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Welcome to What Went Wrong, which is a series where we take a look at each team that failed to make the playoffs with an emphasis on why they fell short. We’ll also end each team’s outlook by highlighting some players in the organization to watch going forward, either because the team is looking for them to be key members in the future or because they have something to prove after a less than ideal year.
We have previously covered the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks , the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, the Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes, the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames as well as the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars.
The New York Rangers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in four seasons after finishing fifth in the East Division with a record of 27-23-6. They were 11 points behind the New York Islanders for the fourth and final spot. The Rangers qualified for the expanded 2020 postseason, but were swept in a best-of-five series against Carolina during the qualifying round.
New York got off to poor start in 2020-21 with a mark of 7-9-3. The first 13 matches were particularly concerning when the team ranked 26th in the league in goals for per game played (2.38) despite sitting eighth in shots for per game played (31.5), seventh in scoring chances for during five-on-five situations and seventh in high-danger scoring chances for at five-on-five. The Rangers’ power play was 28th overall, while scoring six times on 52 chances.
Mika Zibanejad became the poster boy for New York’s early-season offensive struggles. He only had two goals and six points through 19 matches, including one goal and two assists in 15 games to start the year. 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and 2019 second overall selection Kaapo Kakko combined for just four goals and three helpers during that same opening 19-game span.
Unfortunately, the Rangers created too deep of hole to dig their way out of and their 11-17-4 record versus the top-four teams in the division didn’t help matters. The team was unable to make up much ground as a result. Additionally, the Rangers’ troubling theme of playing catch-up surfaced within games. New York ranked 20th in win percentage when trailing first (.231) and 28th in win percentage when they trailed after the second period (.059).
Off the ice, the Rangers had their share of controversies, which served as distractions and removed key players from the lineup. Defenseman Tony DeAngelo was involved in an altercation with goaltender Alexander Georgiev, which led to DeAngelo’s dismissal from the team. He amassed 15 goals and 53 points in 68 games in 2019-20 prior to becoming a problem on and off the ice. Artermi Panarin took a leave of absence following unfounded, and later discredited, allegations that he was involved in a physical altercation with a young women 10 years ago. The Rangers’ leading producer was limited to 42 appearances because of that and injuries, but he still racked up 17 goals and 58 points.
The Rangers fired team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton late in the year. It is not believed that they were fired because of a statement released by the organization, which criticized the NHL and the Department of Player Safety for not suspending Washington’s Tom Wilson after he injured Panarin. It also called for the removal of George Parros, who serves as the Head of Player Safety. The timing was certainly eyebrow raising because it came right after the incident and initial reports indicated that there may have been a connection. The Rangers were fined $250,000 for the scathing release.
Chris Drury took over the roles of president and GM for the Rangers. The team continued to clean house after the year when head coach David Quinn as well as assistants Jacques Martin, David Oliver and Greg Brown were fired. Quinn had a 96-87-25 record in three years with the Rangers. Gerard Gallant, who coached Canada to a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship, was hired to serve as the bench boss of the Rangers. He coached the Vegas Golden Knights for parts of three seasons before he was dismissed during the 2019-20 campaign.
For all the turmoil and the slow start, New York did manage to turn some of their issues around. The Rangers improved to 10th overall with 3.14 goals for per game played, while moving up to 14th (20.7%) on the man advantage and tied for the eighth-most power-play goals (37). Zibanejad, Lafreniere and Kakko increased their scoring numbers as the season progressed. Igor Shesterkin generally played well in the crease despite battling some inconsistencies. His play has confirmed that New York’s goaltending situation is in good hands.
The team’s lack of depth proved to be a problem once absences and injuries piled up, especially on the back end, but Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller are great players to build around along with Jacob Trouba. Fox has been outstanding for the Rangers through two seasons. He ranked second among all blueliners with 47 points (five goals, 42 assists) in 55 games last year. Nils Lundkvist, who was named the best Swedish-born blueliner in the SHL this past season, could be another one to monitor going into next season.
There is plenty to like about the roster and the hiring of Gallant could be impactful. Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich have proven to be solid contributors as top-six forwards, while complimenting Zibanejad and Panarin nicely. The Rangers have the resources to make a splash in the summer via a trade or free agency. Even though it may be difficult to land a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference next season, New York has been trending in the right direction.
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Mika Zibanejad – As previously noted it was a terrible start to the season for Zibanejad. He missed most of training camp after he tested positive for COVID-19 and it took some time for him to get back on track. He racked up 23 goals and 47 points in 41 games after he had one goal and two assists in 15 matches to start the year. Zibanejad registered two six-point performances versus Philadelphia, which included a hat trick in each match, and he was on the scoresheet much more consistently. The Rangers need more of that in 2021-22 because it gives the team two very dangerous lines offensively when Zibanejad and Panarin are productive on their own combinations.
Chris Kreider – Kreider also had a sluggish start to the 2020-21 season, while providing four goals and no assists through 13 contests. He picked up 13 markers and seven helpers over his next 21 outings. However, Kreider cooled off again down the stretch with three goals and three assists in his final 16 matches of the year. He sat out the last six games of the regular season because of a lower-body injury. It was a streaky season for Kreider, which isn’t something that is exactly new for him. Still, he is an important forward who needs to do more in the second season of his seven-year, $45.5 million contract.
Kaapo Kakko – Kakko progressed from his rookie year, but he only generated nine goals and 17 points across 48 games during his sophomore season in the NHL. He averaged 14:21 of ice time per game, which should increase next campaign. Kakko missed game action in 2020-21 when he was on the COVID protocol list. It took him some time to get back to full strength and it was a concerning situation because he is a Type-1 diabetic. The Rangers need the 20-year-old forward to take a big step forward in the 2021-22 season. He will get a fresh start under a new head coach and that has him very motivated going into training camp.
Alexis Lafreniere – Lafreniere was held off the scoresheet in 14 in his first 15 NHL outings. His only point during that span was an overtime game winner versus Buffalo in the seventh contest of his NHL career. Lafreniere picked up points in bunches afterward, including a six-game stretch from Feb. 20-Mar. 3 when he had three goals and three assists. He wrapped up his first pro campaign with five markers and eight points in 12 matches. Hopefully, Lafreniere can build off that momentum and Gallant keeps him in the team’s top-six forward group.