With the news breaking regarding New York Rangers’ star winger Artemi Panarin taking a leave of absence over allegations of assaulting an 18-year-old woman back in 2011, the Blueshirts will be without another important player for the near future. (from ‘Rangers’ Artemi Panarin taking Rangers leave of absence after Russian hit piece,’ New York Post, February 22, 2021). This is no doubt a massive loss for the Rangers who currently sit sixth in the East Division with 15 points, four out of a playoff spot.
Panarin was a candidate for the Hart Trophy last season after posting a career-high 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in his first season on Broadway. He also currently leads the Rangers in all offensive categories again this season with 5 goals and 13 assists (18 points) through 14 games. Panarin is an elite player who makes those around him better – the Rangers cannot be expected to simply replace a player of his caliber. Instead, they will need timely step-ups from everyone, with a few players in particular.
Outside of Panarin, Mika Zibanejad was the Rangers’ biggest form of offense last season. His 75 points were second on the team, 16 more than Ryan Strome who was third, and his 41 goals led the team. He had established himself as a legitimate top-line center with his explosive offensive performances and his solid two-way play. The fact that he played on a separate line from Panarin added to the lethality of the Rangers’ offense – they essentially had two top lines.
This season however has been largely disappointing for the 27-year-old pivot offensively. Through 16 games this season, Zibanejad has only mustered two goals and two assists, one of those goals coming on an empty net. He got off to a very shaky start this season after coming back from testing positive from COVID-19 but as of late, his play has gone back to normal. The problem is his finishing ability – Zibanejad has been extremely snakebitten so far this season.
He is still getting quality offensive chances but the Rangers need him to start burying those chances. Last season, Zibanejad was shooting at 19.7%, which is an extremely high percentage and was bound to come down this season. In the prior two seasons, Zibanejad shot at 12.7%, this season he is shooting at a pitiful 4.3% on 47 shots.
The Rangers can only hope he got the monkey off of his back that his linemate Pavel Buchnevich ripped off after his goal.
When a team loses such an important player, it is up to the team’s leaders to step up and make sure the ship stays the course. Chris Kreider is one of the biggest leaders on the team along with Zibanejad. Kreider has always been known as a streaky player and if there was ever a time the Rangers needed him to heat up, now would be the time. Kreider has consistently been a guy to score about 20 to 25 goals and between 40 and 50 points per season but always had the potential to break 30 goals. When he is using his speed and physicality he has the ability to take over games – the Rangers will need that version of Kreider as he is once again the top left-winger on the depth chart.
So far this season, Kreider is tied for the team lead in goals with Panarin and Strome with five and also has one assist. His six points put him in a three-way tie for fifth on the team with Colin Blackwell and Phil DiGiuseppe. Kreider had also gotten off to a slow start with only one goal in the first five games. He has also only had two points in his last seven games. The Rangers need to see Kreider flying around the ice and causing havoc – that is generally when he is playing his best hockey. He is an important part of the Rangers’ power play as the net-front presence, but the man advantage is clicking at a mere 12.9% and sits 27th in the league.
This has not been the start to Alexis Lafreniere’s NHL career we were expecting, nor is it the one he was hoping for. Now 16 games into his NHL career, Lafreniere only has two goals to show for it, albeit both are game-winners. There were very lofty expectations surrounding the first overall pick and so far he has fallen short of them. He has been playing some decent hockey and has gotten plenty of scoring chances but the bounces have not quite gone his way.
Luckily for him, he has a great chance to show why he was so highly regarded going into the draft as he moves up to the top six in the depth chart. He has already shown some chemistry with Kaapo Kakko, last year’s second overall pick who has been playing some of the best hockey in his career. Lafreniere has all of the skills needed to succeed in this league and is still an incredible hockey player. There is a very good reason he won the CHL Player of the Year in two consecutive seasons – the only other player to do so not named Sidney Crosby.
The Rangers have massive gaps in their roster with Panarin out indefinitely, plus injuries to both Filip Chytil and Jacob Trouba who are expected to both miss at least two weeks. They will need everyone to up their game in order to stay in contention for a playoff spot. Zibanejad, Kreider and Lafreniere especially need to find that extra level to their game as the stretch of games without Panarin is vital for them. They are all important parts of this Rangers team, with one of them being a key component in the team’s future. The Rangers will have a critical stretch of games ahead without their superstar, but it should also shed some light as to who could play bigger roles on the team when they are ready to be Cup contenders again.
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