BROADWAY, NYC – We’re smack in middle of the awesome extra Super Bowl week, which everyone loves. Still, I thought it might be a good time to give the gridiron chat a rest to check in on the Rangers and the Knicks. Both are currently in the thick of the playoff hunt and trying to position themselves to make some noise. The odds-makers think the Rangers have a much better chance to be the last team standing come June. But I’m not so sure. I’m starting to believe these Knicks can make a run if they can get healthy. Let’s break down both teams’ chances.
According to a popular gambling site, the Rangers are +1000, to win the Cup, or 10 to 1. That’s tied for fourth with the Hurricanes and Panthers, behind the Oilers (+700), and Bruins and Avalanche (+750).
The Rangers came out of the gate on fire, starting the season 18-4-1, revitalized under new coach Peter Laviolette. But since then they’ve been a mediocre 12-12-2. The early season dominance gave them enough of a cushion to stay on top of the Metropolitan division, but the Hurricanes are nipping at their heals and the Bruins and Panthers have passed them in points in the Conference.
Causes for Concern
The great Igor Shesterkin has been average and has shown a weakness for high shots on his glove side. If Igor doesn’t get back to playing at a high level, this team is headed straight for the junk heap.
The Rangers give up way too many high-danger chances. Even when they seem locked in on D, they usually have a few meltdowns where they have a bad turnover and lose someone in the slot for a golden opportunity. This has to change.
The only line that has been a consistent five on five threat has been the Panarin/Trocheck/Lafreniére line. The top line of Zibanejad/Kreider and Kakko/Wheeler has been mostly invisible at even strength. They need to find a right wing to give it some juice.
Filip Chytil’s concussion issues are gut-wrenching and the third line has been average without him. As much as I like Johnny Brodzinski’s speed and hustle, he is best suited as a depth guy, not a third line center. The fourth line has been pretty average as well, and Barclay Goodrow has not played anywhere close to his salary this year.
Eric Gustaffson looked like a great bargain signing when he covered admirably for Adam Fox on the Power Play early in the season. But since going back to the third pair, he’s looked unsteady and turnover prone. His young partner Braden Schneider doesn’t seem to be progressing much either.
Reasons for Optimism
Artemi Panarin is having an MVP caliber, dominant season. His is shooting more, seems to be making fewer high risk passes and has been more active on defense. He has looked like a different player and his line has been strong all year. Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniére are both having great years playing with the Bread Man.
Jacob Trouba has thrived under Laviolette and has been the shutdown D the Rangers were hoping for when they traded for him. Adam Fox remains an elite playmaker.
The Rangers have the third best PP, scoring at a 27.2% clip. They have the 9th best PK, killing penalties at an 84.9% rate. Effective special teams play will keep them in many games.
Will Cuylle has been a revelation on the third line, leading NHL rookies with 128 hits and has chipped in 8 goals. Jimmy Vesey has been one of the few solid contributors on the bottom six as well, with 9 goals and strong PK work.
Room for Improvement
The Rangers have managed to hold on to first in the Met in spite of the fact that they’ve gotten mediocre goaltending and consistent production from only one line. It is likely that Igor will play better in the second half. And the one bright spot with Chytil’s injury is that it gives them a little cap space. They certainly need to add a RW to play on the top line and/or a center to play on the third line. They’ll be active before the trade deadline.
The Rangers have the talent to make a run. But there’s a lot to correct to get the ship moving in the right direction again. The Rangers kicked it back off with a good one against the Avalanche at the Garden on Monday.
According the aforementioned site, the Knicks have the ninth best odds to win the title at +2500. This line is coming down quickly as they were +3500 and +3000 less than a week ago. The Celtics are first at +300.
The Knicks were playing to expectations early in the year, looking something like a four or five seed with one playoff round win as their ceiling. But the trade for Anunoby has turned the tide and now they look like a real contender. They fit better with a big two instead of trying to work in the erratic Barrett as a big three. The Knicks barreled through January at a remarkable 14-2 clip which has vaulted them near the top of the conference. They now sit in fourth place, just a half game behind the Cavs for third, and one game behind the Bucks for second. Oh boy.
Causes for Concern
Julius Randle is the big one, and he needs to come back at full strength for the Knicks to be a playoff threat. Anunoby is also out with an elbow issue, and Quintin Grimes has a knee issue. Mitchell Robinson has been out with an ankle injury as well, but Isaiah Hartenstein has stepped in nicely and has provided more scoring punch. The lack of depth has cost the Knicks as they basically went with a seven man rotation for the last two games. It worked out against the Pacers, but they ran out of gas in the fourth against the Lakers. The Lakers doubled Brunson down the stretch and they needed Randle to pick up the slack. Continuing to roll with a seven man rotation is a recipe for disaster.
When the Knicks made the big trade for Anunoby, there were questions about the bench. Who would take over the Quickley role and provide a spark? One silver lining of the recent injuries is that Precious Achiuwa has gotten big minutes and looks like a capable role player. Miles McBride has flashed impressive offensive skills off the bench as well. But if everyone gets healthy, a bench of Hart, Grimes, McBride, Achiuwa and Robinson/Hartenstein looks solid to me. But I wouldn’t expect them to add someone before the deadline.
Reasons for Optimism
The MVP Candidate
Jalen Brunson might end up being the best Knicks’ player in a long time. This guy is everything New York fans love. He’s undersized but plays with a toughness and determination that is easy to root for. Brunson is the man.
A Better Fit Since the Trade
Leon Rose deserves credit for pulling off what looks to be a massive win of a trade. Historically, the formula for NBA success has been two main scoring cogs surrounded by solid role players. Rose brought it guys that work in Tom Thibodeau’s system and the pieces fit better.
Anunoby is a defense stalwart who can hit open threes. Not having to try to get RJ Barrett involved in the offense has left more touches for Brunson and Randle, who have thrived in the new configuration. The attention given to Randle and Brunson has given DiVencenzo space to launch threes and Hartenstein, Hart and Co room to operate on the offensive glass.
The Knicks have allowed the fewest points per game in the league since the trade. Defense wins championships, I think I heard someone say once.
If this team can get healthy, there is a lot to like. The 14-2 January included eye-opening wins against the Sixers, Nuggets, and Heat.
So… Rangers or Knicks?
This betting man likes the Knicks at 25 to 1 better than he likes the Rangers at 10 to 1. Get in before the odds-makers catch on to the Knicks. The line is plummeting. That said, hopefully both teams can gives us some exciting moments this spring.
That’s it for me. Come back tomorrow for a guy who gives us exciting moments in all four seasons, Angry Ward.