Friday, December 18, 2009

Don't get out your party hats

So the rapidly-plummeting Rangers beat the stagnantly-shitty Islanders 5-2 last night. And it was exciting, because we scored goals, and we got to cheer for those goals, and we won a game, and now there are a full four teams in the NHL with fewer points than we have.

And honestly, the game did have a different feel to it. Sure, they outshot us every period, including 14-4 in the first, but we came out of it up 2-0 regardless, and ultimately put our greasy rivals away. Small hoorays. It's a start.

We all know the important question is "Where do we go from here?" As Lundqvist put it, "It's hard to be satisfied" after this win. We know it's only one victory over a team as scrubby as ourselves, on the tail of a series of terrible games. What we need to talk about, well before we talk about turning anything around, is how to sustain and increase this kind of performance.

So, going into last night, Torts scratched Kotalik and Redden. This was absolutely a step in the right direction. The official lines he sent out were also interesting, bringing Christensen up onto the second line and shifting Drury down to the fourth (Lisin got the promotion up to Kotalik's spot, and Boyle was pushed out to wing on the fourth line). Meanwhile, Staal/Rozsival and Del Zotto/Girardi stayed together, leaving Heikkinen/Sanguinetti as the third pair.

Largely, that lineup is full of good signs. It means Torts doesn't fall victim to the Renneyitis of "if I'm gonna change the lineup at all, I might as well change all the lines!" It also means that scratching Redden wasn't a way to say "I only trust four defensemen." And the ice time kinda supported that: Sanguinetti, in his first game, only skated 8:46, but Heikkinen, who put in a much stronger effort, saw the ice for 12:35, still 10 minutes less than the other D-men, but a marked improvement, especially considering that it included 1:43 of shorthanded time.

Forward time was also more balanced (though not quite as balanced as it has to be). Donald "Haha suckers you're still paying me $1.4 million dollars! That's $7,527 a day!!" Brashear only got 4:36, but that's fine, because he is completely useless. That said, the theoretical move of Drury down to the 4th line balanced ice time out a bit, so he got about 15 minutes, Christensen got about 10, and Avery, Gaborik, Dubi, Prospal, Higgins, Drury, and Callahan each ranged between 12 and 22 minutes. I'd like to see more of that go to Avery (12:18), and I'd like to see Anisimov out there some more (did you see what he did for our fifth goal?), but it's a start.

And that's the theme, isn't it? "It's a start." The comforting things, once again, are the things coming out of the coach's mouth. Redden passed of his benching as "making an example" of him, which is insane. Torts responded with no illusions:

This isn't to make an example out of Wade Redden, Wade Redden hasn't played well enough to be in the lineup. I'm not interested in making examples out of people. A coach's responsibility is to put the best lineup on the ice. I felt I did that last night. It will be the same lineup going into Philly. For 25 to 30 games, we tried to stay with him, we tried to bring confidence in with him and go about it that way, and it hasn't worked. It's still trying to gain confidence, but there's going to be no entitlement around here. I think it kind of stinks of that around here. We've got kids, and this coaching staff and manager want to infuse some kids into our lineup because we feel that's going to be the best way to build it. We'll go through some bumps in the road with kids, but not with underachieving veterans. I just don't buy it and it's not going to work that way.

Preach it, John. The question that remains is how far we'll go with that. Sounds like we'll be keeping last night's lineup for tomorrow, which is a start. But we need more. Will Michal Rozsival, clearly kept around for his offensive mediocrity and not his defensive liability, keep seeing PP time but a decreased responsibility on ice? Will Girardi, who has absolutely been our best defenseman through this stretch, and who put on another fantastic show last night, see a corresponding increase? Will Anisimov and the like keep getting the chance to do what he did last night? When Redden gets his chance to come back, who sits, and for how long?

