I am a New Jersey Devils fan. Like most New Jersey Devils fans, I hate the New York Rangers. I refer to them as Our Hated Rivals as much as possible because it is true. They are the Devils’ closest, largest, and most hateable rivals in the National Hockey League. Your personal mileage may vary on that. Maybe you live in southern New Jersey and feel more acrimony for the Orange and Black. Maybe you have some kind of special negative attachment to some other organization. Fine. But for the majority of the fanbase, Our Hated Rivals refers to the team that plays in the World’s Most Overrated Arena. The team that is truly New York City’s second NHL team. The team who best represents hype over substance. They are the New York Rangers, and I hate them.
Because this is the Internet, I need to qualify this hate. I do not wish any harm on the players or personnel or the fans of the least successful hockey team in New York City over the last 40 years. I do not wish any injury or abuse on the second NHL team in NYC history. And for those who are too dense to grasp the concept, hatred for rivals is what helps make sports special. Even when a team has nothing to really play for - like the 2021 New Jersey Devils - games against rivals still carry meaning for the fans. They are the one team you would want them to beat regardless of circumstances and situation. To that end, I simply wish that the Rangers lose as much as possible and lose by large margins to my preferred team, the New Jersey Devils. A perfect world would see the Rangers go 0-82-0 in a regular season and lose every game to the Devils by at least 5 goals. We do not live in a perfect world. We can always dream of one. Regardless, that is what I mean when I state I hate the Rangers. It is what most Devils fans mean when they hate the Rangers.
I am stating this because this is the most appropriate time to state this. I believe any day is a good day to Hate the Rangers. But this is special. After today, the Devils will play Our Hated Rivals in their next four games. Familiarity breeds contempt. Devils fans already have a lot of contempt for the Rangers. The players, staffers, and personnel likely will have a lot more of it by the fourth game on Sunday. Therefore, I have dubbed this The Week of Hate.
What better time to let out the oh-so-many things to hate about the Rangers than at the dawn of The Week of Hate? None. There is no better time. It is time to stop being polite, start getting real raw, and fully embrace the Player Hater we all have inside of us.
The Main Point: All This and You’re Not Even Mediocre
Let me address the apparent elephant in the room. How can I, a fan of the New Jersey Devils, talk any kind of smack about a team who is ahead of the New Jersey Devils in the standings and likely will be when May 10 rolls around? How can I be so brazen in the wake of the Rangers embarrassing the Devils at the Rock twice back in March? How can I make such claims when the Devils are going to clean out their lockers as early as May 11?
Easy. Because the Rangers are going to do the exact same thing after their season ending game on May 8.
The Rangers really do not have a good shot at making the playoffs. As of this morning, they sit in fifth place in the East Division. They are edging out Philadelphia by way of tiebreakers. On the surface, it looks like they are not that far away. They are just 4 points behind fourth-place Boston for the final playoff spot in the East, after all. But the reality is much harsher. For one, the Rangers are not yet ahead of the flailing Philadelphia Flyers in the standings. Despite having won more weeks than the Flyers, they still must keep ahead of them to have any hope. Catching up in the standings is really hard to do; it took an overtime loss to finally get past Philly after weeks of chasing them. Especially in this season where all of the games are within the division. For another, Boston has two games in hand on New York. At best, the Rangers are 4 points behind Boston. At worst, they are 8 points behind. They need Boston to blow both of those games in hand and slip up a lot to open the door for New York (and Philadelphia). By the way, Boston gets to play Buffalo six times before the end of the season. And they just added Taylor Hall - who actually won a Hart unlike a certain Panarin in Manhattan - for relatively little cost. I would not bet a lot of money on the B’s hitting a slump to lose those games that New York (and Philadelphia) would need them to lose. For a third point, the Rangers would need to continue at the pace that they are at to succeed. Maybe they do that. Should they falter in The Week of Hate, they are all but done. As it stands, Moneypuck lists their odds at a paltry 16.4%.
This is a remarkable situation for a team that has the following things going for it:
- 2020 Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin putting up a higher rate of production than he did in the 2019-20 season.
- Adam Fox emerging as a point-machine from the point. And carrying Ryan Lindgren to something resembling a good season.
- Getting unexpectedly good puck luck for players like Chris Kreider and Colin Blackwell (both shooting above 20%!) among others.
- Seeing legitimate improvement in the run of play from Kaapo Kakko, who was a disaster in 5-on-5 as a rookie.
- Igor Shesterkin posting a legitimately good 92% overall save percentage.
- Managing a potential locker-room disaster with Tony DeAngelo as well as possible plus diffusing a stupid lie about a stolen puck.
