USA Today Images

Hartnett: Rangers, Quinn Prioritizing Long-Term, Sustainable Success

Won't Become Overnight Powerhouse

Sean Hartnett
December 11, 2018 - 1:39 pm
Categories: 

Monday’s 6-3 road defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning showed how wide the gap is between the Rangers and the Eastern Conference powerhouses.

A nonstop parade of Rangers to the penalty box fed Tampa Bay’s electric offense. The Rangers rank 26th overall with 87 power play opportunities and been shorthanded the ninth most (96 times) of all NHL teams. When the Rangers struggle to earn power play time of their own and commit strings of ill-disciplined penalties, that’s a nasty combination. The Rangers rank 26th overall with a penalty kill percentage of 76 percent.

On Monday, they gave up frequent odd-man rushes and allowed the Lightning to thrive by handing them six power play opportunities. Tampa Bay converted two of six man-advantage opportunities.

Whether on the power play or at even-strength, the Lightning dominated the territorial battle and relegated the Blueshirts to their own end for much of the night. This isn’t surprising as Tampa Bay can be counted as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and they possess the NHL’s most points at 49.

The Rangers have exceeded the expectations of many pundits by starting the season 14-13-3, keeping tight to the Metropolitan Division’s top three and staying within the Wild Card hunt. Head coach David Quinn inspires his team to compete hard every night. The effort level is certainly there and the progression of Neal Pionk, Jimmy Vesey and Brett Howden is encouraging.

Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are playing near an All-Star level. Kevin Hayes, who scored twice against the Lightning, is taking large steps forward offensively in his fifth season. Franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s even-strength save percentage is .928 and tied for sixth-best among netminders who have appeared in 18 or more games. Overall, Lundqvist’s all-situation save percentage is .919 – even with his career average.

That said, Rangers fans knew that this season would be a learning year and a developing year for both a young roster and their first-year head coach. The hire of Quinn and the ethics of Quinn are about prioritizing long-term, sustainable success. This team won’t suddenly transform into a powerhouse. That kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight and not without an A-1 center, A-1 scorers and elite-level defensemen.

We’ll see if the likes of Filip Chytil, Pavel Buchnevich, Libor Hajek, K'Andre Miller, Howden, Vesey and Pionk will realize their full potential in the coming years. When a team is fortunate enough to possess a no-doubt A-1 talents, they must hold on to them for dear life.

Speaking of elite-level defensemen, the Rangers allowed former Blueshirt Keith Yandle to chip in a goal and two assists on Saturday – though the Rangers bested the Florida Panthers in the shootout. Yandle has always been one of the league’s most prolific offensive-defensemen, one of the league’s most durable and has recorded 28 points through 28 games on Atlantic Division cellar-dwelling Panthers.

Former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh scored a go-ahead second-period goal to help Tampa Bay top the Rangers on Monday, increasing their ascendancy. McDonagh is enjoying the finest statistical season of his career with 21 points through 32 games.

I’m sure Rangers fans took a few jealous glances over at the Florida and Tampa Bay benches, imagining what things may have been like had the Blueshirts prioritized holding on to Yandle, McDonagh and perhaps the biggest backbreaker – currently injured Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

In the case dealing away McDonagh and 23-point forward J.T. Miller, the Rangers at least have Howden, Hajek, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nils Lundkvist (taken with the 2018 first-round pick received from Tampa Bay) to show for it. In case of Stralman, the Rangers have paid a long price for letting him walk and in the case of Yandle, his rights were traded to the Panthers after a season where Alain Vigneault’s under-usage of Yandle was bizarre and damning evidence of odd personnel decisions that soon became a recurring trend of AV’s final years at The Garden.

The Rangers can learn from not repeating the mistakes of the past. Should any of their stockpiled youth talents turn into genuine superstars or are eventually packaged to acquire a franchise-changing talent in the future, the head coach has to absolutely be on board.

Coaches in the NHL are expendable, star players are not. They only come around so often.

In retrospect, perhaps the opinion that Vigneault needed to be fired after his decisions coughed away a should’ve been second-round series win over the Ottawa Senators in 2017 wasn’t soon enough. Certainly, his actual dismissal after a playoff-less 2017-18 season came far too late and the damage done forced the Blueshirts into a trade deadline sell-off that included McDonagh and Miller landing in Tampa Bay.

But the evidence began piling on Vigneault for some time before his two final seasons in New York. Perhaps, the way the Rangers were ran out of the building and outcoached by former Rangers’ assistant Mike Sullivan’s eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 first-round should have been the end for AV.

Coaches ultimately sink or swim by their decisions. Old history aside, the Rangers have charted a new course with the dial turned chiefly toward a youth movement and Quinn is the type of coach with a track-record of giving deserving youngsters a chance.

The present day Rangers aren’t Stanley Cup contenders. How long will the process of building the Blueshirts back into a superpower take? The answer isn’t exactly clear at the moment. But we are talking about a team that is making forward strides that can be measured by how this group has collectively bought into playing with the effort and desire that Quinn demands.

If that kind of culture can be cultivated and maintained while a core group of players is identified, the Rangers can then go about the business of trading nonessential pieces to fill some of the missing parts. Maybe Rangers’ management will be encouraged enough by how this team is taking shape under Quinn to swing for the fences in free agency or through blockbuster trades in the offseason.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin, Joe Pavelski and Mark Stone could all be set to hit free agency in the 2019 summer. Then again, the Rangers will have to make big calls on their own expiring contracts in Hayes and Mats Zuccarello.

I think we all know that 2019 could be a summer of intrigue for the Blueshirts if the rebuilding process nets enough gains. Depending on how the Rangers manage their current contractual commitments ($83 million projected salary cap next season) and how they address the futures of Zuccarello and Hayes, they could have a lot of cap room at their disposal. Solid progress under Quinn and a big move or two could suddenly slice the gap between the Rangers and the Eastern Conference’s heavyweights.

Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey