If one conclusion can be drawn from the handful of NHL games played thus far, it is simply that the Rangers are desperately lacking in terms of offensive depth. We're not referring to the kind of depth that a team dreams of, the kind where the third line can be counted on to chip in more than its fair share of goals. If only that were the case.
The kind of depth the Rangers lack, rather, is of the variety that any team that hopes to accomplish anything of note requires, namely a second unit that can consistently create pressure, score goals with regularity and relieve some of the offensive burden from the first unit.
Heading into the season, the expectation was that the Rangers were indeed well-equipped in this regard in that the line of Anisimov-Dubinsky-Callahan would follow up a very strong 2010-2011 season and provide cover for the Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik combination.
This expectation was not based on hope or fantasy but rather on past performance. The threesome was consistently effective a year ago and would have produced more gaudy numbers if not for the numerous injuries to Callahan that disrupted their flow.
The harsh reality staring the team in the face now, though, is that the Anisimov line may have overachieved last season, meaning that perhaps they are truly more in the mold of that rare third line that teams crave and not the rock-solid second unit they were expected to be.
There is not one true sniper among them, no pure goal scorer, and consequently there is no compelling reason for an opposing coach to focus defensive resources away from trying to neutralize the Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik combination.
With his recent line combinations, Rangers' head coach John Tortorella is making it clear that the Anisimov line from a season ago is, well, a thing of the past. It would seem that Tortorella has grown comfortable with Richards centering Dubinsky and Callahan and with Derek Stepan as the pivot for Marian Gaborik.
Whether Tortorella likes it or not, he will have to stop tinkering with his combinations. Part of the early struggles the team has had offensively are undoubtedly connected to Tortorella's insistence on moving his assets around. It is ironic, really, that the same coach who rarely breaks up his defense pairings cannot see the benefits of doing the same with his line combinations.
With Tortorella, though, tinkering is simply par for the course. He will more than likely not be able to contain himself in this regard, and so the clear expectation going forward will be that changes will happen.
One development that will certainly result in upheaval is the return of Sean Avery from the AHL. For all of the nonsense that surrounds Avery and his career in the NHL, the reality is that he is actually a skilled forward in addition to being the preeminent firestarter he is known to be.
The issue, though, is that Tortorella appears to have defined Avery's role very narrowly, thinking of him as the natural replacement for the injured Mike Rupp and not as a viable solution to the front end of the offense.
As Tortorella was quoted in the New York Post recently, “When Rupp goes out, to me it’s the right call to bring Sean back because he fills that role. Sean’s best strength are his legs, he’s a terrific skater, and a big part of his game is forechecking and playing below the hash marks."
Where does Avery fit?
So, while it's a positive that Avery is returning, it does not appear that he will be utilized in a way that will impact the top two lines. This is a shame, because in addition to his skating abilities, Avery has demonstrated, when given the opportunity, that he can also be a skilled passer and shooter.
As it stands today, the Rangers are still in search of a left wing for the Stepan-Gaborik line. Wojtek Wolski, who has filled the role recently, would appear to be a solid choice, but he has yet to demonstrate the level of consistency required for a second-unit player.
Moreover, Wolski is simply not the player you call upon to do the dirty work in the corners night in and night out, and this is exactly what the Stepan-Gaborik pairing will need to flourish. Avery can be that and more for this line, and as pointed out by Tortorella, he has the skating ability to keep up with both of these players.
It remains to be seen how Avery is utilized by Tortorella. Avery will either be that eight-to-10 minute per game guy who is called upon to generate some energy, or he will be used in such a way as to maximize his true worth.
Tortorella, for all of his quirks, does have the heart of this team and its best interests in mind, and he is not so stubborn as to sacrifice success to satisfy his own beliefs and feelings. It is no secret that he has a personal dislike for Sean Avery, not as a player but as a man, due to Avery's past behavior. However, it is difficult to imagine Tortorella would allow his personal feelings to influence his coaching decisions as they regard the use of Avery.
It will, in large part, be up to Sean Avery himself to convince Tortorella that he is more than a mere replacement for Mike Rupp. Avery will have to contribute when called upon and not fall into the traps he has in the past, taking needless penalties and undermining his team's efforts. If Avery can be the player that his skills suggest he can be, and if he can prove that he is a more mature and centered player, it would benefit the team overall to allow him to contribute to a larger degree.
One undeniable certainty is that the Rangers will need consistent production from the second unit. With Stepan and Gaborik they have two of the pieces they'll need, and if given the opportunity Avery can be that third piece. Whether Tortorella sees it that way, however, is another story entirely.