How the Rangers became the NHL's most dangerous attack
Alain Vigneault's New York Rangers have never really had a problem scoring goals; just four teams - the Stars, Blackhawks, Lightning, and Capitals - have a greater per-game output across the last four years.
This unshakable standard's been maintained despite shot-creation valleys, as well as Rick Nash, the $7.8-million star, leading the NHL in even-strength goals one season to eking out 15 total the next. In tandem with the supreme puck-stopping capabilities of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have scored just enough to rack up the most wins league-wide when factoring in postseason success.
Yet there's reason to suggest this season's Rangers - the team people had pegged for a step back this year - could be the most dangerous in this regime.
New York beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-3 on Thursday, winning for an eighth time in 11 games, and in the process scoring a league-best 45th goal to push their goal differential to plus-20.
Here's how they suddenly have the look of the NHL's most potent attack.
In his first full summer with autonomy, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton eschewed convention. Rather than filling out his bottom six with role players limited once their skates cross the blue line, he targeted those with potential or a proven track record of scoring in the NHL.
Potential arrived in Jimmy Vesey, whose importance came twofold. First, the reigning Hobey Baker came as a top-end prospect New York lost spending so many draft picks chasing a ring. And second, the college free agent projected to offer singular value to a cap-strapped team on an entry-level contract as a refined, 23-year-old rookie. So far, this prophecy has proven true, as Vesey's ascended into a top-line role, and has six goals and nine points in his first 11 games.
His signing was precipitated, in part, by another move to inject young blood into their aging core. A month before, Gorton flipped Derick Brassard - New York's second leading scorer from a season ago - to the Ottawa Senators for Mika Zibanejad (also 23), a second-round pick, and in turn, almost $2.5 million in cap room. Zibanejad's since solidified the second-line center role, his speed and play-making instinct lending itself well to often-dominant power winger Chris Kreider.
Elsewhere on the margins, Gorton signed a serviceable penalty killer who happened to have a 34-goal season on his resume in Michael Grabner, and filled his fourth-line center position with Brandon Pirri, who scored 22 goals in 49 games two seasons ago.
Altogether, the Rangers now deploy legitimate scoring punch on all four lines, and thus far have submitted 10 of the 93 NHL forwards with seven points or more.
What may come as more encouraging than success from New York's newcomers are the starts from players that recently fell short of expectation.
First and foremost, the incentivized Nash is again producing at a top-line rate after hearing trade rumors after his dismal, injury-plagued season. He has six goals and nine points in 11 games, and is posing the same problems he did for opposing defenses in his "prime," using his speed, size, passing ability, and a willingness to dig into the dirty areas.
Likewise, Kreider has shown the complete, explosive package that wavered at times last season when healthy. A terror in full flight, Kreider was arguably the most dominant player in the NHL through the first week, recording three goals and seven points in four games before neck spasms chopped him down.
And finally, Kevin Hayes' resurgence is illustrative of both New York's new-look artillery and refined approach. His third-line unit, which boasts legitimate top-six talent in himself and J.T. Miller, has combined for 30 points in 11 games as teams struggle to match lines with the Rangers. Hayes (who no longer needs to look over his shoulder with Tanner Glass in the minors) has already contributed 30 percent of his total production from his sophomore season.
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