Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rangers Offensive Struggles Becoming a Greater Concern; What Will Fix It?

The New York Rangers are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and have a respectable 3-2-1 mark in January, but there are definite signs of concern with what is going on at the moment.  There has been a lot of talk of late about the Rangers defensive core and their age as the youngest group in the league (24.9 years-old), but the defense and goaltending have been what is keeping this team in games and it is the offense that is struggling.  The Rangers dealing with a struggling offense is nothing new for those who follow the club, but it appeared in the 2010-11 season concerns about the offense were to be alleviated with the scoring balance the Rangers showed through nearly the entire first half, but that seems to be lost at the moment.  Maybe it is only six games and it should not be something to worry about, but where has the offense gone in 2011?  Is it time to begin to get concerned?  Who and what can fix the situation?
In six games this month the Rangers offense has managed to tally just eight goals.  The 1.33 goals per game currently ranks the team 28th in January scoring, after being 2nd in December with 3.58 goals per game.  As a team they have failed to score more than two goals in any game.  To make matters worse this is truly a team epidemic as no player has more than one goal and there are only four skaters who have multiple points this month lead by Brandon Dubinsky with five, Mats Zuccarello with three, Marian Gaborik and Matt Gilroy with two each.  The saddest part of those numbers is that Henrik Lundqvist has three assists this month alone so he is actually tied for second on the club in January scoring.

There are many potential causes for the offensive struggles of this month: It could be that the injuries have finally caught up with the Rangers, but if that is truly what it is that could mean a long stretch of frustration leading into the all-star break as there have been no real indications that any of injured offensive players are that close to returning.  It could be that those who started out hot have just regressed back to their own personal mean in terms of output.  It definitely does not help when your power play goes 1-18 in the six games.  It could be that they just were unlucky considering they are  tallying 30.5 shots per game during this month and ran into some hot goaltenders.
The organization has already made a move in an attempt to fix the power outage in acquiring Wojtek Wolski on Monday and he showed flashes of the kind of offensive skill he possesses in his debut last night.  Once again there is hope that this change, like all the other lineup maneuvers, will finally be the one that sparks the 2009-10 version of Marian Gaborik to return to the ice.  The flashes have been there, but the results and certainly the consistency of impact has not.  The groans on Gaborik are appearing to get slightly louder and more frequent as the time fades further from his huge performances that were for some time boosting his overall output on paper.  The time has come for Marian to pull a JFK and stop asking what the team can do to get him going and ask what he can do to get the team going.  When you have as much skill as Gaborik does at some point the onus to get your own has to kick in regardless of everything else going on.
A couple weeks back the discussion was about how a guy like Brandon Dubinsky needed to stop waiting for Marian Gaborik to take over and mentally realize he is the one capable of doing it.  Dubinsky has answered that call and right now it appears the rest of the lineup sits there and waits for him to solve the problem.  For years the Rangers have searched for secondary scoring and once again suddenly that search appears to be on again.  Dubinsky was supposed to lead that charge of secondary scoring and he has more than held up his end, but the presumed leader has not and the rest of crew has fallen down on the job of late.  The surprise offensive contributors, whether it is for age or past performance, have come back down to Earth and we have a scenario where once again it is on the back of one player to be the driving force behind this offense. 
The acquisition of Wolski and the hopeful turn in Gaborik’s production would certainly help matters, but it might be that getting Stepan, Anisimov, Boyle going again and Zuccarello producing more during regulation that is the real key to solving the offensive slump that has taken hold so far.  Reality is the Rangers offense was producing before when Wolski was never here and Gaborik was still struggling at it is the production declines of these guys that are the real new event in 2011.  My worry is that many of these guys are hitting the wall because they are playing more games, minutes and important situations than they ever have before at this level.
How do they fix it?  The first and easiest fix is to consistently get back to what they were doing when they were producing which is forechecking, cycling and grinding out the goals.  There has been somewhat of a shift since adding the skill of Zuccarello and trading for more with Wolski to playing that type of game and this team is not really built for that.  When this team grinds offensively they create chances and these players produce points.
The next biggest fix which they have been trying to figure out for years is the power play.  The unit is once again passive and without a true direction as to what they are trying to accomplish.  It is not a new idea but time has come to put Brian Boyle on the power play and make use of his combination of hands and size to their advantage in front of the net.  Along with that the Rangers must get Derek Stepan off the point and let him play along the left wing wall where he is most comfortable and can be the most effective.  There is no aggression to the way the Rangers play with the man advantage and you feel that every time you see the team buzzing around in a game and the energy in the home crowd only to have it all sapped by the time the two minutes are over.   I talk about the aggression because it is shocking to me to see how much more aggressive the team is killing a penalty than with a man advantage and it is completely due to the mentality of the players on the ice.  With the power play the Rangers get away from their natural identity and try to out-skill people.  Instead they should be grinding those penalty killers into submission by outworking them and getting goals on exhausted opponents.

There are also those basic hockey proponents of screening goalies, driving the net, shooting low for rebounds that we many times seem averse to doing.
It is not time to panic on the offense or on the team especially because of how the defense and goaltending are playing, but there is real cause for concern.  The Rangers right now are still in very good position but the combination of a tough schedule and a tightening race means this offense needs a jolt before the all-star break.