New York Rangers: The Taxi Squad Has Been Elite This Season

Colin Blackwell, New York Rangers

The 2021 season has not gone as planned for the New York Rangers. They’ve underperformed through the first 19 games of the season, and just when things seem to be looking up, the bad returns. From poor goaltending and a lack of offensive production, to a player taking a leave of absence following false claims about his past, the Blueshirts have endured a lot of negativity already this season. But there’s been one consistent positive – the taxi squad. The squad has been arguably the main highlight of 2021 for the Rangers, and they haven’t shown signs of slowing down.

What Makes The Rangers’ Taxi Squad Elite:

The Production They’ve Gotten From Unlikely Names

If you were to tell any Ranger fan that Colin Blackwell would have the sixth-most points on the team at the start of March, they’d probably say, “who?” After all, the Rangers were supposed to have one of the most potent offenses in the league this season. With goal-scoring machine Mika Zibanejad, point-acquiring king Artemi Panarin, and the number of talented young players arriving on the NHL scene, how could a 27-year-old with barely any NHL experience be a legitimate threat on offense?

Well, to be frank, I can’t properly explain why Blackwell’s playing so well. But I can say his production is off the charts, and it’s been that way all season. After watching the first four games from the team-hotel, Blackwell got his chance against the Penguins on January 24. He made the most of his opportunity, scoring just the fourth goal of his career. He then followed that up with a point in each of the next two games. Then things went south, like all things do for the Rangers in 2021, as he suffered an upper body injury.

Blackwell eventually returned 13 days later and picked up right where he left off. In seven games since returning from injury, Blackwell has tallied five points, giving him a total of eight on the year. Those eight points in 11 games give him an average of 0.73 points per game – the second-highest mark on the team.

Along with Blackwell, Anthony Bitetto has been a pleasant surprise for the Blueshirts as well. While being a solid contributor on the defensive end of the ice, Bitetto has also been a spark-provider on offense. In nine games the former sixth-round pick has three points to his name, tied for the fourth-most among Ranger defenseman. He’s playing the best hockey of his career, and like Blackwell, for seemingly no reason. No one is complaining though.

On top of Blackwell and Bitetto, there are a couple other names that must be mentioned. Defenseman Libor Hajek has provided a sturdy presence on D, while forward Jonny Brodzinski has contributed on the offensive end – scoring a goal in last Friday’s game against Boston.

How The Squad Compares To The Rest of the NHL

Individual statistics compared to teammates are always impressive, but the Rangers’ taxi squad is more than just good for their own standards. They’re one of the best in the entire NHL, and the numbers prove it.

As of March 1, the Rangers’ taxi squad players have produced 12 points, tied with Tampa Bay for the fourth-most in the league. But that ranking is a bit unfair to the Blueshirts and Lightning, due to the teams in-front of them making transactions early on in the season. The top three teams in terms of taxi squad production, Chicago, St. Louis, and Anaheim, all have a player that began on the taxi squad following roster cuts but has since played at least 20 games. Meaning their total number of points is an inaccurate representation of their taxi squad success.

Chicago has gotten 20 points of production from their taxi squad in 2021, but 15 of them have come from Philipp Kurashev and Brandon Hagel, each of whom have played at least 20 games. Anaheim’s squad, meanwhile, has produced 15 points, but that’s almost entirely because of Max Comtois’ 13. Comtois, the Ducks’ leader in points, started the season on the taxi squad but was recalled to the active roster the day after, and has started every single game for Anaheim. The same goes for St. Louis who has received 18 points from Jordan Kyrou, a member of the Blues taxi squad for less than 24 hours in January.

So, if you put everyone on an even playing field, that puts the Rangers in a tie for the most taxi squad points in the NHL. On top of this, the Rangers’ taxi squad has been the most valuable in the league. The Blueshirts’ squad has accounted for seven goals, equivalent to 14% of all Rangers goals. No other team is remotely close to that number.

Despite all the negatives in 2021, at least we have the taxi squad to boast about. They’ve been an awesome surprise.

New York Rangers getting production from unlikely sources

Colin Blackwell, New York Rangers

If you take a look at the list of players who have scored goals for the New York Rangers in their last five games, this list looks something like this: Colin Blackwell, Brendan Smith, Colin Blackwell, Pavel Buchnevich, Julian Gauthier, and Kevin Rooney. Not the usual group of suspects one would think of for Blueshirt scoring. Yet, these players have been the unlikely source of production while some of the top games work to get untracked.

Colin Blackwell has given the New York Rangers a big boost

Blackwell recorded the first power-play goal of his NHL career on Thursday night. He has now tallied a goal in two consecutive games for the first time in his NHL career. Blackwell has recorded five points (three goals, two assists) in seven games with the Rangers. His three goals have already equalled his total from last year in 27 games with Nashville.

