Monday, January 3, 2011

Rangers Stray From Identity Reveals Depth of Callahan Void; Avery Key To Filling Hole?

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
This season the New York Rangers formed their identity as being a hard team to play against in terms of hitting, forechecking, cycle/puck possession and grinding their opportunities that way.  One of the guys on this club that epitomized that style is assistant captain Ryan Callahan.  When Ryan Callahan was first lost 19 days ago to his broken right hand I said in the aftermath that while other players could step in and fill parts of what he does the whole of Callahan and the hole his absence creates could not be completely filled.  There have been players who have stepped up in his absence: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan.  As a team in his absence if you count the Pittsburgh game in which he got hurt the team is a very respectable 4-2-2 overall. 

The problem for me is the way the Rangers go about their business has a much different feel and some of those results have a very hollow ring to them.  Of the four wins they probably deserved to lose the Phoenix and New Jersey games while in both Tampa games Lundqvist managed to steal them points.  Beyond that aspect of it, the process is not the same as this team truly is missing a spark.  Maybe it would be slightly different if Prust were really healthy and could fight or Avery were actually getting involved in the game, but the team seems to lack an overall drive right now.  Individual players that I mentioned above along with Mats Zuccarello who likely would not have come up if Callahan were healthy have played with their fire, but the team energy level is changed.

The forecheck which was the catalyst to this offense is not the same right now as it was and part of that for me is not just Callahan as an individual, but how the lines have been arranged in his absence.  The way the Rangers forecheck when they are at their best it is a tandem job done mainly by the wingers and so with Callahan out Dubinsky has been playing with Drury, Gaborik or Zuccarello on his wings and while at least two of those guys are willing to do it the effectiveness is not the same.  The only line that has been consistent since the injury is the Fedotenko, Boyle, Prust combination, but they are the only one that has been left together and so they know how to forecheck together, where each other are going to be and that familiarity can add a level of energy to a unit.

The team even when it has had a good shift has not been able to carry that over to the next group and that lack of transference especially early on in games has been a huge reason for all the slow starts and need for furious finishes.  Instead of the Rangers being the hard team to play against that attacks first and imposes their will on the opponent they have been acting like a reactionary unit and letting other teams dictate play.  As I said they have had individuals who have done these things but the team mentality to do it seems to be lost without the soul of the club in uniform.   This is partly because of roster moves they have made to attempt to be more skilled like the call-up of Zuccarello but also the moving of Frolov to the second line which both moves naturally make the team less physically imposing to play against. 

That all deals with what is missing in the absence of Callahan so who of the guys who is not showing up right now can most help fill that void?  For me the answer to that is easy in that it is Sean Avery.   Love him or hate, and most times he irks me more than he excites, he has the ability to bring energy to the club that they seem to be lacking, especially early in games.  For that reason it perplexes me that you have a guy in Sean Avery who can bring physicality and spark to the club and get them back to that attack mentality, especially early, but he stays on the fourth line.  Avery is certainly a game of Russian roulette, but when he is right he certainly adds more than the Russian they keep running out there on the left wing.  Also for whatever reason playing with Avery seems to energize Gaborik and playing with other physical guys also helps Anisimov so while the Rangers try to find their identity again without Callahan an elevation of Avery would certainly help try to fill the void.

So once again while the full void of missing Callahan cannot be achieved, with his return still a few weeks down the road and the schedule getting tougher what the Rangers need to do is get back to the mentality and identity he and this team had epitomized for so much of the first half of this season.  No matter how hard they try individually the five or six guys who have stuck to that mentality cannot do it on their own; it must get back to being a team exercise.  Doing that as simple and hard as it is will help to alleviate a lot of the other issues people suddenly want to talk about like the offense.