All of these things have broken in the right direction and the Rangers are still not going to be a playoff team. One would see those points and think they are battling for a playoff spot. The only way that happens is if Boston goes into a massive slump and the Rangers get hot and the Flyers do not. That’s a lot of ands and ifs.
A lot of sports fans use the word mediocre incorrectly. It’s used in place of “bad” or “not good enough.” The reality is that in a 31-team league where 16 teams make the playoffs, mediocre teams are on the playoff bubble. Truly mediocre teams make it to the postseason. If you truly believe you are what your record says, then you must also conclude that the Rangers have not even reached mediocrity. I understand this season is different as the playoffs are decided by the top-four teams in the division. Yes, the East is tough. But its tough for everyone and it serves to reason that being well outside of the playoff picture for over a month means they still do not have the quality to even get to the label of “average.” It is almost impressive that the Rangers have multiple points strongly in their favor that even I, an ardent hater of the Rangers, can point out and they are still going to be done when the regular season closes.
I am fully aware of the Devils’ struggles this season. Those who read this site, see my comments, and hear me on the Garden State of Hockey know full well I am not shy about calling the 2021 Devils a bad team. But that’s the main point. Even if the Rangers finish ahead of the Devils and make this Week of Hate a week to really hate, they’re still going to play as many playoff games as the Devils this season. They will win as many Cups as the Devils will this season. They will get as many playoff broadcasts on MSG’s family of networks as the Devils will this year. They will be setting tee times at about the same time as the Devils. It is not really a stretch or driven by bitterness to point out that that a team that does not even make the playoffs in spite of superlative performances by multiple players is a bad team. Despite the many ways we can use objective facts to say the Rangers are better than New Jersey and Detroit and Buffalo, facts also state that the Rangers are not even a mediocre team in this league.
In other words, it is 2021 and the Rangers still suck.
Of course, I cannot leave it there. This is The Week of Hate! I’m not done being a Player Hater yet.
The Goaltending, or Why it is All on Shesterkin
The Rangers’ goaltending has been based on three men: Shesterkin, Alexandar Georgiev, and Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid has been exposed at this level so many times and his current 89.1% save percentage makes the argument for me, so I will keep it moving to the main tandem. As noted earlier, Shesterkin is the heir apparent to the False King of New York. Also known as the second best goaltender of his generation to not win anything of value, Henrik Lundqvist (first would be Roberto Luongo). Lundqvist was bought out to allow Shesterkin and Georgiev take the net. Shesterkin has done his job well enough. Georgiev, on the other hand, has looked rather scrubbish. Inconsistency is his game when it comes to positioning, rebounds, and his glove hand. His 90.3% overall save percentage supports that; a notable dip from the 91% he posted last season. It was worse earlier; to a point where Kinkaid started games ahead of Georgiev in this season. To put it more simply: On most nights, teams have to be worried about Shesterkin but not so much about the others.
This is a lovely situation for GM Jeff Gorton. Letting Kinkaid go is easy; he has cleared waivers multiple times. He can be buried in Hartford after Seattle wisely not claims him in the expansion draft. Georgiev is signed for another season at $2.45 million, and Shesterkin has his ELC end this season. The 25-year old Shesterkin will get paid real well. But that will ultimately be a bet that this season will be repeatable. And I would think Shesterkin and his agent know full well that the Rangers’ immediate future in net will be all about him. They have no other choice other than to roll the dice on Adam Huska and Tyler Wall. They cannot lean on Georgiev and Kinkaid is not a real option. In other words, he’s is going to command a ton of money that he may or may not get to live up to. It sure would be a shame if he didn’t, but they have to go all in on him regardless. And that is going to be delightful situation given the rest of the roster.
The Defense, or What’s More Toxic, Jacob Trouba’s Contract or Libor Hajek’s Play?
There has been increased attention on Adam Fox. And why not? He is the Better Tony DeAngelo. Fox’s 5-on-5 numbers are the best on the Rangers in that he is above 52% in all categories. (And Tony D was even better in his six appearances before his exile.) Like Tony D, Fox has been putting up a staggering amount of points with 37 in 39 games and 20 power play points. Unlike Tony D, he is carrying Ryan Lindgren to do this. Fox has received some Norris buzz for being a top defenseman on quite possibly the fifth best team in the East Division. He will not get it. And so just enjoy Fox’s early peak, Blueshirt faithful, and pray he does not fall off. And don’t get mad if/when he has a poorer 2021-22 and still demands a big payday when his ELC ends then. Also, don’t get mad if he really does become DeAngelo 2.0.
