Monday, January 25, 2010

We're on a roll now, boys!

"It's fine if you get beat. It's fine if you compete and get beat, but to play this way? That's not what it's like to be a Ranger."

That was Sean Avery's take on yet another embarrassing, lifeless, effortless shutout loss, Saturday night's to the Canadiens we had so taken to task only 6 days prior. And as Larry Brooks accurately responds to close his column yesterday, "Oh, yes it is."

I won't spend time here in this blog talking about the specific ways in which we are a worthless squad. You can find plenty of that here and here and here and here. If you're looking for a list, Larry Brooks provides: "Rangers were beaten back on potential icing calls. Rangers were caught on odd-man rushes. Rangers covered nobody in front. Maybe that's what's meant by a team effort." But I don't have to convince you that we're a shitty hockey team. In two consecutive games earlier this week, we outscored our opponents 14-4, and in the 5 games surrounding those two, we were outscored 14-1. We went through literally zero personnel changes in that time, save for a backup goalie shift.

So yes, the Rangers are an uninspired squad. The questions are: "Why?" and subsequently "What now?" The why is a big mystery. And not just to us. To the coaching staff (Tortorella simply was "not going to dissect it" for the media, other than to say "At times it was decent, at other times it wasn't there"), to the captain ("It just seems to compound itself"), and to individual players (Girardi's best answer was "I know you're sick of hearing this, but it's really hard to put your finger on it").

You'll forgive me if I wasn't impressed when the HNIC broadcaster Saturday night praised Benoit Pouliot's ability to "confuse the Rangers' defense."

Okay, fine. I have some theories. Mostly they involve the questionable nature of forming a team concept within a squad of journeymen. Larry Brooks gives the fair summary: "There's a correlation, you know, between not protecting your goaltender when he's run, not avenging your captain when he's concussed, not protecting your all-world scorer when he fights with an opposition enforcer, and lame white flag performances like this that occur regularly." The correlation, obviously, is the lack of a team character. Brooksie, of course, goes on to blame Tortorella's lack of vision, and while the coach certainly has his faults, I'm not quite ready to drink that Kool-Aid. The simpler explanation is: we have less of a team character than anyone else in the league because we were formed as less of a team than anyone else in the league.

Every off-season, we make a gigantic shift in personnel. This season is the first time in a long time we've even tried to build a team with kids from Hartford, and they're being brought up into a culture whose example-setting veterans are Chris Drury, Wade Redden, Michal Rozsival, Donald Brashear, and Ales Kotalik. We're bringing them up into this same bizarre losing journeyman culture. No one is being taught, on the ice, to stick up for your teammates. No one is being taught that character. So of course it's lacking. Is the coach partly to blame? Of course. But so are the on-ice "leaders." Right now, that outspoken leadership is pretty much just coming from the goalie and the ex-con.

But let's blow right past the "why," since all the professionals seem astoundingly unable (unwilling?) to so much as hazard a guess, and talk about the "what now." The most tragic part of all this is that we're tied in points for 6th in the conference. One of the often overlooked negative outcomes of the new rules designed to make the game "more exciting," the shootouts and three-point games, the increasing randomness of calls by clueless officials, the tendency of officials to push games towards ties because they think close games are high-selling games, and so on, is the macro effect on the season. People are quick to complain about all of these things affecting an individual game, but they also have a regression effect on the league. "The New NHL" pushes everyone toward the middle. Anyway, sorry about that Special Rant. The point is: while we're tied in points for sixth, we're only three points ahead of 13th. Tied for 6th, 3 points ahead of 13th.

Why is that tragic? Because this new homogenized conference makes us look better than we are. Under no circumstances can we realistically make a reasonable playoff run, and yet we've been sitting in a playoff spot for a long time. Understand: I'm not one of those draft pick optimizing fuckers; I believe a team should absolutely win every game it can, and I would never rather come in 15th than 14th just to get the earlier pick. But I fear my management. You see, the trade deadline looms. I mean, it's March 3 at 3:00 PM. (Hey, I guess that makes it the anniversary of this blog!) But because there are only 2 days between the 14-day Olympic break, from February 15-28, and that deadline, and no trades may be conducted during the break (not to mention scouting), we're coming up on decision time sooner than you think.

The problem with winning a couple of big games like we did last week, and keeping ourselves in what looks like playoff contention, is that management gets the idea that we actually are contenders. You see, if we can make a playoff run (get in, push the round to a third home game, maybe even push a second round), that means major revenue for the guys selling tickets. They want that revenue, because it is money. Also, they've proven themselves to not necessarily understand what's good for the future of the organization. My fear is that Glen Sather and crew will think that, come March, the Rangers are buyers.

