Anthony DeAngelo

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Marc Staal is ‘fighting for a spot’ with Rangers, says Vigneault

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The New York Rangers have opened training camp, with head coach Alain Vigneault emphasizing the competition for ice time on his blue line.

Among those vying for minutes? Veteran defender Marc Staal, who has played in 689 career NHL games, turned 30 years old in January and is currently the second highest paid player on the Rangers’ defense, with an annual cap hit of $5.7 million.

He still has four years remaining on that deal, which includes a no-movement clause, per CapFriendly.

The Rangers have undergone significant changes throughout the roster this offseason. On defense, they bought out Dan Girardi while Kevin Klein moved on from his NHL career. They signed free agent defender Kevin Shattenkirk and acquired 21-year-old Anthony DeAngelo as part of the Derek Stepan trade with Arizona.

After an impressive first full year on the Rangers roster, Brady Skjei could also take on a larger role this season and former KHLer Alexei Bereglazov, who signed with New York in the spring, could challenge for minutes with the NHL club.

The Rangers will also have college free agent signing Neal Pionk at camp, and he could contend for a spot, as well. He’s certainly aiming to make the roster, and the fact he’s a right-handed shot may add further appeal.

So, there is plenty of competition on the Rangers’ blue line.

“It would be safe to say there are a few guys for the first time in a long time — Marc being one of them — that are fighting for ice-time, fighting for a spot on the team,” Vigneault told reporters, per The Sporting News.

“If we decided to bring Marc Staal back, it’s because we believe in him. I like Marc Staal, I believe in Marc Staal, but at the end of the day he’s fighting for a spot, and he knows it. Nick was a real effective player for us last season, both offensively and defensively, but it’s a new season for everybody. His play will dictate how much he plays, and that’s probably the same for everybody at this point.”

Fellow 30-year-old Rangers defenseman Nick Holden also found his name in the trade rumor mill this summer.

Looking to make the leap: Dylan Strome

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This post is a part of Coyotes day at PHT…

The top of the 2015 NHL draft has turned out to be a pretty successful one for the NHL with seven of the top-eight picks already establishing themselves as regulars, including several (Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Zach Werenski, and Mitch Marner) that are either already All-Star level players or are on their way to being them.

The one exception out of that group to this point has been No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome.

In the two seasons since he was drafted Strome has appeared in just seven games, recording just a single point, for the Arizona Coyotes.

Even though he hasn’t yet established himself the way several of his peers have he remains one of the key centerpieces of the Coyotes’ rebuild and has spent the past two years absolutely destroying the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the Erie Otters.

He is certainly going to get another opportunity to crack the Coyotes’ lineup this fall but general manager John Chayka already said earlier this month that the team is going to remain patient in bringing him along because they want him to be a 200-foot player that excels in all areas and isn’t simply playing “a depth role.”

That is a huge responsibility for a 20-year-old forward, and if that is what the Coyotes are expecting out of him it probably makes sense to be a little more patient with him. Looking at the Coyotes’ depth chart down the middle and they already have another young prospect in Christian Dvorak that started to make a bit of an impact last season by scoring 15 goals in his rookie season. They also picked up Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers in the big offseason trade for the No. 7 overall pick and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

Strome’s talent level is obvious, and given what he has done the past three seasons while playing for Erie it is pretty clear that he has nothing left to prove at that level after recording 75 points in only 35 games this past season.

That would have been a 145-point pace over a 68-game season, a number that would have shattered his previous high in the OHL (he had 129 points in 68 games during the 2014-15 season).

The offensive skill is clearly there, now it is just a matter of if he can show the Coyotes’ front office and coaching staff the 200-foot play away from the puck that will get him a significant role in the NHL.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

***

To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.

Gorton deserves kudos for Rangers’ rebuild on the fly

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

It’s easy for fans to demand a full-on rebuild when times get tough for their team.

It’s another matter for a general manager to actually commit to years of losing, with no guarantee of brighter days ahead.

For Jeff Gorton, a tear-it-down rebuild was never really an option in New York anyway, even when the Rangers were looking particularly old and worn down. That’s largely because Henrik Lundqvist was signed through 2020-21, and it’s tough to tell your Hall-of-Fame goalie that it’s time to tank.

