Thursday, December 9, 2010

Are the Rangers A Better Team Without Drury and Prospal?

As the New York Rangers take the ice tonight in Ottawa for their 30th game of the season they will do so once again without what were considered to be two key components to their team in Captain Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal.  The two have combined to appear in one game and play 9:11 of the season to this point.  If you had told Rangers fans that in basically 29 games without these two and 13 without Gaborik the team would be 16-12-1 coming into action this evening I think most would have signed up for it with no hesitation.  With those two on the mend many are expecting the Rangers to only get better and many are speculating on the decisions the team will have to make in terms of the roster when they return.  Today I want to focus instead on the flip side which is in light of the record and the identity the team has formed to this point are the Rangers better off without Drury and Prospal?

I admit off the top that the club has missed both Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal in different situations this season and both would add talent and depth to the roster which is never a bad thing.  In Drury the Rangers would be getting back one of the top penalty killers on the team and even possibly in the league, their Captain and a player who can chip in some offense.  In Prospal they would be getting somewhat of an unknown seeing as how Vinny has a history of alternating good years and mediocre ones and it his age knee injuries are nothing to take lightly in their returns.  With that said about Prospal he was their second best offensive player over the course of last season and show good chemistry with Marian Gaborik who is still searching for a combination that works this season.  I will also gladly admit that the return of Drury and Prospal has one easy removal in Todd White and right now appears that Frolov or possibly Christensen would be the second to be taken from the lineup at least on nights where Boogaard is deemed necessary so there is some dead weight that can be taken out.

Here is where I come to the part where I wonder if the return of these guys is more detrimental to the team than the positives they bring.  The absence of both of these players has created opportunities for players who almost assuredly would not have gotten them if they had been healthy.  Derek Stepan not only stayed on the opening night roster, but has and will again tonight been given the opportunity to center the top line with Marian Gaborik as Tortorella does his search for the right combination which might have never happened had either or both Drury and Prospal been healthy. 

Artem Anisimov started the season with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky which likely does not occur if Drury were healthy and in that opportunity Anisimov showed first as the second line center and then as the top line guy that he was more than capable of being a large offensive contributor in his second season helping to carry the team in the absence of Gaborik.  Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust likely never move above the fourth line with a fully healthy lineup to start the season to show the kind of play and progress both have made this season.

Those are at least four cases of players who have had large impacts in the first 29 games in no small part due to opportunities they might never have been afforded with a healthy Drury and Prospal.  The Rangers over the course of the year, especially in the absence of Gaborik, have identified a style that allows them to be successful in a hard forechecking, cycle, grind it out offensive system while hitting and blocking shots have been their calling cards defensively.  The return of Drury and Prospal does not necessarily force a change to either of those things, but what it does do is potentially shake the roster in terms of roles for players and the time they get on the ice. 

In Drury’s case a lot of his impact will depend on if at least to start the team tries to protect his finger by keeping him away from draws.  Even in that though there is the possibility where he plays center with Dubinsky and Callahan and Dubi takes all the draws instead of moving Drury to a wing position.  If Drury plays with those two then he is taking away a top six forward spot from Anisimov likely relegating him to the fourth line which is not where AA’s play warrants him being nor will it help his overall development.  Drury could also force Boyle and or Prust back to the fourth line if they make him the third line center with say Avery and Fedotenko on his wings forcing one or two players who have been among the most consistent Rangers a demotion they do not deserve.  It is certainly possible that Drury could put installed as the fourth line center, but I do not see that as very likely to start and his working with Anisimov, Dubinsky and Callahan in practice would only strengthen those beliefs.

Prospal is likely to be slotted with Gaborik either on his left wing or as his center which as his left wing likely only pushes Avery or Fedotenko down to the fourth line, but at center creates a huge domino effect which could impact Stepan, Anisimov, Boyle and Christensen.  A lot of this will depend on how Stepan plays the next few weeks (hopefully he gets that long a look) with Gaborik to determine if what needs tinkering when Vinny is ready is the wing or the center.

All in all what we have is a scenario where players that have been very important to the fact the team has held it together to the tune of 16-12-1 in their absence will have their roles, and playing time likely negatively impacted not by anything they did but simply by the return of these two players.  That goes against the supposed desire for accountability and you get what you earn that is preached so often by Torts in speaking about his team.  You have unknowns if players will defer to these two in the same way guys like Dubinsky seem to be scaling back with the return of Gaborik.  You have no idea if Callahan lessens his leadership role to not step on the toes of the Captain when he is back in charge of the room.  So while the Rangers might be getting better in the talent department it is still an open question whether they are getting better in the team department.

For the record here are the lines I would use starting out when they are all back:

Let me know what you think.