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Rangers’ concerning offensive flaws are being exposed

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Regarding the Rangers, who will get back at it with a practice Wednesday before facing the Sharks on Thursday night:

1. They’re 6-6-1 since their seven-game win streak came to an end on Dec. 8, and they have been beaten decisively by both the Golden Knights and Kings on this five-game trip. So there is a trend, which points to settling into a wild-card spot behind Carolina, Washington and Pittsburgh. Given the preseason alternative and the four-year playoff drought, who’s complaining? Oh, right, I forgot — everyone.

2. Yes, the third pair is in need of attention, but the most pressing issue is the club’s inability to press the issue on offense. If the Rangers are an upper-echelon team — and it was somewhat amusing to hear one of the younger Kings talk about how they approached the game Monday as a measuring-stick match — then they are the only one in the NHL with a negative goal differential at five-on-five.

The Blueshirts, a collective minus-two, rank 25th in five-on-five goals per 60 minutes, their 2.14 measure even worse than the expansion Kraken’s 2.2 per 60. The team’s expected goals for (xGF) percentage is 30th in the 32-team league, so the puny output cannot be ascribed to bad luck. They have scored 64 goals in 1,791:30 at full strength, per Natural Stat Trick. By contrast, the Blueshirts have scored 25 power-play goals in 174:48, or almost 40 percent of that production in about 10 percent of the time.

The Rangers are 15-2-3 when they score at least one power-play goal. They are 8-8-1 when held off the board. The idea is not so much to improve play with the man-advantage (well), as it is to enhance their work at five-on-five. That means general manager Chris Drury will have to find that top six’s missing piece on the trade market.

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Kaapo Kakko (l.) and Chris Kreider try to control the puck for the Rangers.

3. I don’t envision Alexis Lafreniere filling that hole on the right with Artemi Panarin (who was less than himself upon his return in Los Angeles on Monday following a four-game COVID-related absence) and Ryan Strome, at least not this year. I don’t think No. 13’s game away from the puck complements his mates’ needs.

Actually, head coach Gerard Gallant, while he remains in COVID-mandated isolation, might want to ponder shifting Kaapo Kakko back to that unit. With all of Kakko’s fine work in corners and on the boards, do you realize he is the midst of another one of those stretches in which he has scored in one of the Rangers’ last 20 games?

Barclay Goodrow could always fill a top-six role, but the Rangers are a more complete enterprise when he is playing the middle on either bottom-six unit. Indeed, the team probably presents its most formidable rotation when Goodrow centers Ryan Reaves and Kevin Rooney on the fourth line. But that dilutes the top six.

4. It is going to be difficult for Drury to get a jump on the trade market, still more than two months away from the March 21 deadline, without overpaying. And though the deadhead performances in Las Vegas and Los Angeles were both alarming, the Rangers are not at a stage of their evolution that demands overpayment. They are not one or two pieces away from the Stanley Cup, even if those pieces were to come in the shape of a 26-year-old Mario Lemieux and a 30-year-old Scott Stevens. (On second thought, they’d probably take their chances with those two in the lineup).

But Drury surely should be zoned in on the Golden Knights, who are going to be in need of a cap fix when Jack Eichel is activated. There is a chance that Vegas management will be able to find a solution tied to long-term injury-related maneuvers but if not, there is a good reason that impending free-agent right winger Reilly Smith has been at the top of everyone’s list of Rangers’ trade targets since the summer. That’s because it makes sense.

Alexis Lafrenière
NHLI via Getty Images

Smith, Brendan Smith’s younger brother, would enhance either top-six unit. The Rangers are generally decent when they have the puck. The problem is, they don’t possess the puck nearly enough in the offensive zone, and one of the reasons for that is because they are not hard enough without the puck in the neutral zone. They do not track back forcefully or intelligently enough. Smith brings that mentality to the rink. It is a matter of cost.

5. The Jarred Tinordi-Patrik Nemeth tandem, which was together for the sixth time this season on Monday against the Kings, represents Gallant’s vision for the third pair even if he was in his hotel room watching Kris Knoblauch run the show from behind the bench. (Yes, the duo struggled, but no more so than K’Andre Miller).

It is not as much about experience as it is about size and physical presence. Gallant has made it clear how much he values those attributes in defensemen. That’s why the burden of proof is always going to be on smaller, more skilled people, such as Zac Jones, Nils Lundkvist and even Libor Hajek. One bad night can reverberate for weeks.

Before looking for reinforcements outside of the organization, the Rangers will grant an audition to 20-year-old Braden Schneider, who was recalled Tuesday and added to the active roster. The 6-foot-2, physical right defenseman is believed to have been on the COVID list when NHL taxi squads were formed two weeks ago and returned to the Wolf Pack this weekend after a lengthy absence.

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