So the Rangers chose instead to rebuild on the fly.

Two years after replacing Glen Sather, one would have to conclude that Gorton has done a pretty good job in that regard. The Rangers may not be the strongest Stanley Cup contenders next season, but consider:

— Last summer, Gorton was able to use a team with pressure to win now (the Ottawa Senators) to trade Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad, the latter of whom is five years younger.

— A year later, Gorton found another team with pressure to get some immediate results (the Arizona Coyotes) and traded Derek Stepan and backup goalie Antti Raanta for the seventh overall draft pick (Lias Andersson) and Anthony DeAngelo, giving the Rangers two more talented youngsters to add to the stable.

— Gorton, whose team’s future had essentially been mortgaged by his predecessor, has been forced to do a lot of his work outside the draft, and the results have been impressive. His most celebrated move was getting Jimmy Vesey to sign, but he’s also added college free agents like John Gilmour and Neal Pionk, and he got Russian defenseman Alexei Bereglazov out of the KHL.

Throw in the fact the Rangers actually kept their first-round pick this year, selecting Czech center Filip Chytil 21st overall, and the future is looking a lot brighter today than, say, in April of 2016.

Oh, and Gorton was also able to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, the most coveted unrestricted free agent of the summer, to a below-market contract with a term of just four years. So that was pretty good, too.

Admittedly, this path may still lead to ruin — or, if not quite ruin, maddening mediocrity. The Rangers still don’t have a future Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, i.e. the kind of player that typically goes to teams that have bottomed out.

But on the path the Rangers have chosen to take, Gorton has done an admirable job, and for that he deserves credit.

Looking to make the leap: Anthony DeAngelo

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

He’s only 21 and already Anthony DeAngelo has been traded twice.

First he went from Tampa Bay, which drafted him 19th overall in 2014, to Arizona. That trade went down last summer. Then, just a year later, the Coyotes sent the talented defenseman to the Rangers as part of the Derek Stepan blockbuster.

Upon joining the Blueshirts, it looked like DeAngelo may get a great chance to prove his worth. But then Kevin Shattenkirk signed and it wasn’t quite as clear where DeAngelo, whose game has similarities to Shattenkirk’s, might fit.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault is excited nonetheless to see what the youngster can do.

“I only saw him once last year but everything that I’m hearing … everybody seems to think this guy is legit and he’s ready to take the next step,” Vigneault said, per NHL.com. “I have not talked to anyone who has told me differently. Everybody I speak to says the same thing, that he’s going to help us as far as our quick north/south transition game, and that he’s going to help on the power play.”

DeAngelo appeared in 39 games for the Coyotes last season and finished with a respectable five goals and nine assists. The catch is that eight of his 14 points came on the power play, and with Shattenkirk in New York now, it remains to be seen how much quality PP time will be left for DeAngelo.

Barring injuries, there is plenty of competition that DeAngelo will need to beat out in order to play in the NHL next season. Assuming the Rangers’ top four is set with Ryan McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei, that leaves Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Alexei Bereglazov, Neal Pionk, and DeAngelo to battle for the two spots on the bottom pairing.

From the New York Post:

Clouding the issue is a believed contractual out-clause that would allow the 23-year-old Bereglazov to return to the KHL rather than accept an assignment to the AHL. The Rangers are unlikely to allow that to happen.

The Rangers likely acquired the 21-year-old DeAngelo from the Coyotes in the Derek Stepan deal in order to play him on the right side rather than have him sit around as a spare.

But the Blueshirts also believe that Pionk, the righty signed in May out of the University of Minnesota Duluth who will turn 22 next week, is NHL-ready.

Thus, Pionk and DeAngelo presumably will be in direct competition for a spot, with the saving grace being that both are exempt from having to go through waivers.

So it should be an interesting training camp from that perspective. While it won’t be the end of the world if DeAngelo starts out in the AHL, he should be desperate to make a good impression nonetheless.

“He knows this is his third team in a real quick span,” said Vigneault, “so he’s got to make a name for himself.”