These are the questions that tomorrow afternoon's game in Philly will begin to answer. But hey - it's a start.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tonight's lineup

Well, it's a start. I'm concerned that it takes this much shitty play to create one benching, but Torts is actually sitting Wade Redden (who last night turned in a performance that would have fit right in with his play last season), along with Ales Kotalik tonight. Bobby Sanguinetti is in for the former, Erik Christensen for the latter. Aaron Voros could not be reached for comment in the secret space bunker where John Tortorella clearly has him held against his will. Also, Lundqvist will be playing again, God bless him.

Islanders 2, Rangers 1

I was going to talk a lot today but I was basically just going to write this column, so go read that instead: it'll save us both some time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

OK, that's sort of what I meant

So, first of all, a slight retraction: when Dubinsky was recalled to play against the Thrashers, we apparently sent Parenteau back down to make room for him. So, only two of those extra roster slots were spare fourth-liners (Voros and Christensen, if you believe that game's lineup). The third is now full of: Bobby Sanguinetti! That's right, in a shockingly reasonable move, the Rangers recalled Sanguinetti from the 'Pack today. Effectively, I expect this to be meaningless: Sanguinetti will likely be a healthy scratch tonight, and I can't see why I should expect Heikkinen to get more than 10 minutes (unless we're losing so badly so early that Torts doesn't care). But, hey, we're officially carrying 7 defensemen right now. Woot woot.

For those of you keeping score, the reason we're able to do this is that when we sent Gilroy down for better training, his $1.75 million cap hit went with him. This 23-man roster has a total cap hit of $56,631,666, an astonishing $168,334 under the cap. The official hockey term for that is "cutting it close." When Gilroy comes back, keep those numbers in mind.

I think we have a roster that can beat the Islanders tonight and/or tomorrow night, especially if we remember to use all our players. But we also could have beaten the Thrashers two nights ago. What I do know is that right now, the Rangers, Islanders, and Flyers are all tied in points, with 31 each. That makes the next four days very interesting for us.

7:00 at the Garden, Let's Go Rangers!

"There are good things we can take away from this"

We hear it a lot, only it was actually true two nights ago. Two nights ago, we outshot the Thrashers 48-27 and outplayed them for most of the game. It took a shootout (the poster child of the NHL's refusal to allow hockey in their hockey games) for the Thrashers to steal a second point from us (yes, it feels as good as you think it does to say that). Let me be clear about something: this is bullshit. To look at the game and take away "well, Gaborik needs to be better in the shootout" is like being one of those people who thinks all the big wars this century could have been prevented if only Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn't gone out in Sarajevo that day. Pragmatically, we would have taken away another point had we performed better in the shootout, but wow are you ever missing the point.

Sorry, that's kind of a bullshit analogy to whip out. Let's move on.

So, yes, there were good things to take away from the game. We certainly dominated most of play. We just couldn't seal the deal. "Stuck at two" is now the common mantra. We're stuck at two goals a game. Since November 12 (November 12, people), we beat the Jackets 7-4 that one time, and other than that, we've only scored over 2 goals in a game one time, when we scored 3 and gave up 8 to Pittsburgh. In our best effort in weeks, we proved we can outplay a team top to bottom, but we still can't seal the deal. Does this sound familiar?

There were good things to take away from the game. We worked hard on 5 consecutive power plays, putting 13 PP shots on net and scoring two PPG. We killed off two late third period minors which overlapped for 1:26 to keep the game tied, and we got a lot of excellent chances in overtime. But we didn't capitalize on a third power play, or score an even strength goal, or match the Thrashers' shorthanded tally, to turn that puck possession advantage into a win.

At even strength, there were also good things to take away. We outshot them 34-19 in 48:41 of 5-on-5 hockey. We even stood up for ourselves a bunch. But, zero of those 34 shots (some of which were admittedly of good quality) made their way past "Moose" and across that elusive red line. Let's be clear about even strength hockey here for a minute. Since losing 8-3 to the Penguins on November 28, we have scored a total of five even strength goals. All of these but Callahan's goal against the Sabres were first period goals. And other than that Sabres game, we haven't scored two even strength goals in the same game in that stretch.