It was not a move that got a lot of notice. On October 9, 2020, Blackwell was signed as a free agent a two-year contract worth $725,000 annually. The signing was likely more of a depth position addition. The Rangers were going to need some players that could fill out a taxi squad for 2021 to deal with the pandemic issues. That $725,000 signing has been quite the bargain so far.

Long Island native has stepped up for a depleted New York Rangers defense

With defensemen Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller not playing in Thursday night’s game, someone had to take their spot on key units. Rangers coach David Quinn not only had Anthony Bitetto in the lineup, but he also had the Island Park native man the points on the second power-play unit.

Bitetto responded by sending a nice power-play pass to Pavel Buchnevich, whose shot was tipped in by Blackwell for his third goal of the season. The assist was Bitetto’s first as a Ranger.

After the game, teammate Brendan Smith said of Bitetto “A guy like Bitetto is always going. He’s always firing, keeping that energy high. Teams need that. He’s great at that. People don’t get down on themselves. You keep going. You keep striving to get better. Those guys like him, they’re a diamond a dozen.”

As long as some of the top players continue to struggle, it will take guys like Blackwell and Bitetto to keep up their outstanding play so that the Rangers can compete for a playoff spot.

 

 

New York Rangers: The Taxi Squad Players Have Been a Great Surprise

Colin Blackwell, New York Rangers

The New York Rangers‘ 2021 season has been a rollercoaster. From blowing a lead in more than half their games, waiving a player for fighting a teammate, and beating one of the best teams in the NHL, they’ve seen it all. And yet, despite all of the early-season speed bumps, they find themselves at 4-4-2, good enough for sixth place in the East division. Those 10 points have not come from the superstars of the team, though. Minus Artemi Panarin, who has a team-leading 15 points, the top-liners have underwhelmed. Luckily for the Rangers, members of the taxi squad have stepped up and capitalized on an opportunity to make a name for themselves.

The Rangers’ Taxi Squad Players Have Been Excellent

For those unfamiliar with the term “taxi squad,” allow me to explain. For the 2021 season, all NHL teams will have a squad of six players that practices separately from the team, travels to each game, and are ready to suit up in any moment. It is an insurance policy in case a team is missing a player or two due to COVID-19 protocols.

Miraculously, the Rangers have gotten outstanding production from their taxi squad players. In six combined games, the members have a +3 plus/minus, while the Rangers as a team are 3-2-1. Three players, in particular, have made the leap in stride: defensemen Anthony Bitetto and Libor Hajek, and forward Colin Blackwell.

Anthony Bitetto

A former sixth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2010, Long Island native Anthony Bitetto has appeared in two games so far for the Blueshirts. He has been nothing but quality in each. On the defensive end, he has blocked two shots, registered four hits, and is sporting a +1 plus/minus. The Rangers would be perfectly satisfied if those were his only notable stats. But Bitetto has outperformed all expectations – largely due to his jaw-dropping goal in Thursday night’s win against the Washington Capitals.

In the video above, it is important to remember Bitetto is a defenseman, not a forward. The way he avoids multiple hits showcases his stick-handling, and flicks the backhander into the net is remarkable. Based on that lone play, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t on the active roster a month ago.

Not only was it one of the best goals you’ll see this week, but it was loaded with meaning for Bitetto. He had not scored a goal since November 18, 2017, back when he was a member of Predators. It ended a 111-game goalless streak for the kid from Oceanside, NY. Simply sensational.

Libor Hajek

While Libor Hajek does not have a highlight-reel goal to flex like Bitetto, he does have plenty of solid defense to boast about. A former second-round pick of the Tampa Lightning, Hajek appeared in his first game of 2021 during Thursday’s win over Washington. He played well given the circumstances, blocking a shot and communicating well with Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin. He was also on the ice for Bitetto’s goal.

Unfortunately, his +1 plus/minus turned to zero when former Ranger Carl Hagelin scored in the second period.

There’s not much Hajek could’ve done in the situation above. He gets caught in a two on one, attempts to block the shot by Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway, and Hagelin taps in the rebound. If Shesterkin manages to cover the puck up, or Hagelin isn’t in perfect position to tap the puck in, Washington doesn’t score there. Hajek played very well otherwise.

Colin Blackwell

The original taxi squad success story, Colin Blackwell made the most of his first three games. Game four didn’t go as planned, though, as he was injured early-on against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has been out since January 30th with an upper-body injury.

Prior to his injury, though, Blackwell was unbelievable. He scored a goal in his first game with the team and followed it up with an assist in each of the next two. His presence gave the Rangers fourth-line a much-needed spark. He, like Bitetto and Hajek, greatly exceeded expectations.

The success story of the taxi squad has undoubtedly been one of the best stories of the Rangers season. Let’s hope it continues for the next 46 games.