5 New York Rangers Who Must Improve in 2013-14
The New York Rangers are scorching hot right now, as they have won eight of their last 11 and have leaped to second place in the Metropolitan Division.
Despite the team as a whole playing much better, there are still players who need to improve for the rest of the 2013-14 season.
The Rangers are becoming a tough team to play against, but they need the next five players to pick up their game if they want to make a deep playoff run.
Which players need to step up their game? Read on to find out.
Michael Del Zotto
“But his play right now is good and hopefully it is going to continue.”
So said Alain Vigneault about Michael Del Zotto, as told to Larry Brooks of the New York Post.
It's true. This season's whipping boy has been playing better of late, including three assists in the month of January. His minutes are increasing, his game has been more physical and he seems more assertive with his passes.
That said, it's been five games. For most of the season, Del Zotto has been a frequent scratch, a disaster in his own end and lacking any of the offensive spark that got him to the NHL in the first place.
Maybe the start of the New Year is a sign that things are turning around. That would be great. This is a defenseman who played over 22 minutes per game and had 41 points on a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12.
I've written in this space that it would be foolish to give up on Del Zotto, not when his value is so low. He still can be a valuable player.
But he does need to start showing it. He needs to continue to play physically, with awareness in his own end and with crisp, smart passes. If he does that, the Rangers will be much better off.
Take a look at the tale of two Derek Stepans, between this season and last season:
That's not pretty. It is true that Stepan held out to begin the year, and yes, he converted on an unsustainable 16.7 percent of his shots last season. But the fact that he had nearly as many assists last year as he does points this year is telling.
Stepan is the No. 1 center. He plays with the two most talented offensive players in Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. Maybe he doesn't need to score as many goals—although his conversion rate of 5.8 percent is drastically lower than his career average of 11.2 percent—but he does need to dish more effectively.
The 23-year-old will probably receive a boost from playing in the Olympics, and will certainly benefit from the improving play of Rick Nash.
But the Rangers need their top center to start playing like one. The longer it takes, the worse off the Rangers will be.
Anton Stralman plays a lot of minutes for the Rangers.
He averages just under 20 minutes per game, and has only played less than 15 minutes twice this season—once in the season opener, and again when he injured his wrist in a December game against Washington.
And yet, despite the ice time, Stralman doesn't have much to show for it. He has just four points and is minus-nine.
That's quite a contrast from his previous two seasons in New York. In 101 games with the Rangers heading into this season, Stralman had 25 points and was an impressive plus-23. In 30 postseason games, Stralman was plus-two.
So what's happened? He's certainly missed his regular partner, Marc Staal, who has only played in 37 games this year.
But beyond that, Stralman just has a knack for dumb giveaways that lead to goals. Whether it's an errant pass in his own zone, or a bobble of the puck, Stralman seems to be having difficulty making the easy play.
It's a shame, because he had been so good the past two years, and had established himself as a legitimate top-four defenseman.
The Rangers need to hope that Stralman finds his game and becomes steady once again. If not, they will need to search for someone to fill his minutes.
Derick Brassard has eight goals and 17 assists this season. Fourteen of those points have come on the power play.
While it's great that Brassard can produce with the man-advantage, it's clear that Alain Vigneault wants more from him on five-on-five, telling Larry Brooks of the New York Post:
I expect more from him five-on-five in generating offensive opportunities and being very dependable defensively. For some reason, maybe it’s the extra room and extra time, I wouldn’t say he’s the quarterback, but he’s been finding open people. I hope it rubs off on his five-on-five.
Brassard did score an even-strength goal Sunday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, but it is time for him to do more.
When he came over from Columbus last season, Brassard went on a tear, notching 11 points in 13 regular-season games, and 12 points in 12 postseason games. In 25 games, he had 23 points. In 46 games this year, he has 25 points.
So he needs to pick up his game. It's encouraging to see his play in the month of January, where he has four points in six games. But it needs to happen every game.
Brassard, in my mind, entered the season as the No. 2 center. He's now the No. 3 center. The Rangers need him to play better.
The early signs of 2014 are encouraging. But it's not enough. If he can play better, the Rangers will only benefit.
John Moore is the fifth defenseman, so the Rangers can't expect too much from him.
That said, the Rangers do need more from him.
But, to be honest, I think the Rangers are using him incorrectly.
Moore's best asset is his speed. He's pretty dangerous on the rush. In addition, he has a wicked wrister from the point. But you almost never see him on the power play.
Instead, Moore plays a little over 15 minutes a game and has just nine points.
So yes, he could be used differently. But with the minutes he is given, Moore simply doesn't do enough.
If Moore wants to become a really important player for the Rangers, then he needs to make better use of his minutes. That means leading the rush more and using his speed. If he does that on a regular basis, then he could see his minutes increase.