scratch to the power play, there will be a baseline for playing time.

Using this basis, let’s assume the team’s top six is a combination of Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and Filip Chytil. That right there should be at minimum 240 points. Each of those players should at minimum post 40 points.

The bottom six has the potential to be better as well due to the sliding down of a top six forward from last year. Based on the above top six, that leaves Ryan Spooner, Vladislav Namesntnikov, Lias Andersson, Jimmy Vesey, Vinni Lettieri and Jesper Fast. That composition makes for a high upside bottom six that should be able to create scoring chances.

There is no way that the team’s offense struggles as much as it did last season unless the injury bug becomes an issue again.

This leaves the defense to be the primary cause of failure for the second straight season. While Neal Pionk and Tony DeAngelo have looked solid in the preseason, it is only the preseason. In theory, having the right side of the defense as Kevin Shattenkirk, Pionk, DeAngelo and an occasional spot start from McQuaid is an improvement on last year.

The left hand side is where the hope for a tanked season comes from. Going down the depth chart with Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Marc Staal and Frederik Claesson does not exactly inspire confidence. Of these four, only Skjei has looked like a decent defenseman in the last calendar year.

Even then, the team asking the former Minnesota Golden Gopher to be the number one defenseman coming off of a mediocre season is a tall order. While Skjei has the pedigree and skills to fill the role, he looked overwhelmed at times last season.

Intangibles

The other factor to consider is the players buying into new head coach David Quinn’s system. Although the training camp has only been in session for two weeks, the players are raving about the feel inside the room.

If Quinn pushes the right buttons and has the players thinking “let’s prove everyone wrong,” there is a recipe for an out of body experience. The nobody believes in us factor is arguably the greatest motivator in professional sports. Look how far the Vegas Golden Knights got on pure spite.

There are interesting players on this team with a coach that has them buying in early. Fixing the Rangers is going to be a multi-year process but almost all of the pieces are in place. In assembling a roster with a mix of high upside young guys and veterans, there team is probably too good for the lottery.

The other thing is, there are teams far worse than New York. The Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders are putting out two of the worst NHL lineups in recent memory. The funny thing is, the Senators don’t even have control of their draft pick, so they’re tanking to let the Colorado Avalanche have a top five pick.

Unfortunately for New York, Kaapo Kakko is probably out of reach. Of course, if Quinn wants to let Staal be the number one defenseman and play 25 minutes per game….anything can happen.