Brandon Dubinsky was back, and he brought some good take-aways. He was a lot of the reason we played so hard. But let's not pretend he, or anyone else not named Marian, is scoring the difference-makers. The Rangers have scored 88 goals this season, putting them tied for 23rd in a league of 30. Without Gaborik's league-leading 23 goals, we'd be at 65, dead last in the league and 13 goals behind our closest competition.

So, maybe there are also some bad things to take away from our situation. We're down to 1-5-2 in our last eight now, and 7-14-3 since we opened the season 7-1. Only one team in the league, the dreadful 7-19-6 Carolina Hurricanes, has fewer points than we do.

And our personnel movement is...curious, at best. When Tortorella said he was a guy that believed firmly in leaning on his top guys, I said I didn't love it. I prefer a style that rolls 4 lines. But I never thought he'd mean it this extremely. According to Larry Brooks (I haven't bothered verifying the calculation, but it certainly seems right), our top six (Higgins, Dubi, Gaborik, Prospal, Drury, Cally) combined for 75.3% of total ice time for forwards. Over three quarters of the game. The other two lines combined for less than a quarter of the game. I'm excited about a few weeks from now, when he's pointing at the low numbers all the other guys have as a reason for keeping them off the ice.

Look, I'm under no illusions about Erik Christensen being the savior here. But you need to give some of these other guys a chance. Assuming Anisimov and Avery are mainstays on the third line (which seems to be the case), we are currently carrying Boyle, Brashear, Christensen, Kotalik, Lisin, Parenteau, and Voros -- seven forwards -- to fill those last four slots, to get a combined 24 minutes a game. You have to assume at least a couple of those guys are going to have some skill, right?

I mean, you'd better. Even if we take Kotalik out of the picture as a semi-permanent third-line winger, we have 6 men whose salaries total $5,065,000 under the cap rotating to play on the fourth line, which sees less than 5 minutes a game. Hey, I'm no coach, but maybe if you played these guys a little more, you could see which ones were in any way worthwhile, and then maybe you wouldn't have to keep this many on the roster?

The thinking is somehow similar with our defensemen. Michal Rozsival is a defensive abomination. Whatever slight offensive threat he adds is more than accounted for by his total lack of liability for covering anyone defensively, ever. And yet, he's one of Torts's "top guys." So, he saw 25:39 last night, only 6 seconds less than team leader Marc Staal. Meanwhile, Ilkka Heikkinen saw only 7:24 of ice time (the other 5 D-men averaged 22:59).

Look, the theme here has consistently been to take the path of least resistance. We send down the young people that don't have to clear waivers instead of the old ones that deserve it. It's why Donald Brashear, who has not done anything dynamic for the Rangers since he broke Blair Betts's face, and Michal Rozsival keep finding their way into the lineup, Voros never gets to dress but stays on the roster, and Heikkinen and Sangunetti play ping-pong with the Wolfpack.

And I don't hate that idea: it's a lot easier to make moves with your AHL affiliate when you don't have to play the waivers game all the time. It's not unreasonable to assume that if we tried to assign Rozsival to the Wolfpack, some team with a solid D-line and some cap room would pick him up on waivers, knowing they'd only have to pay $2.5 million a year for him for the next two and a half seasons, leaving us burdened with an identical amount under the cap going literally nowhere. I understand the desire to keep him on the Rangers roster for now and hope for a trade.

But there are options here. There are things we can do that aren't this. Did you know, for example, that many NHL teams carry more than the bare minimum of defensemen on their rosters? The official roster size cap is 23, and 20 dress each night. Many teams don't use all three of those extra spots for 4th-liners who never rotate in.

Here's what I'm saying: leave Gilroy in Hartford, improving his game. Whenever he and Messier decide he's ready to come back, bring him back. Leave Heikkinen in the lineup. Send down whatever never-played forwards you need to be able to afford this under the cap. Rotate our defensemen. Rozsival doesn't run the risk of being picked up on waivers if he sits for a night but stays on the roster. You know, like Aaron Voros. Remember him? Why aren't we doing that to Rozsival?

