There is a thin line between reacting and overreacting. The side on which Rangers coach David Quinn falls, in the wake of Thursday’s embarrassment of a 4-0 opening night loss to the Islanders, could reverberate through the season if the coach chooses poorly.
“That’s a balancing act,” Quinn said following Friday’s practice, in which Tony DeAngelo was sent to skate with the JV squad and, essentially every line combo and defense pairing was juggled. “We certainly are very alarmed at what happened [Thursday] night.
“Certainly, really disappointed. It was a complete shocker to us as a staff.”
Of course, it was only one game. Of course, it was only Game One. Of course, there are going to be speed bumps in the road for not only this team, but also any team, to confront. It would be insane to panic and start throwing furniture in the midst of a temper tantrum 60 minutes into a 3,360 minute-plus season.
But Thursday’s malodorous effort cannot simply be written off, either, as just one of those things. The loss was the Blueshirts’ most lopsided in an opener in 40 years, since the 1980-81 club was trounced by the Bruins, 7-2, on its way to a 3-12-3 getaway. Indeed, Rangers teams have been beaten by four goals or more in an opener only four times in franchise history. So no, this is not something that happens every day.
But on the heels of a performance in which Quinn, both immediately following the match and then again on Friday, said, “There wasn’t anything good that happened … in any capacity,” the player combinations were less the issue than the team’s intent and preparedness. And for sure, the coaching staff shares responsibility for the team’s total eclipse of the heart.
DeAngelo was temporarily demoted — he cannot officially be assigned to the taxi squad without clearing waivers, which might be a 50-50 proposition at this point given the off-ice baggage he’s toting — because of bad behavior, not because he was one of a cast of thousands to play badly.
There was no excuse for the defenseman to incur an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by mouthing off and then slamming the door to the box after being called for a hold on a bear-hug a minute into the third period. Indeed, DeAngelo appeared huffy on the bench at several different junctures of the contest.
The Rangers and Quinn thought they had put actions like this behind them two years ago, when DeAngelo was a repeated scratch for “maturity issues.” There was none of that last season. But here we are, one game into 2020-21.
“Tony took an undisciplined penalty, he and I have had a conversation, and we just have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Quinn said. “We took too many penalties [shorthanded eight times] on [Thursday], we took too many penalties last year, and we’ve got to nip it in the bud right now.”
Quinn declined to say whether DeAngelo will be scratched for Saturday’s rematch against the Islanders, but the smart money says yes, he will be in street clothes. Every defense tandem changed at practice, with Ryan Lindgren skating with Jacob Trouba, Jack Johnson on Adam Fox’s left and Brendan Smith on the right with K’Andre Miller.
Two things here: 1) Why break up the Lindgren-Fox combination that was the team’s best last season; and, 2) If the idea is to reduce pressure on Miller by moving him off a matchup pair with Trouba, why not reunite Smith with Trouba to reconstruct the pair that was so effective following the trade deadline?
And, I guess a third and fourth: Why change every defense combination, and what is it about Johnson that elevates him above Smith in the pecking order?
Other than the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich unit, the remaining three lines were flexed as well. Most noteworthy, Quinn moved Alexis Lafreniere up and across to right wing on the 1A line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, while Kaapo Kakko was dropped to a remodeled third unit with Filip Chytil and Phillip Di Giuseppe.
I spent the summer lobbying for Lafreniere to be awarded an immediate top-six spot, and I think he deserves it. But this move will be viewed more as a demotion for Kakko than as a promotion for Lafreniere. If that is the case internally, it could backfire. The Rangers simply cannot afford to diminish Kakko at this point before he’s even had a chance to establish a foothold.
“This is his second year. Everybody here thinks he’s a really good player. We just need guys to show up night-in and night-out, compete night-in and night-out, and he’s no different,” the coach said of the 19-year-old winger. “He was on a crowded bus of guys who didn’t have good nights, so he’s got to be better, but everyone has got to be better.”
That’s just it. The Rangers have to be better. Much better. The route to getting there will be paved with choices. Selecting the wrong ones could invite long term consequences.