In this mad sprint of a 2020-21 season, there isn’t much time to waste, letting things play themselves out while the losses are piling up.
But there wasn’t much Rangers coach David Quinn could do to address the biggest problem the Rangers had as they entered the finale of their four-game road trip Thursday in Buffalo against the Sabres – the underperformance of most of the team’s top six forwards. The coach could keep trying to shuffle people around, but mostly he just had to have faith that Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider, et al, start to click. And soon.
Similarly, Quinn couldn’t do much to raise the level of play from goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who started Thursday, and Alexandar Georgiev, who took the loss on Tuesday. They, too, are just going to have to click.
So, if Quinn is going to make a significant change somewhere, it will have to be on defense. Overall, the Rangers’ 2.83 goals allowed per game entering Thursday was 15th in the 31-team league, and fourth in the eight-team East Division. The top two defense pairs -- Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, and Jacob Trouba and rookie K’Andre Miller -- have, for the most part, been solid. The third pair, not so much.
Tony DeAngelo entered Thursday with a team-worst plus/minus of minus-5. He has split time the last four games partnering with Jack Johnson and Brendan Smith on the third pair. Johnson, who played Tuesday, was scratched Thursday because of a groin strain, so Smith was in the lineup.
Smith and Johnson have both had their own struggles. Johnson, signed as a free agent last October after being bought out of the final year of his contract by Pittsburgh, was a minus-4 in five games. Smith had an assist and was plus-2 in three games before Thursday, but he’d played great in one game, and poorly in the other two.
There is depth within the organization, if Quinn is looking for options. Libor Hajek, 22, who played 28 games for the Rangers last season before being sent down to the AHL, and Island Park native Anthony Bitetto, 30, who played 51 games for Winnipeg in 2019-20, are on the taxi squad. And there are some highly regarded prospects in AHL Hartford, as well.
DeAngelo is the key, though, according to Rangers radio analyst Dave Maloney. The 25-year-old broke out last season, putting up career highs in goals (15), assists (38) and points (53), and those numbers earned him a two-year, $9.6 million contract in the offseason. But entering Thursday, DeAngelo had yet to score.
"Tony needs to be better,’’ Maloney said. "He has not been very good.’’
DeAngelo got himself into hot water with Quinn when he took a bad penalty in the third period of the season-opening, 4-0 loss to the Islanders, and the coach scratched him in the next two games.
It was suggested to Maloney that DeAngelo played his best hockey the last two years when partnered with veteran Marc Staal, who was traded to Detroit in a salary cap-clearing move last fall. Style-wise, Johnson and Smith are different players than Staal, Maloney said.
"The one thing about Marc Staal, he was pretty smart,’’ Maloney said. "He knew who he was as a player. And he played right to who he was. (He) was a solid, smart presence in his own end, rarely out of position.’’
Maloney said the closest facsimile to the 6-4, 209-pound Staal, in terms of style, would be the 6-5, 210-pound Miller. But Miller, for now, seems to be locked in with Trouba. So, Maloney said, it may be time to try the next man up.
"Maybe it's time to give Hajek a chance,’’ he said.