Thursday, March 17, 2011

Could This Be Sean Avery's Last Season With The Rangers?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
When New York Rangers coach John Tortorella inserted Sean Avery back in the lineup on Tuesday against the Islanders many expected that we would see an inspired Avery take the ice and make a statement about how he deserves to be in the lineup.  Instead, the performance that Avery gave was arguably his worst of the season as he only played 7:18 in the game and still managed to take three penalties, two in the offensive zone, and one which cost the Rangers a goal.  

I have given Avery credit this year for being the good soldier and his effort in the limited minutes he has gotten over the course of the season, but there is no way to defend Tuesday’s performance.  Coming off that kind of game the upside to Avery playing against the Canadiens in not worth the risk and he should find himself back in the press box with Wojtek Wolski back in the lineup.

The question today goes beyond whether Avery should or will play against Montreal, but if Avery’s spot on this team is in jeopardy for next season.   

At his best Avery brings energy, toughness, agitation and some underrated passing ability.  Those skills have produced three goals and 21 assists in 70 games this year.  While the overall numbers look respectable given his amount of ice time they are also inflated by early season production.  In the first eight games this season, while teamed mainly with Derek Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko Avery had one goal and six assists. Over his past 22 games Avery has only produced one goal and four assists and his impact on the games has been limited.  

There is no denying that part of his reduced production is related to both his reduced ice time and the quality of his linemates, but there is also a statement being made by the coaching staff on how they view Avery now and going forward.  The statement says that he is a fourth line player who will be 31 next month and predominantly plays under minutes a game now.  Is that player worth nearly 2 million dollars next season? I would have to answer no.  

The Rangers have made the movement towards youth and Avery’s spot on the team has largely been replaced by Brandon Prust.  With the Rangers needing to sign key restricted free agents Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Artem Anisimov and Michael Sauer and potentially chase Brad Richards this team will need to free up some money under the cap.  Eliminating Avery’s 1.9375 million will not be a magic bullet to fix the cap, as resolving the Chris Drury situation is more important for that, but it can certainly help.  The combination of the salary, his diminishing role on the team and the obvious lack of trust from the coaching staff in Avery his potential departure has to be considered a possibility.

I doubt that any team would trade for Avery after what happened in Dallas, but he has been very well behaved this year, so maybe someone would take the chance on him and believe that Tortorella has been making him play a calmer game, which has limited his effectiveness.  Yet another storyline to look for in in what should be a very interesting summer.

The Rangers Power Play Is Actually Becoming A Weapon

For much of the season the New York Rangers power play was something so painful to watch that the running commentary the NHL should devise a system where you could actually decline opposition penalties.  Don’t look now, but that is no longer the case.  In March the Rangers have converted 7 of 25 power plays (28%).  That number alone would be impressive from where it has been over the course of the season, but over the past four games the power play unit has clicked for 6 goals in just 14 opportunities (43%).  The recent surge has raised the team’s season percentage to 17.7%, which pulls them to a respectable 15th in the league after being significantly lower for much of the year.

What if anything can account for such a drastic change in these results? 


The trade for Bryan McCabe has certainly had an impact on the power play as he has brought a true quarterbacking presence to the unit.  McCabe unlike many of the other players the Rangers have tried on the point this season understands the nuances of running a power play.  There have been a number of noticeable differences with him in the fold.  His ability to hold the blue line and keep possession in the offensive zone has been huge in maintaining pressure on their opponents and eventually wearing them down for goals later in the man advantage.  The understanding of to walk the line create lanes not only for his own shot, but also for others to get open.  Potentially the biggest is the fear of his shot, which the Rangers have not possessed all season to make the defense honor the point and have to play higher in certain instances which creates room and holes elsewhere.


For much of the season I have pleaded with the Rangers to attack the net more and get more traffic in front on the power play, but even beyond that play with a more aggressive mentality.  You had a team that played aggressive hockey at even strength and shorthanded, but was passive when they were on the power play.  They were content to pass the puck around for much of the time in the offensive zone and then shoot it into the bodies of the defense.  This has not been the same recently.  The Rangers have been more aggressive both in general shooting but also attacking the net down low.  They have had power play goals scored in front from tap-ins, shots in the slot and rebounds. 

This is partially because of the attention that McCabe demands, but also a more aggressive mindset, most notably from players like Erik Christensen.  The Rangers would suffer through far too many power players with no shots and now they are firing when they have the chance.  Over those last four games the team has had 30 shots on goal in those 14 power play opportunities.  It seems they have finally figured out that you cannot score if you do not shoot.  All the best power plays dictate to their opponent’s and the Rangers are finally starting to do that.

This recent hot-streak on the power play could be a fluke, but if it is a sign of things to come down the stretch and in the playoffs it adds another dimension to the Rangers as a hockey team.  If they can find a way to combine their defense and goaltending with an offense that can chip in on the power play they would become a very dangerous opponent as special teams is at a premium in the playoffs.  For now at least Rangers’ fans no longer have to groan each time they go on the power play, joke about how they should decline the penalty or wonder if it will kill the team’s momentum and instead can look forward to hearing Sam Rosen say, “It’s a power play goal.”