Besides, there is plenty more to be mad about. On the one hand, the Rangers effectively exiled Jack Johnson and Anthony Bitetto for being terrible defensemen. On the other, it took them multiple games to figure that out for some reason even though most already knew they were not good when they signed. It is a shame they could not figure out how to do that with Brendan Smith. The Rangers gave him a four-season, $17.4 million contract and he has been a favorite of opposing players all season. At least that deal is nearly over. While his 5-on-5 numbers look good, Lindgren has primarily played next to Fox. Is it a good idea to pay the less effective and productive half of a defensive pairing a good chunk of money? Generally, no. But let us see if Jeff Gorton figures that out.
The most enraging part of the defense has to be a toss-up between Jacob Trouba and Libor Hajek. Hajek has been amazingly worse than Johnson, Bitteto, and Smith in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. Hajek has a CF% below 40% and a SF% and xGF% just above 40%. He does not even provide much offense on his own with just 27 shots in 30 games with one goal and one assist. He has been absolutely terrible and yet he continues to get into games. How bad are the Wolfpack defensemen that Hajek is regularly in this lineup? How sweet will it be if/when he is re-signed for next season? Now, Hajek is a third-pairing defenseman. Trouba, on the other hand, is just not living up to his absolutely massive contract. He plays over 17 minutes in 5-on-5 and his numbers there are just OK. They are not the worst. But I would expect a whole lot more than a 49.5% CF% and a 51.3% xGF% for someone originally set to make ten million dollars this season. I would expect a lot more than just one goal, ten assists, and 54 shots on net in 32 games this season for a defenseman carrying an $8 million cap hit. There is an argument to be made as to whose contract is worse, P.K. Subban’s or Jacob Trouba’s. Spoiler: It’s probably Trouba’s as he now has a no-movement clause and he is on the books with that $8 million cap hit for another five seasons. This is your leader on defense, New York? Talk about underperforming a contract. Don’t be shocked when he joins Dan Girardi and Kevin Shattenkirk (another brilliant big-money acquisition by the Rangers) on a list of highly-paid defensemen getting bought out by New York in about three seasons.
Basically, there are two bright spots on defense: Fox and the potential of K’Andre Miller. Miller already plays a lot, albeit not that particularly well based on his 5-on-5 numbers. Maybe he’ll develop into a defender like Adam Larsson if he’s lucky. In other words, the defense is not remotely close to being impressive beyond Fox. I guess it’s all in on Matt Robinson, Braden Schnieder, and future picks to bolster this flawed blueline for the future. Maybe they’ll figure it out before burning through the best years of Kakko and Lafreniere.
The Big Money Forwards, or How Strong is Panarin’s Back Anyway?
Trouba’s $10 million is only the second highest salary on the Rangers this season. Artemi Panarin has been pulling in the most bread with a staggering $13 million this season. (Fun fact: He makes $13 million next season too.) Unlike Trouba, Panarin has a much stronger argument for his contract. He is their leader on offense. Panarin has even topped his rate of points from last season (1.37 per game) with a stunning 1.44 per game (42 in 29 games) ahead of Sunday’s games. He is out-producing most of the other ten-figure paid players in the NHL this season. Maybe the fourth-highest paid player in the NHL will end up in the top-ten in points by the end of the season (he’s tied for 12th prior to Sunday’s games). He has a shot at it. The only real downside for Panarin is Father Time. It is not on his side. He’s 29, he turns 30 this October, and that contract is obesely hefty for another five seasons after this one. Just as Kakko and Lafreniere should be glowing up, Panarin could be dimming down. But, hey, don’t fret Rangers fans, he came in third for the Hart Trophy in 2020 so there’s that consolation. Finishing third place for MVP is surely worth a deal that would make even anyone except Toronto fans blink at its opulence.
But Panarin is doing the best he can. The other highly-paid forwards on the Rangers roster, well, are they really doing that well? Chris Krieder looks like it. After all, he has 17 goals, which just outside of the top-ten in the league in goal scoring. Fitting he does this in a season where his original salary was set to be $10 million for this season. The problem is that you can bet money this will not last. Krieder is firing them in with a shooting percentage of 20.5%. He has never had a season with a shooting percentage higher than 15.05% in his career. That shooting percentage will either keep up to complete a career year that he will almost never achieve again or he is going to slump hard in April. The Gambler’s Fallacy tells me not to bet on the latter happening, although it has begun to fall (in the first draft of this post, it was around 22%). Still, I would not expect the soon-to-be-30 year old winger to be able to justify his fat contract all that much in the future. At least he seemingly learned that he cannot recklessly crash into goaltenders at least once per game. It says a lot about his hockey IQ that it took this long to sort that out.