In case anyone's unclear, we refer to a trade deadline buyer as a team that is looking to make an honest run at a championship. These teams will tend to be looking to "buy" (or "rent") a very talented, possibly expensive player or two that will complete the squad in the short term. They will be willing to give up young, underdeveloped talent and draft picks for the acquisition, because they think it will be worth it to make the run for the Cup this year. Conversely, a seller is the team that is likely to agree to such a deal from a buyer. Their expensive veterans aren't doing them any good right now, they're not fooling anyone into thinking they're contending for a Cup, and they're looking for more of a foundation to build on, so that future seasons will be better.

My problem is that we can't even lose right. I'm not talking about tanking very much more than we already are: we're a shit team right now. But if we could at least have lost just two more games than we had -- if just a couple of our seven 1-goal regulation time wins had gone the other way -- we'd be comfortably in 13th place. Unquestionably the bottom of the conference. Widely accepted as jokers who need to make a huge change. Doubtless trade deadline sellers. But things being as they are, this same bad hockey team finds itself in a position to hoodwink itself into doing something really stupid.

So don't get me wrong: tonight, when the Penguins come to New York, and when congruously a flock of Pens fans comes to my apartment, I'll be rooting for the Rangers. I'll be rooting for us to win 32-0 and for Sidney Crosby to break his everything bone. I'm wearing my Lundqvist jersey around Pittsburgh all day. But if the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins, Islanders, Panthers, Thrashers, and Lightning all win a lot of games over the next three weeks, I probably won't be losing too much sleep over it. 'Cause really, who do we think we're kidding?

Friday, January 22, 2010

We've got a game to win, here

OK basically I wanna say how much last night sucked. How little can we possibly stand up for one another, seriously? Yes, I know, there were a lot of fights last night. But come on. Am I really supposed to believe that waiting around until Avery came out against Carcillo 15 minutes later counts as "retaliation"? Carcillo fought Gaborik. And yeah, fine, good for Gaborik for standing up for himself. But how is everyone else on the team just standing around watching?

Anyway, in lieu of my words, here is Larry Brooks's scathing column, questioning what kind of "sense of honor" Tortorella is instilling in a team whose instinct is consistently to stand around and watch. The column speaks specifically about the lack of response to the Carcillo-Gaborik fight, but the question runs much deeper. It has been manifesting itself throughout the season, and it reared its head earlier than that fight last night, when in the first period, some Flyer (who cares, they're all the same) ran Lundqvist into his net, and no Ranger did anything. It manifests itself in Girardi's gut response to not going after Carcillo, "I didn't want to take another penalty."

And if Brooks's words aren't enough (his bitterness at our coach certainly rose last night, when in the post-game interview Torts opened by saying he wouldn't answer any of Brooksie's questions, then asked him to go stand somewhere else), even the guys on NHL Live today, guys who are paid advocates for "The New NHL," know the Rangers are a gutless team. Apparently they spent a great deal of today's show discussing our pathetic situation. Here are some choice quotes, selected by my father, who watches/listens to these guys regularly: "Girardi had a great view." "Help him out!" "Take the penalty!" "The Rangers continued their ages-old tradition of standing by while one of their stars gets beat up."

Yes, exactly. Help him out. Take the fucking penalty. Or do you really think that, at that point, the extra minor (in a league where minor penalties are handed out quite at random, by the way) was going to be the killer? No, guys: the killer is being a team full of bystanders. The killer is showing every team in the NHL -- a division rival, no less! -- that you can run over us day in and day out.

"We'll remember this for sure," Lundqvist said of Carcillo, "he should be ready for it." Yeah, well. You know what he, and 28 other NHL teams, will remember? That he did what he did, and that his team did what it did, and that the Rangers did nothing. Yeah, Avery fought some people later. That's not the point. The Rangers did nothing to step up as a gut reaction to this nonsense, and the Flyers saw they could do it all day. And so did 28 other NHL teams. That's what sends a message, here. Not "oh, he better be ready for us to remember this," from the locker room, at 10:00. The games are played on the ice. And you can bet that "the Rangers are a gutless squad of bystanders" is resonating pretty strong with Daniel Carcillo right now. He's probably not losing much sleep over "he should be ready for it."

But, hey, just think how much worse it would have been if we'd had to kill another minor penalty, right? We've got a game to win here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I laughed at this

so I'm sharing it with you. Andrew Gross, in his post about getting to Philly tonight, talks about a conversation he had with two of our defensemen:

Perhaps this is a good sign, but I asked Marc Staal about what improvements he's seen in the Flyers since Peter Laviolette took over (better forechecking comes immediately to mind), especially given the last game between the teams. Staal asked me what happened in that one. I told him the Rangers had lost. Badly. Staal asked was it at the Garden, then turned to Matt Gilroy and asked what happened in the game. Gilroy said they had lost by like five goals. I said, "yeah, it was actually 6-0." That jogged Staal's memory: "Yeah, I remember now."