And this brings me to the bad thing we can take away from the Thrashers game. Ice time. If we were at all interested in doing what I suggest, in sending some 4th-liners to Hartford and rotating 7 guys, it would show in the ice time these six are receiving. Instead, I see a pattern that absolutely says "these are the five defensemen that matter right now." That doesn't mean "I know Rozsival has some issue, but we can't send him to Hartford, so we're working through it." It says "these are my five best defensemen, period."

Starting tonight, we have a home-and-home against the Islanders in consecutive nights, followed by one night off, and then a 1:00 game in Philadelphia. Anyone know how we plan to handle that with only 6 forwards and 5 defensemen?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This feels wrong

Okay, so, sure, Gilroy's game had been steadily declining. So we decided to reassign him to Hartford. If that were the whole story, it would make sense. But taken in context, given the defensemen that seem like they're allowed to play however they like with no penalty, this is weird. I don't have necessarily an issue with sending Gilroy (tied for seventh in points, tied for ninth in +/-, second overall in goals, and tied for first in shots taken among NHL rookie defensemen) down. My issue is with sending him down because of a "decline in play" while in the same breath letting absolutely everything Michal Rozsival does slide. Does Gilroy need to get better? Yes. Does Heikkinen deserve that position more than Gilroy? Possibly. Does Gilroy deserve it more than Rozsival? Definitely.

Oh, and we sent Johnson back down so he can play more, and instead brought up Matt Zaba to be Lundqvist's figurehead backup.

What. The. Butt.


OK, so we just sent Gilroy to Hartford.

That wasn't exactly what I meant by defenseman accountability. Now I'm even MORE confused.

More on this when I'm not working.

A King with No Court

So, now can everyone stop writing editorials about how the Rangers would be doing OK if Lundqvist would stop letting in a soft goal now and again?

Last night, we managed to steal a point from seemingly legitimate Cup contenders the Chicago Blackhawks before losing 2-1 in overtime. That sounds like good news, especially in light of the honestly good effort we put forward in losing to the Red Wings the other night. But, oh, wow, was this game ever not close.

Against Detroit, we battled hard against a more talented opponent and ended up tied 1-1 as late as 17:58 into the third, when Lundqvist let in a weird goal that put us down 2-1 (the Wings then scored on an empty netter enabled by a linesman who couldn't even figure out how to get out of the way of the puck keeping it in the zone and creating an artificial 3-on-1 out of a Ranger's otherwise successful clearing attempt). We had good sustained pressure from more than one line, et cetera.

Last night, Redden's "triumphant" return to the lineup, was embarrassing. Like, horrible. The Blackhawks kept the puck basically for the entire game. Seriously. After one period, we were being outshot 16-5 and somehow led 1-0. Overall, we were outshot 41-18, including mustering an intimidating 1 shot in the entire third period. You'd like to believe that, once we saw ourselves leading 1-0, we tightened up and played good, solid, neutral zone, low risk hockey to carry ourselves out of the third. You'd like to believe that that's why we only got one shot on goal in that period, and why we lasted until overtime. But this is not the case.

We only got one shot in the third because the 'Hawks had the puck the whole time. We lasted into overtime because Henrik Lundqvist gave Chicago a fucking show. This was the kind of game where each of our penalties was extended by 30 seconds of 6-on-5 at the front, because we literally couldn't touch the puck. Left out to dry time and time again throughout the game by defensemen who seemed, from their stand-still-and-gape game plan, to be as enthralled by the King's performance as I was, Hank did cartwheel after cartwheel (and I suspect magic as well) and kept everything out. But when our defensemen decided to enhance their siege of Hank's castle by taking stupid penalties (the Rangers took four minors in the final 25 minutes of play, 3 from defensemen, all 4 legitimate calls), the Blackhawks eventually capitalized.