The deals for Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome seem much more sensible in comparison. The issue is that their seasons and futures are flawed in their own ways. Zibanejad’s deal is ending in the near future and he surely has to be a dead man walking at MSG. How can that be? He has 32 points in 41 games. But look at the splits: Zibanejad put up 15 of those points against the Flyers back when their goaltending resembled a mid-tier late-1980s tandem. He has just seven goals and 17 points against the other seven teams in the East. In 5-on-5 play, when he is on the ice, the Rangers have a CF% around 47%, which is not good; and an xGF% just above 46%, which is also not good. All this for $5.15 million this season. Unless the Rangers play a Flyers-only schedule, he better step it up. Otherwise, he is a prime candidate to getting asked to waive his no-movement clause (of course he has a NMC) next season. Perhaps Zibanejad can inflate his point totals further in the last two games against Philly later this month.
While Ryan Strome is second on the team in points, I do need to point out that he probably owes Panarin a lot of steaks and shakes and other confectionaries for that. It is stunning how he not-so-coincidentally broke out in production in the exact same season Panarin showed up in Manhattan. Last season: He had six assists with Panarin and eight assists for Panarin among his 23 assists in 5-on-5; and eight assists from Panarin among his 10 goals. This season: six of his 9 goals in 5-on-5 came from Panarin and five of his seven assists involved Panarin. Unlike Zibanejad, Strome has good on-ice rates 5-on-5 - and even without Panarin. Still, would Strome be without Artemi Panarin? Is a $4.5 million cap hit worth taking for a guy who has excelled so much with Panarin but less so without? This is a good question to ponder. Especially when Pavel Buchnevich and his agent will come into Jeff Gorton’s office with some justifiably large demands this offseason. Maybe Gorton will ask Zibanejad will get to waive his clause whilst figure out what to do with Strome for additional fun sometime in February 2022. Maybe both will be dealt away.
The Depth Forwards, or Your Future Isn’t That Bright
Of course, much of the Rangers roster is on the cheap as they are re-building. Re-building with some fortune since they won a lottery with really low odds after being fortunate to join a Return to Play format of 24 teams for a shot at the playoffs after a season where they were nowhere near close to a playoff spot under normal circumstances. The Rangers now have Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere and should be soaring past re-building soon, right?
Not so fast. I do not doubt that those two will be good players. Kakko has been a far-sight better in 5-on-5 in his second season and Lafreniere is taking his lumps now as an 18-year old in the NHL and the Rangers have been better with him in 5-on-5 than at least 7 other regulars on the team. Neither are on the level of The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. And maybe they never will be. Which could be a good thing; not everyone can be The Big Deal.
The rest is a mix of young players ranging from ‘could be real good’ to ‘this is why you signed Kevin Rooney.’ Vitali Kravstov is the latest hopeful name. Filip Chytil may have it together if you like your young guys at 5-on-5 to be just around the breakeven mark; which is needed as, guess what, he needs a new deal too. Brett Howden and Julian Gauthier have been abjectly heinous. So much so that I may giggle when they get re-signed for next season. Brendan Lemieux has been somehow even worse than those two; but dumping Tony D’s bestie on Los Angeles was probably the smartest asset management move the Rangers have made since sending DeAngelo to the Phantom Zone. Beyond these players the youth movement is leaning heavy on 22 and 23 year olds with Hartford. Maybe the re-build plan is hoping one of them has a season like Colin Blackwell where a career AHLer just busts out 12 goals out of nowhere. I’ve seen this picture before with Brian Gibbons. Let me tell you: it does not end well. I’ve also seen the plodding nature of Kevin Rooney’s game. That he and Blackwell have regular shifts and possibly over younger players only shows that the pool is thin beyond the big names. At least Philip Di Giuseppe has been a quality bottom-six forward this season. Shame that he’s pretty much it.
The Requisite Tony DeAngelo Section, or The Ranger Fans
Oh, Tony D. How a budding folk hero of the Rangers fell. Last year, he was the offensive dynamo getting credit somewhat similar to what Adam Fox has been getting now. (He had 53 points last season, by the way.) This year, he ran his mouth one too many times, did not play nice with his teammates one too many times, and has revealed himself to be a loser in between burner accounts on social media. It would be easy to point out his bad takes and bad defenses. It would also mean I would not be keeping it real about my feelings about Mr. DeAngelo. Because when I was seeing DeAngelo beclown himself and get exiled from his own team, I was seeing a New York Ranger fan.