I don't know why, but I find that hilarious. Let's return the 6-0 favor tonight in their house, eh?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Now this is getting fun.

Let's see, what's happened recently? After scoring a few seconds into the third period in Boston, we proceeded to stop scoring goals, scoring only 1 in the following 11 periods of hockey. This took us through a 1-0 fifth-round shootout loss to the Devils that was one of the best hockey games of the decade (except that it had to end in a shootout, because a tie is apparently not exciting?), followed by a 2-0 terrible effort against the Senators, and an equally embarrassing 4-1 loss to the Blues (the only goal there came from the fourth line; Voros got an assist in what was his first game back in the lineup since the New Years home-and-home, and was +1 on the night). The goal drought extended through the first period against the Canadiens Sunday night, after which we were down 2-0 and the Garden was booing.

Then we somehow figured something out. Some combination of Avery's performance against the Stars, and Tortorella reading my blog and giving other lines more ice time, and Aaron Voros not being Donald Brashear... whatever it was, we figured out that you can't score goals just by putting a bunch of "goal-scorers" on the ice. We figured out that hockey is a physical game. As Conn Smythe allegedly said, "if you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice."

We came out physical for that second period. Even Wade Redden fought. And somehow, since then, this same group of guys (well, basically the same, excepting some Voros/Brashear/Lisin/Kotalik switchups) that could only score 1 goal in 11 periods of hockey have scored 14 in 5. Somehow, we became a team that, as Larry Brooks put it, could stand to benefit from "a plan that gives them rollover goals."

So how does this happen? Who are these guys? What's the difference between this week's Rangers and last week's?

A number of things, actually. First of all, we need to be realistic. Yes, we've had 5 inspired, physical, great all-around periods of hockey. But that doesn't mean we're going to score another 14 in the next 5, or that it's the start of a streak that will take us to the top of the conference, or anything. It's less than two games.

With that out of the way, what we can be excited about is a work ethic. There's not a big difference in statistics, like winning faceoffs or shots on goal. But we're playing a physical game. We seem to have figured out that all those little pushes and shoves, all those times you knock a guy down after he knocks you down (or before, even!), all those small battles for pucks along the boards, all those footraces on icings: these are the things that add up to goals.

I don't know exactly why we figured it out. Some of it is likely "well, nothing else was working." When a team starts to get desperate, it starts to get physical. We have to hope that if success continues, physicality doesn't proportionally diminish. We probably took a cue from the famous Lifetime movie event, The Sean Avery Story (working title: Sloppy Second Chances). It probably also helped that we replaced Donald "I fight now? No? OK." Brashear with an actual physical player in Aaron Voros. It's important to note the difference here: no doubt Brashear is (or, at least, was) a better fighter than Voros. But Voros sticks his body into every play, and Brashear just skates around. That's the kind of thing that wins hockey games: using your body to make a difference in the play.

I'm not sure what my point is. Things aren't going to stay as good as they are. But there's reason to believe that the "more fun to watch" Rangers we all promised each other at the beginning of the season might have shown their faces recently, and they might not be going away as often as they used to.

Do I sound like a neglected child yet?

I guess what I'm saying is: any night where Wade Redden fights a guy is a good night.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prospal's Return, Goalies, and a "Streak"

"The reason they're at the top is not 'cause they're that much better than everybody, they're just that consistent." That was the King's explanation of the conference-leading Devils (I can taste the bile just from typing that phrase), who are taking the quick trip through the Lincoln Tunnel -- no, I guess the Holland now -- to see us tonight at 7. If Lundqvist is right, surely the burden is on the Rangers to stay consistent. But it's hard to hear any message about consistency as one of hope for this team.

The Rangers are resoundingly mediocre this season, looking at a record of 22-17-6 through 45 games. But how did we get here? If you'll forgive my division of the season into 5 specific time periods, we opened the season 7-1 through our first 8. Then, when we finally started losing, we went 1-4-1 in 6 before righting the ship somewhat and playing .500 hockey through the next 10 (5-5). Confidently mediocre, we then stopped battling for pretty much anything and slid for 1-6-2 in 9, since which we have somehow (probably equal parts actually-trying-to-win-games and playing-against-shitty-opponents) been winning consistently, going 8-1-3 in our last 12. Surely if this stretch can be called a "streak," as some Ranger beat writers have been calling it, it's because the Rangers are among the streakiest teams in the league.

