I feel pretty qualified (even from afar) to be able to pass judgement on how the Rangers have progressed over the first, now almost third, of the season. Why? Simple really. We all watch the games but I was there for games one and two in Sweden and I was there for arguably there two stiffest challenges to date against the Flyers and Penguins. In between there has been a lot of development if you ask me. So, without further delay let’s talk Rangers, but in stages. Today, we’ll discuss the kids on this team and how they have done.
What concerned me most prior to – and following – the two losses in Sweden was the depth in the defensive department and whether the lines – and personnel – could mesh in time after a completely disjointed preseason. Its one thing to beat middling European clubs (no disrespect) but it’s quite another to be ready for NHL play with a makeshift preparation.
I also had concerns about some of the young talent (legitimate talent) and whether they were ready or able to grab responsibility. Could this team get more scoring? Could this team compete with the more skilled teams in the league? Could this team progress to the next level?
To all the above concerns, they are concerns no more. I think we can all say with both hysteria and realism, that the Rangers have gone to a next level in their development, regardless of last night’s pretty ugly loss. The best part of it all is the results have been obvious on the eye. They have, as the title of this post suggests being tangible. So, what about the kids?
Kids Become Men
The Rangers are the 8th youngest team in the league. A statistic that promises to be even greater next season with the likes of Kreider coming and, in all likelihood people like Sean Avery and Fedotenko leaving. It is an exciting time to follow red white and blue…..
I had particular concerns preseason about Artem Anisimov (I still have a few). However he has shown a wonderful ability to move position and still prosper. He’s scoring important goals (at least recently) and making consistently big plays. His lack of physicality hasn’t hindered him as much this year even if he stands to get stronger (still). Anisimov is prospering with Stepan and helping bring the best out of Gaborik. Anisimov like many Russians is a confidence player. Lately it must be through the roof because he’s beginning to fulfil his immense promise and just as the level of opposition has got tougher.
Then there is Derek Stepan. At this rate he may become one of the best draft picks of the modern Rangers era. The very definition of mature, he’s not just competing out on the ice but he’s starting to dictate games with his vision (I could offer multiple examples). Stepan is earning top line minutes not just getting them because he’s young. He meshes well with Gaborik, much like Anisimov, and is making plays that a playmaker ten years his senior would be proud of.
Mike Del Zotto? Yes it’s a bumpy ride at times but do not listen to the overly dramatic bloggers who refuse to see the progress. He’s getting more thoughtful in his decisions, he’s looking more poised. He’s being physical without – most of the time – being reckless positionally. Now, if only he could improve that shot of his. All in all, the Rangers kids – and we have named but three of many to this point – are growing up. Fast too. Above all they are becoming focal points on this team, no longer just there for the ride but in the driving seat.
Ryan McDonagh; really, there is no need to talk about McDonagh because he does it all with actions. Has a defenseman grown up faster? From a college rookie to minor pro prospect to Rangers stud. Yes, this season for the most part he has deserved the term stud. He has added offense to his game, assumed responsibility in the absence of Marc Staal, continued to play physical, he’s making sensible plays and thinking at a high level on the ice.
There is not much he isn’t doing right now (my how that contract extension could be pricy). McDonagh had an indifferent game against the Leafs (yes, he is still young) but when a player with as little experience as McDonagh has takes the huge role that he has been handed with (no sorry, taken) and prospers with you can’t help but be excited.
It’s almost not fair to include him on such a small sample size but let’s spare a few lines for everyone’s new favourite Ranger. Carl Hagelin take a bow. He’ll likely make mistakes, he may even (dare I suggest) spend more time in the AHL at some point but based purely on what we have seen in Ranger blue Hagelin is here to stay. His speed is as advertised, his intelligence better than advertised and his skill, more than some expected.
Hagelin has contributed offensively (unlike many call ups) thereby making the roster that much deeper and he has formed a very effective third line with NHL re-tread John Mitchell and Brian Boyle. If anything he’s had a large impact on Boyle beginning to find his game again.
The Rangers still struggle against speed and all the kids mentioned above still make mistakes but after almost a third of a season I am a lot more confident the younger players can compete with the lottery picks littered throughout the division than I was before the year began. As they keep maturing there is legitimate evidence to suggest they can continue their development. IF (and it is still an if) the Rangers can keep developing there is no reason, led by elite players in Lundqvist, Gaborik and Richards and captain Callahan, this team can’t contend.