Since they announced last February that “adding young, competitive players” was their top priority at the trade deadline, the New York Rangers have notably shifted to rebuild mode. It’s unfamiliar territory for a team with a reputation of being the NHL’s biggest spenders, one who once upon a time shelled out five years and $45 million for Bobby Holik only to buy him out two years later.
These aren’t your father’s New York Rangers.
The Letter was different enough, but hiring David Quinn from Boston University to replace Alain Vigneault as the team’s head coach committed the Rangers to this new way of doing business.
“I was just thinking, ‘Wow, this is the last guy who I expected,'” Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk told Sports Illustrated. He played two years under Quinn when the coach was an assistant for Boston University in a first go-around.
“Didn’t seem like he was the frontrunner at all. You just assumed that, it’s the New York Rangers, and they’re going to go out and get whoever’s the best name. What (GM) Jeff (Gorton) and (assistant GM) Chris (Drury) really did was they went out and got the best fit for our team. I truly believe that it is Quinnie.”
A long-time scout and short-time interim GM for the Boston Bruins, Gorton has done a lot over the past two years to shift the Rangers towards being a team that better fits the current NHL landscape. Veterans such as Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Ryan McDonagh have been traded out in the past 16 months for younger assets. In the past two drafts, the Rangers have made five first-round picks.
And so far this season Quinn is extending this shift to on-ice deployment. He hasn’t been afraid to bench players — Kevins Shattenkirk and Hayes have both found themselves riding the pine already. In fact, it seems Shattenkirk will be made a healthy scratch Thursday night after three pointless games and a team-low minus-four.
And this kind of treatment isn’t reserved for just the veterans — 25-year-old Vladislav Namestnikov was held out of the lineup Saturday against Buffalo.
“I’m not doing it to be the big, tough coach,” Quinn told NHL.com. “It’s more like, ‘Listen, if we’re going to have the success we’re capable of having, this is the bar and this is what’s expected.’ Holding people accountable is a coach’s No. 1 responsibility.
“This is how I’ve done it my whole life. It’s not like I’m coming in here changing the way I’ve coached. This is just how I’ve done it.”
The Rangers have lost their first three games and line up against a great-looking San Jose Sharks team at home Thursday — another L would mark New York’s first 0-4 start to a season since 1998-99.
This has led the coach to try some new things, including breaking up the top line of Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider after just two games. It’s expected Buchnevich will switch to the left side Thursday to play with Zibanejad and Jesper Fast. Kreider will move “down” the lineup to play opposite Mats Zuccerello, with 20-year-old Brett Howden as their centre.
This kind of line-blending can be expected to continue. The Rangers likely won’t have a bona fide top trio this season, partly because they’re expected to lose a lot of games, but also due to the fact they want to give opportunities to different players. It will all be done by committee as the coach figures out what he has and what the youngsters will bring.
The centre position is especially interesting. A glaring weakness in last year’s lineup, New York now has some promising potential there in three under-21 players. Howden, with two points in three games, will be in a great spot with his linemates on Thursday, and 19-year-old Filip Chytil (also with two points) won’t be relegated to the fourth line all season, or held to the 10:03 he saw in Sunday’s loss on a regular basis.
And even though Lias Andersson is currently in the AHL, he might get a look at some point this season — even if it comes after the trade deadline. Hayes, a centre, is a pending UFA making $5.175 million against the cap already and may not fit the Rangers’ structure on and off the ice, so he’s a trade candidate. Andersson has started his AHL season with three points in three games and, as the seventh overall pick in 2017, his chance will come.
“They’re so interchangeable,” Quinn told the Post of his young centres. “These are kids who are going to have their ups and downs. Howden is energetic, he’s smart. It’s not a knock on Chytil. He’s a big-time talent.”
It’s certainly a new era in New York and although they aren’t waving the white towel on this season, like the Maple Leafs before them, there figures to be pain before gain here.
As a fan, all you need right now is progress and seeing the team trying things that have been successful around the NHL. So far that has been apparent, as the coach has been unafraid to set a high bar and put his own stamp on things so early.
And the players, even those most negatively impacted by this so far, are buying in.
“I trust what he’s doing,” Shattenkirk said.