What makes a team this streaky? Why can some teams bring the same level of intensity night in and night out, while we just can't seem to, if you'll pardon the phrase, get it up? Call me crazy, but it seems like a symptom of a team that lacks an identity. We've covered in depth how significantly and often our roster changes, and up until recently, we were very bad at bringing up kids from Hartford. Also, our captain, though great at defensive hockey, isn't exactly the fired-up charge-with-your-men type. It's the same root cause that lets Girardi watch a Star flatten and elbow his goalie and stand there and watch. We need to develop a personality.

We also need to develop a backup goalie, incidentally. On Sunday, the Rangers sent Johnson to Hartford to beat the Providence Bruins 2-1 in overtime that night, calling up Matt Zaba to practice with the team yesterday, after which they sent Zaba down and recalled Johnson to back up Lundqvist tonight. Valiquette remained in Hartford, where he will continue to remain. Oh my god find a goalie.

Anyway. Things being as they are, we're riding 8-1-3, and 4-0-2 since losing 6-0 to the Flyers, into tonight's match. And tonight also brings us the triumphant return of everyone's at-least-second-favorite-Vaclav, Vinny Prospal. He's fantastic at hockey, so this *probably* can't be a bad thing, unless Torts does something completely unreasonable with the lines. Tonight's lines haven't been decided yet, but for whatever it's worth, yesterday's lines at practice had Prospal in on the left wing of the top line, leaving Christensen at center and bumping Dubi down to second line left wing, with Drury and Callahan. I love that line. Naturally, this pushed Higgins down to third line right wing (leaving Anisimov and Avery there), and gave us plenty of fourth-liners to play with (Brashear, Voros, Boyle, Lisin, Kotalik). If he goes with these combinations, I'll certainly be happy with the decision.

Oh, and speaking of playing with fourth-liners, after Aaron Voros played two consecutive games, a home-and-home against the worst team in hockey, Torts brought back the thoroughly ineffective Donald Brashear. Asked about the switch back, Torts explained, "I don't want to sit Brash for five straight, and so I'm going to pick and choose some lineups he plays against. But I do want to get A.V. involved." Fine. So, he needed to rotate Voros out to make some room for Brashear (though God knows why), and he wants to keep them both involved. That makes sense.

Since then, Brashear has played in four straight, and Voros has sat in all of them. Does anyone believe Voros will play tonight? I know it's only four games so far, but I'm officially starting the count here. Since Torts said that he wants to rotate Brashear and Voros and keep them both involved, Brashear has played 4 games to Voros's 0. I'll keep counting.

Finally, check out this crazy story. I know it's already painfully obvious from bullshit calls when a referee has a vendetta against a player (remember Stephen Walkom's hosing of Avery over Christmas weekend?), but apparently referee Stephane Auger took things to a whole new level and actually skated over to Alex Burrows pre-game last night and told Burrows he was going to get him back for making him look bad on a hit a few nights ago. That is nuts! I wish it weren't so damn easy to believe...

That's all for now, kids. Go get some work done.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Two other things

1. Rozsival's assist on Avery's goal last night was perfect in every way, because he tried the simple act of passing the puck from his point to the other on the power play, managed to fuck it up so badly that he took the team offsides, and then stood around and watched while Gilroy retrieved that errant bullshit, the rest of the team touched up, and Gilroy passed across the ice to hit a streaking Avery, who had plenty of space to find the back of the net. It is astounding how bad he can be while he keeps getting offensive points. I'd be infuriated, except it might make it easier to trade him to some Western Conference team who's looking for a "veteran offensive defenseman" and hasn't actually seen him play: Rozsival has 13 assists so far on the season.

2. Rumor has it Johnson will actually be starting tonight. Rest well, Hank. You'll be back a day and a half later, in Boston... Meanwhile, let's hear it for Chad "no, this joke isn't old yet, fuck the Bengals" Dosnueve!

Rangers 5, Stars 2

What a neat score that is, winning a game by scoring goals. When it was 2-2, I thought to myself (and said to no one), "hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could win this game by a real score, solidly, like 5-2, like the Pens did to the Thrashers last night after being tied 2-2?" And then lookie! 5-2!

Okay, so it's hard to write about this game without writing about Sean Avery. I didn't want this to be a Sean Avery vs. his former team storyline. I really didn't. But what can you do? Dude played easily his best game since game 7 of the Caps series last Spring, and possibly since before then. He was remarkable. He was pissed off from top to bottom, he got in everyone's face, and it's undeniable that his attitude led directly to his 4 points (a goal and 3 assists, helping on every Rangers tally but Callahan's unassisted* empty-netter). The most promising thing about it, though, was Avery's subdued post-game comment:

I can take a lot of good things out of tonight, but it doesn't really mean anything unless I come back and play that way again tomorrow... What I've got to do to help this team is be consistent and play like that every night.

