Saturday, December 25, 2010

Are The Rangers A Better Team Without Marian Gaborik?

Abelimages/Getty Images 
One of the biggest reasons for the New York Rangers success this season has been the formation of a team identity not only in the style of play but in the mental toughness of the club.  The team has overcome injuries to various key personnel and taken on the approach of “next man up” in terms of every one has to pick things up when someone is out.  It is the kind of mentality that say no matter the names on the back of the jersey everyone with Rangers on the front will do whatever it takes on that given night to try and get the win.  It is the definition of what has made this year’s club different from some of the recent past and why win or lose they have been enjoyable to watch most nights.

Few teams would be able to post a 20-14-2 record when they lost their leading scorer from last season for 14 games; their second leading scoring the whole season; their captain for 29 games and the heart and soul of their club for the four and another six weeks in all likelihood.  The Rangers have and they are to be commended for it.  Watching the club with each guy out you see different scenarios where that particular player could have made a difference, but what I have also seen is that there a few players in particular, but the team as a whole seems to play harder and with more of an edge when Gaborik is missing.  Obviously you cannot truly blame Gaborik for that fact because he is not telling them to play with less intensity, less aggression, but his presence seems to change the mentality of others in the lineup.  It leads me to ask, Are the Rangers a better team without Marian Gaborik?

From a skill perspective the answer is a resounding no, especially on a team like the Rangers which lacks overall skill level even with Gaborik in the lineup.  Even when Gaborik is not scoring or having a large impact on the game he is drawing attention from the other team with each shift and constantly drawing the best defensive pair against him.  Not to mention with him out there is always the possibility that he could strike at any moment, even if he had been invisible all night to that point.

Where it gets interesting though is that the identity of this team has absolutely nothing to do with skill, but outworking the opponent in every area of the ice and using hard work to overcome the talent deficiencies they have.  Many of the guys overall effort is still there with Gaborik in the lineup, but what lacks is the aggression offensively matching the same level it does when he is not there to rely or look to for the goal.  There is just a different sense of urgency.

There is no better example of this than Brandon Dubinsky who the other night played his most complete game in a while and the last 12 minutes of regulation was everywhere on the ice dominating the play.   I had Dubinsky attempting nine shots in the game and putting five on the net against Tampa Bay.  Another guy who was all over the ice was Artem Anisimov who had a whopping eleven shot attempts and six shots on goal in the game.  Anisimov came into the game having only hit the net 9 times combined in his last 10 games.  Those are just a couple of examples from the game against the Lightning.

The even bigger issue than just waiting for Gaborik to make the play when he is in the lineup and how that impacts the aggression certain players play with is the lack of consistency Gaborik’s presence is causing in terms of who is playing where.  If you go through the stretches where Gaborik was out and then look at when he is back you will clearly see a spike in the amount of Tortorella line lottery that is played with the main objective being getting Gaborik going.  It is all well and good to try and get your best offensive threat going, but at some point you have to ask: Is it worth it at any expense to everyone else that this is happening?

I say that because I saw a top line that worked and should be left together but if Gaborik comes back for Monday's game I do not know how likely that is.  I say that because whether he has earned the spot this season or not you can nearly bet everything on the fact that once Vinny Prospal is cleared to play he will go back to the top line with Gaborik immediately no matter who loses a spot for it to happen. 
I think that for lines to work at this level there needs to be a level of chemistry, but not all chemistry is of the instant variety.  Chemistry can be built upon the foundation of familiarity as well and when Gaborik has a game where he does not light it up Tortorella pulls the plug and tries a new combination to get him going.  Not only does this impact the team from game to game, but I think it does within a game as well because as much as we collectively joke about better not have a bad shift or you get moved there has to be some of that thought process that creeps in on the team.  Maybe the best way to describe it just to say they play with a tighter personality when Gaborik is in the lineup and at times they seem paralyzed to do the things they would do otherwise.

For me it is not an issue of purely not being able to play with skill because Zuccarello displayed his the other night and they played aggressively around him, but maybe in there is part of the answer in that the Rangers take on, to an extent, the personality of their most skilled player on that given night.  When Zuccarello or Dubinsky play their aggressive forecheck, attack the net style the rest of the team pushes harder to maintain that level, but when Gaborik fails to take the hit or attack the net and plays passive many of the other top guys do as well.  If this is part of what goes on then let us hope that the joking the other night about his acupuncture in the groin region helped him find his balls because they need him to be more aggressive in his game.  If you could put Zuccarello’s mentality into Gaborik’s body then we would be talking about a star.

As I said earlier none of these things are the fault of Marian Gaborik, but from a TEAM perspective I do think the Rangers play better overall hockey without him in the lineup right now even though the record says they are clearly better with Gaborik in the lineup.  The team is 13-8-1 with him in the lineup and 7-6-1 without him, so as frustrated as many of us have been with his lack of impact in many games and how other guys have let themselves take backseats in his presence the overall team record is better, so he must be doing something right.  The mantra for Tortorella has been that everyone earns what they get in terms of not only playing time, but the situations they are put in, but it is tough to argue he has not given special consideration to Gaborik in that regard.  So on a team where it has been about the name on the front and not the one on the back, at least one man has been put higher up than the rest.  For a Rangers club that has been built all season on next man up and right now it is more than time for that man to be Marian Gaborik.  If he does at least then the pedestal would have a foundation for its current existence.