Once it was 1-1, it was clear who had won this game (truly, from the moment Higgins scored, it was clear that 1-0 was the only score by which we had any chance of winning this game). It's only thanks to Henrik "thirty-nine fucking saves, people" Lundqvist that we had any chance at all, let alone that we made it into overtime. But, as you might imagine, we didn't build on Hank's performance to rally and play hard hockey for even a second of overtime. If we're not knocking people down for running Hank, why would we expect to show him the respect of playing good hockey for him? Inevitably, 1:17 from improbably surviving into the shootout, the unspellable Dustin Byfuglien made it official.

This was embarrassing. If nothing else, Henrik Lundqvist deserves better. "Thoroughly mediocre" is far too kind a phrase to describe this team that came out of the gate 7-1. Since then, we've gone 7-13-2, earning (if that's the right word) 16 points in 22 games. That puts us at 29th in the entire league since then (in front of only the Hurricanes, at 5-14-4).

This is the same old shit as when we were the Renney-gades. This is a team with no offense, Swiss cheese defense, and a stellar goalie stealing points in shitty efforts. Where is that patented Tortorella accountability? When are we going actually try to shake up the locker room a little (other than switching backup goalies and signing Erik Christensen)? Where's the "not afraid to sit veterans when they deserve it" that made us what to hire him? When does Michal Rozsival, who somehow managed to stand out as bad even among last night's awful impersonation of a hockey team, have to sit, even for one fucking game, even if it's just to give him the illusion that he might not be guaranteed a position every night no matter how badly he plays? Just pretend they're accountable for their play by benching them for one meaningless midseason game that we're clearly going to lose anyway! What the fuck have you got to lose? The two points separating us from 30th?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I don't get it I don't get it!

Okay, people. Get comfortable, buckle your safety belts, and load up your freedom trays. Things have happened.

First of all, Donald Brashear apparently has some undisclosed injury again. This is largely meaningless to me, as even his apparent promotion to the second line hasn't convinced him to start throwing checks. Fights, sure, just not checks. More on the difference between fighting and toughness here, in Brett Cyrgalis's lengthy but fair Post blog entry, "Rangers Just Aren't Tough Enough." So, we'll see Brashear again whenever he shakes the old back off and comes back to punch people for another 3 weeks. Yeah, we don't miss that $1.4 million a year, really.

Now, some of you may remember a center named Erik Christensen. He was Colby Armstrong's worse half, back when they got sent together from the Penguins to the Thrashers in exchange for some French guy and Marian Hossa. Since then, Armstrong has been given the A in Atlanta, and Christensen has scored 0 points in 9 games for the Ducks before being put on waivers.

Guess what? He's ours now! Picked him right up off waivers. Our woes at center are solved! Yeah. So, we'll see how that goes.

But that's not all! In a move that seemed to say "Redden will be back Saturday," we sent Sanguinetti back down to Hartford yesterday. But, as it turns out, the move actually said "we're still holding open auditions," because today, we recalled Ilkka Heikkinen. Apparently we had our three games with a defenseman who actually checks people, and so we've moved on to auditioning another "offensively-minded defenseman." Yee. Haw.

Finally, and this is the really interesting one, our beloved Stephen Valiquette has been placed on waivers. Now, let's be clear about this: he hasn't been playing fantastic hockey, this is true. The way it was presented, the Rangers wanted not to release him, but to send him down to Hartford for a conditioning stint, but our cap woes prevented us from doing so. Before we dive into those, let's clarify what that means.

The supposed preferred option was to keep Lundqvist on the Rangers' roster. We could then send him to Hartford for conditioning, to give him more ice time, call up another backup goalie, and bring Valli back when he's ready. But, staying on the roster would mean he is still a Ranger, so his $725,000 continues to count against our cap, in addition to whatever we're paying the new goalie we call up. So, instead we placed him on waivers. The good news is that this makes him a Wolf (Wolfpacker?), not a Ranger, so he doesn't count against the cap. The bad news is he has to clear waivers, which means other teams have a chance at claiming him. So, that's why we had to do this: cause we don't have the $725,000 to kill under the cap.