Yes. Avery is an unbelievably effective player when he feels comfortable enough to play his game. He needs to play, as they say, "on the edge." This is going to mean taking the occasional penalty, as he did last night. But he needs to have his team's support in doing that. We have an exceptional PK, let's use it.

Last night, I think, was a good example. Avery was awarded a classic call-by-number when he was given a 10-minute misconduct for bumping a guy after the play was over (I spent the rest of the game, after each play was over, pointing out a Star who bumped a Ranger and wondering where the 10-minute misconduct was). Yet, when he returned, Torts was smart enough to continue rewarding him with ice time. It continued working. Avery was given more ice time in the third period than he was in the first (his misconduct took him out of half of the second), and he continued to be effective (as established, no goals were scored through the duration of the misconduct).

Ice time was better overall, actually. Not yet quite good enough, but far more balanced than it's been. Seems like between Christensen and Avery, some of our forwards might be starting to convince Tortorella to balance his sheet a bit. With the exception of Donald "What's my job, again?" Brashear and Enver "Nope!" Lisin, who combined for the least ice time, with 9:17, things were not entirely terrible. Dubinsky, Gaborik, Higgins, Callahan, and Drury each logged between 18:22 and 21:49 of ice time, and Christensen, Kotalik, Avery (who was ineligible for 12:00), and Anisimov each got between 13:17 and 15:57 (Boyle clocked in at 10:25). All things considered, that's pretty good. If we assume Avery's 13:20 would have been up at more like 16 minutes if he hadn't been briefly and weirdly ejected, I don't hate this idea. Your best players should get more ice time than your third-line agitators, as long as the latter gets a reasonable amount, which they did.

The only problem is that we don't have a fourth line. At all. It's not a good strategy, being an NHL team with no fourth line. And hell, even if it is, it's just not worth the salary at this point. If we are only going to skate 3 lines, we should fire Brashear, Lisin, Boyle, and Voros. Their unused combined $3.715 million dollars could be used to upgrade Christopher Higgins into Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, or Marian Hossa. Or, to upgrade Ales Kotalik into Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Patrick Marleau, a Sedin twin, or Ilya Kovalchuk.

That's without moving either of our albatross contracts, kids. That's just getting rid of the fourth-liners that don't play (by the way, Boyle, who gets far and away the most useful minutes of the group, is only $525,000 of that, $25,000 over the minimum NHL salary), and using one forward's salary to contribute to that of his replacement. Never-played-fourth-liners plus Ales Kotalik equals Ilya Kovalchuk, salary-wise. Kinda makes you wonder why we bothered with these contracts, huh?

Finally, there's an important lesson to be learned from Avery's performance last night. Playing with an edge, with fierceness, and with pride is not only acceptable; it's vital to winning hockey games. John Tortorella came to New York a few months ago with the mantra "safe is death." For whatever reason, that's been hard to see in his New York Rangers. We have a team that should be able to score but isn't, and I think last night was a good object lesson in why. It was the speed and the hitting and the getting-in-people's-faces that opened up all those chances.

The moment that bothered me most about last night was early on, when some Shark crosschecked Lundqvist to the ice, and Girardi skated right up behind him and stood there with his hands on his back for a second, then skated away. I know we've been defending ourselves more lately, but it is scary that that the team has a mentality that allows that to ever happen. For your leading (at least ice time-wise) defenseman to see someone take your goalie down and not flatten him is scary.

Yes, I know. "You don't want to risk the penalty." "We've got a game to win." And I know it's weird for me to call this out after winning 5-2 like that. But "we've got a game to win" is "safe." Teams should not feel like they can do that to us: the short-term gain of not taking the two-minute penalty is overshadowed by the long-term loss of teams walking all over us. That mentality does not lead to wins, in the end.

Last night, Avery did not play it safe. He played right on the edge. He played like he gave a shit. He was put in the box for 12:00 for it.

And he won us the hockey game, 5-2.

So, yes, Sean, you absolutely do need to play like that consistently to help the team, as you say. But it wouldn't hurt if some other Rangers maybe took the hint, too.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Midterms, they call them

41 games down, 41 games to go. So everyone issues report cards or something? Andrew Gross has graded each individual player, which is fun, and more often than not he's right. My father took a more general approach, grading the club in various subjects, such as Offense, Defense, Goaltending, PP, PK, Intangibles, and Management (F, F, B/B+, F, A, D-, and D, respectively). The point is, we're halfway through, so it's time to take stock and talk about who and where we are as a club, going into the second half of the season, which starts tonight when the Bruins visit the Garden at 7. Rather than grades, let's assume I just work for one of those hippie schools that gives everyone like a rabbit sticker and a paragraph or something, and stick with descriptions and not ratings.

