The Rangers' Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello (36)

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Hartnett: It's Painfully Obvious Rangers Are Missing A Take-Charge Leader

Team Has Yet To Find Captain Replacement For McDonagh

Sean Hartnett
January 03, 2019 - 12:52 pm

On a rare night when Henrik Lundqvist didn’t bring anything close to his A-game, the dam broke in spectacular fashion. Those in attendance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night were subjected to a humiliating 7-2 thrashing by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.

Under John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault and now David Quinn, Lundqvist has been able to propel pedestrian Rangers teams to overachievement by stealing victories. When the franchise goaltender isn’t able to summon his best game or is overworked, the rebuilding Rangers simply stand little chance of competing on the scoreboard. Can you remember the last time Lundqvist had a rough night between the pipes and his teammates upped their play to steal a victory for him? No? Me neither.

The defense was in shambles last season under Vigneault and again this season under Quinn. Fans are seeing the same issues crop up – multiple Rangers following one man to allow a wide-open shooting opportunity, players lacking aggression and push-back when defending the net-front and multiple Rangers coasting back following a giveaway in the offensive zone.

It’s time for blame to be assigned and names to be named.

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Mats Zuccarello is a fan favorite and rightfully so because he typically works his socks off, finds teammates with excellent vision and plays with physicality greater than his 5-foot-8, 184-pound frame would suggest. On the fourth Pittsburgh goal, Zuccarello hit the off switch and glided back. On the same goal, Kevin Hayes committed the offensive-zone turnover that fed the Penguins’ chance and proceeded to track back in half-speed while Dominik Simon was given the room he needed to bury Evgeni Malkin’s pass.

The score turned a two-goal deficit to a three-goal deficit and could have been avoided if the two Rangers forwards helped their teammates defend in numbers. Instead, that’s two guys who took themselves out of the play and -- boom! -- a 4-1 Penguins lead.

Hayes has made strides toward becoming a more effective forward on both ends of the rink, but that kind of coasting by him, Zuccarello and other teammates on other nights is unacceptable. Great teams attack and defend cohesively in units of five. It’s not just up to the goaltender and two defensemen to put out the fires.

Look at the opposition. The Penguins win Stanley Cups because they’re focused on the details and put in the extra effort to keep plays alive and win the puck back. Captain Sidney Crosby doesn’t take plays off and does as much dirty work as a fourth-line plug. He’s the best player on Pittsburgh’s roster and possibly the greatest player of his generation. So when he delivers a message, there’s a lot of weight behind his words given what he’s accomplished.

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Crosby is the hardest-working player on that Pittsburgh team, so naturally, teammates will follow that example.

When Ryan McDonagh wore the captain’s "C" for the Rangers, teammates witnessed his drive and they followed. He wasn’t only the Blueshirts' best all-around defenseman, he was an incredible worker. He reinforced the importance of attacking and defending in units of five through his effort and words.

Last February, the Rangers lost a lot of on-ice talent and, critically, a key leader when they shipped him to the Tampa Bay Lightning along with J.T. Miller for Brett Howden, Vladislav Namestnikov, Libor Hajek, a 2018 first-round draft pick and a conditional 2019 second-round draft pick. Nils Lundqvist was selected with the 2018 first-round pick and the 2019 second-round pick becomes a first-rounder if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup this season.

The Rangers’ logic in making the deal was to get younger and stockpile early-round draft picks to aid the rebuild. Part of the rebuild is also identifying a captain. The Rangers entered the 2018-19 season with five alternate captains in Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, Marc Staal, Mika Zibanejad and Zuccarello.

If the Blueshirts do not possess an internal leader capable of setting the tone and keeping teammates on task, they must do whatever it takes to acquire him. That’s as important as chasing Artemi Panarin in free agency.

This team needs to find its pulse and identity through a type-A personality. Maybe that can be found through free agency or trade. The Rangers have the cap room, the highly coveted draft picks and prospects needed to make a megadeal happen this summer. Having an abundance of talented youngsters is a big positive, but having a take-charge leader who can show them the way is essential.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.