Just three games remain in the New York Rangers’ 2017-18 season, one that will end prematurely compared to the better part of the last 14 years.
At 34-36-9, the Blueshirts will miss the playoffs for just the second time since the 2003-04 season, a swift fall from grace ushered by a firesale at the trade deadline in late February.
New York was a fringe playoff team at best prior to trading away Rick Nash, Nick Holden, J.T. Miller and captain Ryan McDonagh after a swoon to start the new calendar year. But the trades all but sealed their fate before the page flipped to March.
It’s only strengthened the questions around head coach Alain Vigneault’s job security, an issue that has been a thought in the back of the minds of many even at the start of the season in which the Rangers started the year 2-6-2 in their first 10 games, eight of them coming at home.
While he made the postseason in each of his first four years as head coach, Vigneault only made the Stanley Cup Finals once, a disappointing fact considering the Rangers had one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, Henrik Lundqvist, in his prime.
This season as a whole has been enough evidence for plenty of Rangers fans to call for a new head coach. Even when the team was at full strength, they were wildly inconsistent with a defense that was leaving the now-aging Lundqvist out to dry on many occasions.
For the past month, Vigneault has been attempting to navigate a semi-rag-tag team through the final stretch of the season and has gotten points in 10 of 16 games since the trade deadline.
Now in the final games of this disappointing season, the Rangers finally called up two of their top prospects in 18-year-old Filip Chytil and 19-year-old Lias Andersson to give the organization and its fans a glimpse of the future.
Chytil, taken 21st overall in last year’s draft, made the team to start the season but was sent down after just two games as it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t ready to contribute at the NHL level yet. After being called up on Mar. 26, the Czech native has a goal and an assist in four games while looking far more aggressive compared to the start of the season. He has 16 shots on goal since being recalled after having none in his first two games back in October.
There was considerably more hype around Andersson though, taken 14 picks before Chytil in the first round of the draft. The Swedish center put up six goals and seven points in seven games at the 2018 World Junior Championships for his home nation while compiling five goals and nine assists in 24 games with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford.
Called up on the same day as Chytil, Andersson also has a goal and assist during his brief NHL debut.
They are just two youngsters in a Rangers team that features plenty, especially on the blue line. During their last game on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, Vigneault rolled out a defense of Marc Staal, Neal Pionk, Brady Skjei, Ryan Sproul, Rob O’Gara and John Gilmour. Five of the six are 25 and under while Pionk is just 22.
Rangers brass will undoubtedly be looking at how Vigneault has been coaching the younger players. If they notice a considerable improvement in their play throughout this final stretch, than Vigneault’s status as head coach might not be as doomed as many make it out to be.