Before we get into that, two quick personnel notes: Matt Zaba backed up Lundqvist on Saturday afternoon, and should again tonight. Theoretically, this is to give Chad Dosnueve a chance to get some actual games in for the Wolfpack, so he can come back to the Rangers and actually start a game and give Lundqvist a rest, sometime in this 18-games-in-33-nights stretch that started 5 nights ago (Sunday was already Lundqvist's 15th straight start, and oh hey he's playing in those there Olympic thingers too). But hey - we don't need to find a competent backup. Hank can handle it. Don't worry about a thing.

Also, Aaron Voros played both games of the home-and-home, finally rightfully replacing Donald Brashear for a while. After being granted the favor of 6:13 of ice time total, through the two games combined, he'll be sat again in favor of Brashear tonight. Voros plus Brashear still equals $2.4 million a year, for the record.

Anyway, midterms. In goal, it's hard to complain about our starter. Lundqvist's critics would point out that he has let in some soft goals this half-season. While they wouldn't be wrong, he's also made some impossible saves (yes, impossible), if we're going to judge by outliers. More pertinently, Lundqvist is consistent. Every night, he gives the Rangers a chance, and moreover, almost every win is because of him. The Rangers are at 2.78 goals against per game, and we've only allowed more than two goals in regulation 3 times since the Thanksgiving home-and-home against the Penguins. For a guy who gets no support at all half the time he plays, that's kingly. If we're grading on a curve, Hank is throwing it off.

At backup, we're woeful. Valiquette had some bad performances early, and unfortunately, when you're the veteran backup goalie, you don't get the chance to make early mistakes like he did. We loved Stephen Valiquette for his locker room presence, but he didn't perform as well as he needed to as a backup. So, we sent him to Hartford. Unfortunately, that was over a month ago, and we seem to have forgotten to find a replacement. So, we've been cycling through backups from Hartford who never start. There are backup goalies in this league for a reason, and we can't realistically expect Lundqvist to keep starting every game like this and have any juice left in him after the Olympics, when we're theoretically scrambling to make the playoffs. Bad news. It's hard to justify sitting The King when he keeps being the only reason we have a chance to win games, but we need to find someone, and we need to play Valiquette or Johnson or Zaba once in a while until we do.

We have defensemen. I can confidently say that there are people who play the position of defenseman on the New York Rangers. So, that's one in the positives column.

In seriousness, the "kids" have taken strides this season. Matt Gilroy's stay in Hartford did him some good, and he's been playing more solidly, but he's still capable of way more than he's giving. I think if we keep training him, both in New York and in Hartford, in a year or two, we'll be loving him. I'm keeping the faith in his high ceiling. Michael Del Zotto is getting better and better. In addition to his offensive ability, he's added a strong physical component to his game over the last month or so, and that's been great news. With a little more defensive training, and a little less "Gaborik is on the ice so I have to pass to him no matter what", he'll be fantastic.

Staal has not been the standout defenseman he was last season. Early on, he looked mediocre, but that might be due to attempting to play too much offense. Since he's settled back into a more defensive role, he's looked good again. I'd be happier if he looked spectacular, but I expect that to come in time. Meanwhile, Girardi has had the month of his life. He's played the best defense I've ever seen him play. If he can be consistent at this level, and Staal can work his way back up, they have the potential to be the two very solid blue liners who skate next to the potential offensive threats of Gilroy and DZ. A boy can dream.

The Albatross Twins, at season's midpoint, still seem to be entrenched in a competition to see who can suck more. At the beginning of the season, Redden wore the crown*, coming off of last season, when Rozsival actually joined the play once in a while and didn't directly lead to quite so many goals. But Rozsie stole it early, when Redden became a nonfactor by being taken away from his offensive responsibilities, and Rozsival singlehandedly led to so very, very many odd-man rushes against. This lasted for a couple of months, through which Redden's defensive play steadily declined until he finally took it, playing so badly that even Tortorella benched him. He helped his case by throwing a tantrum (which no doubt consumed more energy than he's used on the ice in years) in Torts's office, then shrugging off to the media the very notion that he might have more to give. He wears the crown still, but he's played slightly more solidly since his benching, and if Rozsival stops shooting the puck again, he has a chance to take it back before too long. At least one of these two men needs to be traded before we are legitimate.

In their brief time with the club, Ilkka Heikkinen and Bobby Sanguinetti each did a few good things. I would like to see a roster that carries seven defensemen (we currently have the roster room, but not the cap room, to add someone), and I would like to see more rotation. That said, Torts does seem willing to try these guys out when he can. We can't afford a seventh on the roster, and we can't send any of the defensemen we'd want to rotate down to Hartford without running the risk of someone picking him up on waivers (in which case we'd be saddled with half his salary throughout his remaining contract). When Gilroy and Redden were out, he did bring up these guys, and they brought something to the table. Sanguinetti hits people, and Heikkinen has a little stick skill. I'd like to see more of them, if possible.