Bear with me. What I find funny about DeAngelo is not so much what he has said and done, but how he carries himself. He has a big mouth that he cannot shut up. He comes across as immature in most public forums. Given that the last straw was talking smack to Alexandr Georgiev botching a play in overtime literally as they left the ice, I do not doubt for a second that DeAngelo still thinks he was right to say it and said it then because being right is more important than having some sensitivity for his co-workers. As the Rangers management demonstrated, DeAngelo certainly did not have nearly enough talent for his team to put up with his nonsense. He reminded me of so many big-mouthed, small-minded Ranger fans I have encountered in the world. The same fans that carry on about how great 1994 was even in 2021. The same fans that brag about how they fill the Rock and lament they cannot afford to go to MSG. The same fans that big up every signing and acquisition that they suddenly forget about when the reality does not meet expectations (e.g. Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Shattenkirk, etc.). The same fans that react so strongly to mentions of successful goaltenders like Martin Brodeur with “But Henrik was also great!” as if Roberto Luongo never existed.
No wonder so many fans turned on Tony D. the moment(s) they had a reason to do so. He was a mirror to the larger Ranger fanbase online and in person. The fans did not like what they saw in the reflection. Instead of doing something about it and reigning it in like more mature Ranger fans - they do exist, I assure you - they smashed the mirror and proceeded to learned nothing. And some doofuses even went to try to vilify him more just so they can say “I’m not like him!” I’m not fooled. DeAngelo is the Ranger fan we all roll our eyes at personified as a player. The only difference is that DeAngelo will no longer be a Ranger. The fan will still bleat that Denis Potvin sucks in 2021.
Purgatory, or Expect the Rangers to Continue to Suck
Sure, don’t take my words for it, but this really does not bode well for the re-build that the Rangers are actually in. This season could very well end up being among the best or the best seasons by Panarin, Kreider, and possibly even Fox in a Rangers uniform. And it will all yield a whopping zero postseason appearances. The current re-build is based heavily on Shesterkin, Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil, and now Fox, Miller, and Kravtsov. By the time they all “make it” and take over (Shesterkin and Fox already have), they will have to carry the anchors named Panarin, Trouba, Kreider, and perhaps a few more to do so. And even that does not address the several other team gaps. The best case scenario is that they hit on their young talent not named Howden or Gauthier, they continue to hit on picks, their veterans who will be on the team for at least the next four seasons will continue to contribute, and Shesterkin really is an actually good goaltender instead of a horse carriage turning into a pumpkin once his next contract is signed. Again, that is a lot that needs to go right just to finish within the top half of the NHL or even the top half of the division. That a lot has to go right for that to be a “yes” means this re-build is far from over.
And things could get worse. The salary cap may not increase to the point that the powers that be expected when they handed out those massive deals to Panarin, Kreider, and Trouba. The younger players may not all make it. The next few draft picks may not work out so well. Shesterkin may even have a bad season. The depth continues to undercut everything. A lot can go rotten. I did not even touch the surely smart coaching of David Quinn. Sure, he may not be the guy that should be behind the bench. But just as the right coaching hire can elevate a team (see: the Islanders), the wrong one can sink them (see: the Flames). Failure is always an option in replacing a staff member. And all can hinder the re-build such that it will take even longer. It may not even by the Rangers’ own doing. If the NHL re-aligns the divisions and brings Carolina and Columbus back to the division in place of Boston and Buffalo, and opens up the playoffs to a conference of two divisions, then the mountain to climb will become even higher.
All this points to the same result: the Rangers, as constructed, are too good to be among the worst teams in the NHL and not good enough to even compete for the playoffs in a shortened, division-only regular season schedule. Be my guest and put your head in the sand since I am a Devil fan writing this, but the Rangers are in Purgatory. They will be even if they somehow win the entire Week of Hate. They are set up to be there beyond this season. Their stay will continue if and when mistakes are made. And Purgatory is a place that sucks. You know what teams are that are in a place that sucks? Teams that suck. And so, the Rangers suck now and will continue to suck for quite a while.
As a last tip, maybe you should consider making a move to make your stay in hockey irrelevancy more entertaining. Get some additional buzz. Some attention in a city that does not give a damn about you unless you’re playing for something of value and the Yankees, Giants, Mets, Jets, and Knicks didn’t do anything of note that day. My suggestion will be to get James Dolan more involved. He’s terrible but will get attention despite the Purgatory they are mired in. I know that can’t really happen since he apparently lost a power struggle about two decades ago. But if any organization deserves the James Dolan treatment, it’s the New York Rangers.
In the meantime, enjoy that ultimately meaningless push for fifth in the East. I’ll be over here with the People Who Matter supporting the hope that the Devils will prevail in The Week of Hate. As explained in this post, even if they do not, the Rangers will still suck. As ever, I wish the Rangers the worst.