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It is, to borrow a phrase from Gerrit Cole, low-hanging fruit to evaluate the Rangers based on the Islanders’ second consecutive playoff run. I know that.
But I also know that Chris Drury faces a massive task in his first offseason as general manager in transforming the Blueshirts from a fancy-pants team loaded with artistes to a group that can get down and dirty one night after the next when the stakes are at their highest.
We hear all the time about how the blue line is overflowing, that there simply isn’t going to be enough space on the roster for all the talented kids who will compete for spots. But what I want to know after watching six games of smashmouth hockey in which the Islanders and Bruins engaged in hand-to-hand combat in front of the net, is where is the size and strength on the Broadway blue line necessary to withstand the rigors of the postseason?
You know who the Islanders just chewed up and spit out by the time the series ended at the Coliseum on Wednesday night? The splendid Charlie McAvoy, only one of the very best in the game, that’s who, and that got me to thinking what the Islanders might do to deserving Norris Trophy finalist Adam Fox, whom they would certainly target. You know whose absences the Bruins could not overcome? Physical defensemen Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller, that’s who.
Yes, the John Davidson-Jeff Gorton regime drafted just that type of physically intimidating defenseman in Braden Schneider last year — moved up to do so, in fact — but the 19-year-old recently voted WHL Defenseman of the Year will need some time and plenty of help.
By the way, how on earth did Lou Lamoriello get Scott Mayfield on a five-year deal worth $1.45 million per that still has two years to run when he would be a bargain at twice the price. Come to think of it, twice the price ($3 million per) is almost exactly what the Rangers will pay the equivalent Ryan Lindgren starting next season.
Of course Henrik Lundqvist carried the Rangers through their annual runs last decade, but the team’s backbone was on the blue line that featured Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who both made it very difficult to get to the front of the net, and Ryan McDonagh, who once broke his stick over Alexander Ovechkin’s back in the third period of Game 6 in D.C. in 2015 after having been creamed from behind earlier by No. 8.
The game has changed since then, but the playoffs have not.
Can I just throw this in? How much in love with Gerard Gallant are the Rangers, if, coming up on four weeks from his initial interview, they’re waiting to see if other candidates emerge? Or maybe they are just waiting for Rod Brind’Amour’s situation to play out. I don’t know. Am I the only one who finds this slow dance somewhat strange? Has Drury conducted formal interviews with only Gallant and Rick Tocchet?
You watch the Islanders and you see that three of their four lines can be utilized as checking units, every one other than the Leo Komarov-Mat Barzal-Jordan Eberle trio. Brock Nelson, between Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier, can center a matchup line. Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s unit with deadline expatriates Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri can handle the assignment. And we know that the Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck Identity Line can take on any line on any team.
Three checking lines for the Islanders.
Not a one for the Rangers.
You know how the Bruins’ third and fourth lines essentially terrorized the Rangers throughout the year and took liberties whenever they pleased against Blueshirt goaltenders? Not against the Islanders.
This, despite all the talent, despite all the burgeoning skill, this is where Drury starts. He starts with a homogenous group of talented players who thrive on time and space but who either can’t or won’t take the shortest distance between two points, who would rather score pretty ones than ugly ones, who are somewhat fussy, and who excel under conditions that do not exist in the playoffs.
I said this (and said this and said this) while Davidson and Gorton were in power. Now it applies to Drury. In order to remake the Rangers into a team that will be able to compete in May and June, the GM will have to be willing to trade white-collar talent for blue-collar laborers. He will have to ignore numbers. He will have to ignore sexy. He will have to transform his top six.
There is some sense of urgency for Drury to take the clay he has been left and mold it into an immediate playoff team. But the idea is more than simply making the playoffs, it is being able to survive in them, to thrive in them.
After the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, after six games of Islanders-Bruins, the Rangers seem a long way from that. A very long way.
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