Brandon Dubinsky has not lived up to the contract headache he put us through in September. In the off-season, Dubinsky and Sather agreed that the former was an important part of the latter's club's success and a relevant NHL first-line center. Dubi's play, though often solid, has been far less consistent in sending that message. I expect Dubinsky's ceiling is somewhat higher than we've seen, but he needs to be more consistently physical. Some games, he's skating hard, in people's faces, winning puck battles, and other games, he's just not.

Chris Drury gets a bad rap. You've seen me say it before, and I'll probably say it again. He's not a great choice for team captain, but he's a solid hockey player, he's an amazing penalty killer, and the less burden is on him, the more cool stuff he does. He's still not being used right (he could be one of the best third-line centers in hockey, if only we'd commit to that idea), but he's being used better than he was under Renney. Remember when he made him a third-liner, and all of a sudden he scored 3 goals in 4 games? We rewarded him by making him not a third-liner anymore. That's stupid. Do what works.

Artem Anisimov is becoming a lot of fun to watch. He's young and has a lot to learn about making smart decisions, but he can do a lot of nifty things with his stick, and that's cool. Erik Christensen is either a fourth-line center or a first, I guess? Honestly, he seems like a good man to have around, and I'd be happy to try him out as a third-line center, if we didn't have three better centers. He can make the right play often enough, and I'm excited to see more of him. It's good to have a few Erik Christensens around, as long as you don't have too many. Brian Boyle is my ideal fourth line center (no disrespect to Blair Betts, whom I also loved at the position). He's big and unafraid to use his body, and he can move the puck well enough. He's the perfect fourth-liner, to me. Too bad our fourth line never sees the ice.

I don't have to say much about Marian Gaborik, do I? On a team that is 24th in the league in goals scored, 7 goals ahead of dead last, he leads the league in scoring, with over a quarter of the Rangers' total goals. He probably gets the Henrik Lundqvist "throwing off the curve" award: mathematically speaking, we just can't win games without him. Note that this is not a good thing. But it speaks well of him. Goddamn it he's so fast.

Vinny Prospal is my favorite surprise of the season so far. We signed him, you'll recall, for $1.1 million dollars for one season, as insurance in case we didn't get Dubi locked up, at age 34. I believe I called him "past his prime" or something, on signing him. Do that math, people. $100,000 more than Aaron Voros. $300,000 less than Donald Brashear. Less than half of Christopher Higgins. $100,000 more than a third of Ales Kotalik. Less than 17% of Wade Redden. Get it? He's a big damn hero, and we miss him incredibly while he's out for this stretch. He's fast, he's loud, he hits, he's got great skill, and he's smart: he knows where to put the puck and where to put his body, and he's good enough to get them there. Prospal for President, etc.

Speaking of very smart, physical Alternate Captains, Ryan Callahan. Is. A very smart, physical Alternate Captain. That's what he is. What I'm saying is: everything I said about Prospal, only ten years younger, slightly less loud, and an Olympian. Callahan for VP. Or, maybe Callahan for President and Prospal for VP?

Christopher Higgins and Sean Avery are our team enigmas. I just don't get them. Higgins's lack of scoring makes no sense. A recreational baseball statistician once taught me about looking at a player's seasonal batting average compared to their walks and hit-by-pitches in order to determine whether his batting average is lower, higher, or on par with where it "should be," and therefore where it will probably even out to. I would like to say that Higgins's numbers are way lower than they "should be," and that he will eventually "even up" to higher end-of-season totals. But I'm not sure that's how it works. Higgins does absolutely everything right except finish. He's usually in the right place, making the right hit or the right pass, getting himself in good position with the puck, making things happen. But he can't hit the broad side of a barn, as they say in a tired old expression to show that he has an inaccurate shot. I want to love Higgins for everything he does and assume that the scoring will come, so for now I'm going to do that. But I've been doing that for...let's see...right around 41 games so far.

Avery, on the other hand, is The Enigma The League Built. Deciding "The New NHL" needed a villain story, but not wanting to popularize any of the actual dirty, injury-inducing goons of the league, the NHL made Sean Avery public enemy #1, even going so far as to authorize, before un-authorizing, an "Avery Rule" T-shirt (after writing the new NHL rule that says you're not allowed to make fun of Marty Brodeur 'cause he'll cry, or whatever). When Avery made it back from his indefinite suspension (yes, in the NHL, intentionally cracking a guy's skull open gets you 2 games, and using the term "sloppy seconds" in an interview gets you an indefinite suspension), he was a "changed man." Which is to say: a less effective man. Larry Brooks's article today hits the situation perfectly: Avery needs to be able to play on the edge in order to be effective. When effective, Avery is a total game-changer. If he plays on the edge, he's going to get penalized unfairly sometimes. That needs to be okay. As Brooks says, Avery needs to know that he has Torts's support in that situation, and it's not clear that he does. Put another way, also by Brooksie, "If you can't be a little bit pregnant, you can't be a little bit Sean Avery either."

