With the New York Rangers only one loss away from being eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals, the farthest point in their playoff lives since 1997, all the what-if questions will now start to rear their ugly heads. While in a few weeks, regardless of the now ominous outcome that seems likely to unfold, we will all sit back and say this season was a success, and an immense one at that, but for now, positivity must be shelved to address the current problem: why are the Rangers having such a difficult time in these playoffs? While I was angry the last time I wrote about this team, something I do not do much anymore on this blog, I just want to make it clear that no matter what happens, no one can question this team’s heart and character, but unfortunately, heart and character do not win hockey games on their own, they act as a compliment with skill and help drive teams toward winning.
The skill, while it is not a tremendous amount, is still there for the Rangers, it has just been dormant. On a team with depth, perhaps this would not have been as serious a problem, but on this team, that has become the reason for their downfall. The Rangers simply have no depth; very little on offense and even less on defense (this is not referring to prospects in the system). While most teams poised for a deep playoff run add a few pieces at the deadline, whether it be a mid-level forward or experienced defenseman, the Rangers added John Scott, a mammoth defenseman and incredible fighter (and also an extremely slow skater, the anti-thesis of the way this Rangers team moves), but a player who could not be farther away from what this team actually needed. Scott, who had been up and down with the Chicago Blackhawks since 2008, has played in only 146 games, tallying one goal and four assists. When he was acquired by the Rangers, he skated in six games, including a few at forward, and averaged 5:33 of ice time per night. He has not dressed once in the playoffs, except to take part in the pre-game warmup of one of the games versus the Ottawa Senators, to skate by Zenon Konopka in an attempt to intimidate him. Now, none of this is Scott’s fault, of course, but it shows that when the team needed another scorer and defenseman, they chose to go out and get someone completely irrelevant. Not to get on a tangent here, but Rick Nash was not the answer either, because his asking price would have further depleted this team of depth and made them worse.
For most of the season, ever since top-four defenseman Michael Sauer got injured, the Rangers have pretty much gone with five defenseman for the majority of games. Stu Bickel and Jeff Woywitka averaged slightly more than ten minutes per game, while Steve Eminger came in at around thirteen. In the playoffs, it has gotten even worse for the sixth defenseman—Bickel averages just over five and Eminger over eight. How long did Tortorella think they could sustain their extremely active and grinding style of play while rolling only five defenseman? How long did he expect to drive the team bus with the needle drifting further and further down to empty? The coach has simply refused to play Bickel in big spots, including not one second in the three-overtime game against the Washington Capitals. Not one second. Again, this is not Bickel’s fault.
When Eminger came in for him, nothing changed. With some people saying Tim Erixon should have been called up for that role, he would have fell into the exact same fold. The Rangers are now exhausted, as their play is finally catching up to them, so would it have been the worst thing in the world to call up Wade Redden at the beginning of the playoffs, knowing this would be a recurring problem? Before you open the floodgates and bring on the Redden hate, let’s just look at his numbers for the Connecticut Whale this season: four goals and 16 assists for 20 points in 49 games. Not bad (he had 32 points in the season before). He has also played in 101 NHL playoff games, including one seven-game playoff series with the Rangers against the Capitals in his last season with the team, when he was one of their steadiest defensemen, recording two assists, and most importantly, skating in an average of 23:24 minutes per night.
Despite his age, Redden could have been a set of fresh legs on the back-line, as well as someone with the experience to not allow himself get unnerved. He would have been steady, regardless of what you think of him. Could Redden in 10-15 minutes a night be any worse than Bickel in his five minutes? He could be played in all situations, not benched as soon as the team had a lead or was behind by one heading into the third period. That would then reverberate down the entire defensive corp, and take some pressure off Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. If their minutes totals were just lowered by one to two minutes every night, imagine how much fresher they would be, because it all adds up. In the playoffs, every shift, every shot block is magnified.
We all want a youth movement, but championships cannot be won on that alone—veteran leadership is needed. Depth is needed. Of course, this is all too late now, but as I said earlier, the what-if questions will shortly be on their way. What if the Rangers could score more than three goals a game? What if their system did not wear themselves out? What if they actually had some depth? What if…what if…what if…