From an outsider’s perspective, I can’t help but think about how difficult these initial few weeks of hands-on work for Alain Vigneault must have been. Coming to a team that’s been largely together for three or four years as an outsider can be awkward, but on top of those fish-out-of-water feelings he must have felt at times, Vigneault has also had to deal with the pressures of building a winning squad.
Instantly changing a team’s fortune is something easier said than done, but if you’re Vigneault and you’re down an entire line of forwards, it can be a little trickier.
Following the New York Rangers’ second-round defeat in the 2013 NHL Playoffs, forwards Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin had identical shoulder surgeries to repair a torn labrum. With the help of summer rehabilitation, the pair are expected to be out four to five months, which has ruled them out for all the team’s preseason games as well as the first five to 10 games of the regular season.
This—along with the Derek Stepan holdout situation—proves problematic for Vigneault, who is left with a host of prospects and veteran grinders to fill the holes in his already talent-anemic offense.
And to top it off, the Rangers are set to play their first nine games of the season on the road—the first five of which are against Western Conference opponents before the team flies east for key early-season matchups with their Eastern Conference rivals: the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings.
It’s a tall order, to say the least, to expect the Rangers to come home with a 6-2-1 or even a 5-3-1 record. They’ll be matching up against some of the better teams in the league, and missing three of their top-six forwards will cripple them.
Replacing Callahan is nearly impossible. Not only does he bring all the valuable intangibles you could ask for, but he’s also the team’s captain. Under former coach John Tortorella, Callahan was used to set the tone early in a game, and there’s little doubt Vigneault won’t do the same when Cally returns. But in the meantime, the Rangers won’t have their heart and soul.
The only other player that could come close to replicating Callahan’s work ethic on offense is, of course, injured as well. Hagelin, although probably not talented enough to make a living as a top-six player, is in fact one for the Rangers. His blinding speed, great board work and moderate skill level make him an excellent complementary player who succeeded playing on the first line last season with Stepan and Rick Nash. His game is another piece Vigneault will struggle to replace during the first part of the season.
And although Stepan isn’t injured, I think it’s necessary to include him in this conversation, as his situation is as much, or even more, of a waiting game as Callahan and Hagelin’s. In addition, Stepan’s absence may prove to be more costly anyway; after all, he is the team’s first-line center.
As he and his agent continue to negotiate a new deal with general manager Glen Sather (the two sides are believed to be $600,000 apart on a two-year deal), the Rangers are left exposed down the middle. With Stepan out, Vigneault has promoted Brad Richards to the top line with Nash, in hopes that the 33-year-old can find his game after a miserable 2013 campaign. Unfortunately, Richards has looked no better in the preseason.
Derick Brassard is expected to reclaim his second-line center spot whether or not Stepan is in the lineup, and although he has looked good thus far, he can’t be the Rangers’ best pivot; he’s just not good enough.
From there, Vigneault’s remaining options at center are Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Oscar Lindberg: a career fourth liner, a fringe NHL player and a prospect with no NHL experience. Enough said.
As for replacing Callahan and Hagelin, it’s hit or miss. There are some good young players who may or may not be ready to make the jump to the NHL, and if they can succeed while filling in the offensive holes, then the Rangers will be better for it.
Chris Kreider has to finally prove that he can be a dangerous hockey player. He’s literally got it all in terms of physical make up; it’s time to see some consistent results. Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo, as we saw Monday night in Calgary, are getting a serious look from Vigneault to make the team out of camp. AV knows he needs a punch up front with Callahan and Hagelin out, and he won’t be afraid to use some of the raw talent he’s got.
There’s also Benoit Pouliot, the free-agent signing who brings some NHL experience and skill to the lineup. He’s looked good with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, but the trio will need to carry their success into the regular season.
So there’s a lot of question marks still for this team in terms of whether or not players can actually succeed once the games really mean something. And of course, there’s the chance Callahan and Hagelin could be back earlier than planned, and the possibility that Stepan signs a contract before the season opener. But as of now, Vigneault has to continue to prepare for life without them on a very difficult nine-game road trip.
And, all things considered, the Rangers are in trouble. I like Kreider, Lindberg, Fast and Kristo, as well as Moore and, to a lesser extent, Pouliot, but they can’t be counted on to carry the team.
Zuccarello is a nice player, but he can’t be a go-to guy like he will be in the early going. Rick Nash is Rick Nash, but he’s playing with a hack at center (Richards). And as for Kreider, I want to believe he pans out, but I haven’t seen anything great in the first few preseason games. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a good year, but a lot of what the Rangers do in the first nine games is on his shoulders, and I can’t see him carrying all that weight just yet.
As a result, the Rangers are very thin on offense. When a team loses three of their top-six forwards, there are going to be problems; doesn’t matter who you are. Callahan, Hagelin and Stepan being away from the team is going to have a seriously negative effect on the team’s performance during their season-opening road trip. I just can’t see the Rangers winning more than three of the first nine games if they're without the trio.