And, it looks like we got lucky, and he cleared. So, welcome to the New York Rangers, Chad Johnson. Expect to get less ice time than John Amirante.

I wanna dive into the cap issues, but first, we have to talk about this waivers concept. I appreciate that Valiquette hasn't been playing great hockey, and that saving the $725,000 to send him to Hartford for a bit was a decent move. But it sets a precedent we need to answer for. Does anyone think Vali has been more responsible for goals against than, say, Michal Rozsival, to single one person out? Surely Rozsie's 1 goal, 5 assists, and -3 rating don't make up the difference. Does anyone think the $5 million we'd gain from placing Rozsival on waivers wouldn't afford us a few defensemen and space for Valiquette to go down on a conditioning assignment, with room to spare? Or, dear God, does anyone really think someone would try to claim him on waivers?

Someone is going to need to explain why Valiquette is getting waivers, but Rozsie isn't. Like, I just don't fucking understand how this works. Remember a mere 3 months ago, when John Tortorella was gonna be the coach who held his people accountable? We're a quarter of the way through the season, and he hasn't even put seven healthy defensemen on the roster at the same time, let alone actually scratching one. Come on. We're going to turn the team around by waiving Stephen Valiquette? The most devout believers among the Ranger community would have us believe that this is a move made to shake up the locker room, because Vali is so well-liked and respected among the team. The rest of us are dubious.

Right, so, cap woes. When we last visited our old friend the NHL salary cap, we were looking at $55,838,333, or $961,667 left under the cap, with a roster of:

Anisimov, Avery, Boyle, Brashear, Callahan, Drury, Dubinsky, Gaborik, Higgins, Kotalik, Lisin, Prospal, Voros
Del Zotto, Gilroy, Girardi, Redden, Rozsival, Staal
Lundqvist, Valiquette

Ugh. I know, right? And it only gets worse. With the losses of Drury and Dubinsky (and the return of Drury), we had been carrying an average of one extra forward. Be it Byers or Parenteau, it was an extra $500,000, leaving us only $461,667 (less than the minimum $500,000 to add any player at all). In fact, I don't really understand how we were allowed to carry Sanguinetti's $883,333 since Redden got injured without going over the cap. It's not like we placed anyone on injured reserve.

Anyway, you can see why we couldn't also bring up Johnson ($660,000) without sending Vali down. Even with sending Valli down, we need some more cap room to hire Christensen ($850,000) and keep Heikkinen ($875,000). So, we placed Dubi on long-term injured reserve, finally. What this means is that we are allowed to spend his salary (not his cap hit) on replacement players. Dubi's cap hit is $1.85 million for his 2-season contract, which pays him $1.7 million this year and $2 million next year. So, by my math:

$961,667 of cap space back then
+ $725,000 for Valiquette being placed on waivers = $1,686,667
+ $1.7 million for Dubinsky going on LTIR = $3,386,667
(Sanguinetti is zero sum, he was up and then back down)
- $500,000 for Parenteau = $2,886,667
- $660,000 for Johnson = $2,226,667
- $875,000 for Heikkinen = $1,351,667
- $850,000 for Christensen = $476,667

Right back down to just under the NHL minimum salary remaining in the cap, but now the roster looks like:

Anisimov, Avery, Boyle, Brashear, Callahan, Christensen, Drury, Dubinsky (LTIR), Gaborik, Higgins, Kotalik, Lisin, Parenteau, Prospal, Voros
Del Zotto, Gilroy, Girardi, Heikkinen, Redden, Rozsival, Staal
Johnson, Lundqvist

Which I guess sounds like a fuller roster on paper? I'm not impressed. Seriously, put Michal Rozsival on waivers, Torts. This will solve your cap woes and take a regular liability off the ice.