New York Rangers' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
The New York Rangers are entering the final month of the 2013-14 season. With just 17 games remaining, the Rangers find themselves in second place in the Metropolitan Division and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
But a playoff spot is not guaranteed, as there are eight teams fighting for just four playoff spots.
And the Rangers are a different team than they were a week ago, now that they have acquired Martin St. Louis and traded away captain Ryan Callahan.
So what are the Rangers' five biggest questions heading into the final month of the 2013-14 season?
Read on to find out.
How Will Marty St. Louis Fit In?
So far, so good for Marty St. Louis as a Ranger.
In three games, St. Louis has one assist—the game-winning assist against Carolina—and has looked dynamic in all phases of the game.
He's looked particularly comfortable on a line with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. The trio of Richards, St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello looked absolutely stunning Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
St. Louis is a pure playmaker. In 64 games this year, St. Louis has 29 goals and 33 assists. He's equally adept at finishing and scoring. He is, without a doubt, the Rangers' best offensive weapon.
If he meets expectations, then the Rangers will benefit greatly, especially on the power play. If he struggles away from the friendly confines of Tampa Bay, then the Rangers will have a hard time scoring goals.
The early returns are good, but the question of whether St. Louis will fit in has yet to be answered.
How Will the Loss of Ryan Callahan Affect the Room?
Trading a captain in the middle of the season usually signals that a team is raising the white flag.
Not for the Rangers.
In fact, the Rangers' decision to trade of Ryan Callahan may end up helping the team on the ice.
But there are real concerns about the effects of trading a captain in the middle of a playoff run. Will there be a leadership void? Will the team miss Callahan's presence?
It's hard to say for sure since we aren't privy to the discussions in the room. But it has to be a question mark.
After all, it was well known that the team did respond to Callahan. Brad Richards gushed about Callahan's leadership to Larry Brooks of the New York Post in 2012:
But all our guys follow him, and we follow him because night in and night out, his level of effort is always going to be the highest of anybody on the ice for both sides.
Think of it, at his age, to be captain of an Original Six team, and in New York City; he handles it all properly, the way he represents himself and the team.“He’s done an unbelievable job as our leader.
Now, that guy is gone. There are plenty of high-effort guys on the roster, but there is no Ryan Callahan. As the team fights for a playoff spot, will that extra push be missed? Will the example that Callahan put forth go away? Will the team stop working hard?
It's only been three games, so it's too soon to tell. But if the Rangers put together a string of games in which their effort level isn't there, then you can trace it back to the trading of Callahan.
Which Henrik Lundqvist Will Show Up?
Henrik Lundqvist shut out the Detroit Red Wings today and held the Carolina Hurricanes to just two goals on Friday.
But he gave up 13 goals in his first three games after the Olympic break, all games in which the Rangers lost.
Put simply, the Rangers cannot make the playoffs if Lundqvist continues a sort of yo-yo act. If he continues to be inconsistent, then the Rangers will struggle.
It's been a weird season for Lundqvist. A rough October, followed by a solid November, then a disastrous December, followed up by a remarkable January and February. And then March comes along, and it seems like the entire season has been encapsulated in the first five games of the month.
Which Lundqvist are the Rangers going to get? Will it be the one that led Team Sweden to silver and brought the Rangers back into the playoff hunt?
Or will it be the Lundqvist that slogged through December?
The answer to that question will determine whether or not the Rangers make the playoffs.
Will the Bottom Defense Pairing Hold Up?
The Rangers' top three defensemen—Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal—are outstanding.
The other three—Anton Stralman, Kevin Klein and John Moore—are a bit more suspect.
Coach Alain Vigneault expressed his concern about Stralman and Klein to Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News:
I do think they both can be a little bit better and they have to be a little bit better. I agree with that. A big part of our game is coming up clean, coming up together and making that first initial pass beating that forecheck. That’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we’re getting something on the rush, and then once we’re in the zone, then we can create a little bit more. But to do that you need that good first pass, and those guys have been a little bit off, and they need to be better...
Stralman, of the three, needs to get better the fastest. He plays on the second pair with Marc Staal. He plays the most minutes of the three and sees the best players. He played better against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, but he needs to be consistently better.
Klein, whom the Rangers acquired from Nashville in exchange for Michael Del Zotto, needs to pick things up. At his best, he's a simple, no-nonsense defender. Not flashy, but he gets the job done. Lately, however, he hasn't been getting the job done. After playing 18 minutes against the Boston Bruins last Sunday, Klein played just 12 minutes against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 13 minutes against the Carolina Hurricanes and just under 15 minutes against Detroit.
The Rangers cannot rely on three defenders. The other three will need to play and play well. If they don't, it could spell trouble.
Can the Rangers Score Enough Goals?
The Rangers average 2.6 goals per game, which is 19th in the league.
That may not be good enough. The Rangers have been able to rely on defense and the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist. But can they get in the playoffs if they struggle to score goals?
The addition of Marty St. Louis should help. He should rejuvenate Brad Richards and should help the power play. Rick Nash has been good since returning from the Olympics, and the return of Mats Zuccarello should help, too.
But can this be a team that can consistently score three goals a game? Or will the Rangers have to scrap for a goal each game?
It's simple: If the Rangers cannot get consistent offense, they will struggle to make the playoffs.