If Prospal is the most pleasant surprise of the half-season, Ales Kotalik is the least pleasant. For $3 million a year for 3 years, we brought him in to be a sniper on the wing and on the power play point. You'll recall my excitement. What we got was 6 goals in 38 games played and a man who doesn't even appear on the top power play unit anymore. It's clear, now that we've seen him play half a season, that Kotalik has no idea (none, whatsoever) what to do with the puck when he's not shooting it. That's very disappointing. But he still shoots fast. It would be nice to see him hit the net a little more. Or, a lot more?

Enver Lisin got a whole lot of chances to prove himself on top lines in the beginning of the season. Torts saw something we didn't, I guess. Lisin proved nothing. Now he's on the fourth line, which Torts seems to think means "line containing your tenth, eleventh, and twelfth best fowards," not "checking line." That's a mentality I don't get. Speaking of mentalities I don't get, Donald Brashear is still $1.4 million of bullshit. Sure, he hasn't done anything dirty to anyone else, so I guess I'm not embarrassed in that sense, but he hasn't done anything at all! He's a washed-up goon, so now he's a total nonfactor. Well, except for the cap hit and roster space. Meanwhile, Aaron Voros, who, like, Boyle, is another ideal fourth-liner for me (big, uses his body, can use his stick to make plays sometimes, too), never sees the ice! As mentioned above, Voros finally played two, his first since November, and is now again scratched in favor of Brashear. I don't get that. I'd like to give Voros a good rating, but he doesn't play enough. Why, Torts?

Of the prospects that have spent time in New York, PA Parenteau is the only one who was up long enough to make an impression. It was largely positive, and, like Christensen, I'd like to see him, in time, rotate in and get more of a chance to prove himself.

On the coaching staff, I generally like the way John Tortorella speaks about things; he's very candid, which is rare and great. As for his personnel decisions: well, you've seen what I think. He generally has a good idea of what to do with kids and what the right kind of player is. Naming Callahan and Prospal Alternates was exactly the right way to go. But I hate how he uses (doesn't use) a fourth line, and I don't understand his affinity for a Brashear over a Voros. Other than that, there's only so much he can do with the hand he's been dealt. Dealt by a Glen Sather who seems more guided by randomness than by decisions. For every Vinny Prospal, there's a Donald Brashear; for every trading Scott Gomez, there's a signing Wade Redden; for every letting Nik Zherdev go, there's a letting Paul Mara go. Sather seems to have no idea what a team needs. Messier for GM. Mike Sullivan is Torts, Junior, and that's perfect. I like hearing him talk about the team almost as much as I like hearing Tortorella himself do so. Also, no complaints about Benoit Allaire: how could there be? The things he did for the Phoenix Coyotes, specifically Nikolai Khabibulin, spoke for themselves, and I think Lundqvist speaks pretty well for him now.

In general, hold on, Ranger fans. Things aren't gonna get a lot better in the short term, but we seem a lot less likely, as a team, to sit around while things are shitty and let them stay shitty than we were a season ago. Things might not change as quickly as we'd like, but they will change. There are seeds of good things here. Let's Go Rangers!

It's been forever

I don't get paid for this, which means it takes a back seat to other things. Plus I was on vacation. Back to the Rangers in a minute, but first: I touched Brendan Shanahan.

I was at the Garden for my first Ranger game of the year, on my girlfriend's father's company-friend's tickets (which means we were seven rows from the ice). It was the Islander game on the 26th, which we lost in overtime after Dubi tied it with like 40 seconds left. After the game, we went down to exit instead of up, which I didn't even know was an option at that level, and as we were leaving out this cool people corridor, Shanny came walking down with his kid on his shoulder. Kid couldn't have been more than three.

When I saw him, his face immediately registered as Brendan Shanahan's, which was fine with me, because I'd spent the entire evening seeing hockey-related things close up that I'm used to seeing from far away on TV. So I looked back forwards and kept walking. Then I realized the actual situation: I was walking right behind Brendan Shanahan!

So, what actually happened was that I saw him, looked away, did a cartoon-inspired double-take, stared back up at him and his three-year-old, and screamed, "HOLY SHIT!!"

I'm so smooth.