Why the Knicks were winners at the trade deadline

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The NBA trade deadline officially came and went Thursday, and it certainly did not disappoint as there was a record amount of activity around the league, according to ESPN’s Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski:

Despite all these trades, the New York Knicks stayed relatively quiet during the trade deadline. They were involved in one minor three-team trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers that sent veteran point guard George Hill to Philadelphia. The Knicks parted ways with guard Austin Rivers, who was sent to Oklahoma City, and forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who was sent to Philadelphia, in exchange for guard Terrance Ferguson, 7-foot big man Vincent Poirier, and a pair of second-round picks.

Both players should not make much of an impact with the team and probably will rarely even seen the court barring injuries. It has also been reported by Wojnarowski that the Knicks are planning to waive Poirier, so that means they will have an open roster spot they need to fill.

So, all in all, it was a quiet trade deadline for the Knicks. They were interested in a number of players and even made offers to a few, but in the end, the asking prices were too much, and the front office did not want to ruin the strong chemistry of the current group.

Some Knicks fans are upset the team did not make more moves and felt like this was a missed opportunity to gain assets at the very least. I’m here to tell you why the approach that the team took is not a bad one and why they should be considered winners despite their lack of activity.

What has been one of the biggest reasons for the agony and pain that being a Knicks fan has come with for the better part of the last 20 years? It’s that the Knicks too often get desperate and throw away all their assets for a quick fix that ends up not fixing much of anything. Now, I’m not saying the Knicks were in position to make a move that big during this trade deadline, but apparently, teams were asking a lot for the players the Knicks were interested in acquiring.

The fact that the front office showed discipline and patience and did not rush to make any irrational decisions out of desperation is a huge positive. Who’s to say that the previous regimes would have done the same thing? Because history says otherwise. They were more likely to (over)pay up and sacrifice key parts of the future in order to bring in a guy who they think would take the team to the next level when really it ends up setting the team back. Knicks fans should be thrilled that the team has a front office in place that finally seems to get it.

Another reason to be satisfied with the Knicks’ approach is because of a fact I pointed out earlier, which is that they maintained the chemistry of the current rotation. There is no doubt that this team’s chemistry is at an all-time high, as they play hard, unselfish basketball every game and play for each other. We see the camaraderie and positive relationships that the players have with one another time and time again. It is clear that this group enjoys being around each other, and that is translating to winning basketball being played on the court.

Disrupting that by making a trade to acquire a star player could’ve negatively affected that chemistry in a big way, and it could’ve had real consequences on the court as well. That’s not to say the Knicks are set to win a championship with their current roster, but they are having fun and are very much in the playoff hunt, so why would you want to risk jeopardizing that? This season was supposed to be about establishing a culture and developing the young guys anyway, so continue to focus on that while seeing if you can get into the playoffs, then in the offseason, you can worry about plugging holes and improving the roster.

And finally, I understand the argument that the Knicks did not take advantage of their resources and add enough assets at the deadline. That is true, and it is the one area where I would’ve liked to see them maybe be more involved in, as they could have taken on bad contracts for young players and/or more draft picks. But the fact that they didn’t is not the end of the world. The Knicks did add a pair of second-round picks, which is something, but this wasn’t the only chance they had to add assets.

The Knicks will be entering this offseason with loads of cap space, and as usual, there will be plenty of teams looking to get out of bad contracts. The Knicks will have lots more opportunities to gain assets over the summer if they so choose. Plus, if they brought in a guy before the deadline, once again, they would’ve had to worry about fitting them into the rotation somehow.

This trade deadline may have been disappointing for some Knicks fans who wanted to see a guy like Lonzo Ball in orange and blue, but take a deep breath and focus on the big picture. I wanted Ball too, but he didn’t get traded to any team, so that means he’ll be very much in play this offseason since we know he’s unlikely to re-sign with New Orleans. The Knicks won’t have to give up assets for him either, since he’ll be a restricted free agent.

So relax, my fellow Knicks fans. We finally have a competent front office and a fun and surprisingly good team to root for this season. Let’s ride them out the rest of the way and see if they can make the playoffs. Enjoy it. Cherish it. Take it all in. And then we’ll worry about improving the team over the summer.

Deciding the fate of Knicks players on the bubble ahead of the trade deadline

New York Knicks, Austin Rivers

The All-Star weekend is officially in the books as teams are now fully focused on the second half of the NBA season. The New York Knicks are in a really good spot for a change, as they sit at the 5th seed in the East with a record of 19-18.

The fact that they are in the playoff race, let alone a game above .500 this late into the season, is nothing short of remarkable considering the expectations heading into this year. This is a huge testament to the work of head coach Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the coaching staff, as they have this Knicks team playing hard every night and outworking their opponents, especially on the defensive end as they currently rank second in defensive rating at 108.8.

Usually once the trade deadline rolls around Knicks fans are already scrolling through mock drafts and familiarizing themselves with prospects in the upcoming draft. The Knicks themselves are usually trying to sell guys for draft compensation or searching the bargain bin for anyone they can take a chance on.

This year is totally different, as the Knicks will probably look to be buyers over the next few weeks, and as usual, they have been connected to almost every name out there. This also means a number of guys on the team already have been connected to trade rumors as well, so we could possibly see a roster that looks significantly different once the March 25th deadline passes. With that, let’s dive into a few current Knicks who are on the bubble and see if they are likely to remain in orange and blue, or if their time as a Knick could be over rather quick (how did I do, Clyde?):

Four players the New York Knicks could decide on at the March 25 deadline: 

Austin Rivers

I really feel bad for Austin Rivers. I do. He went from being a guy who immediately cemented himself as a vocal leader on the team and had Knicks fans excited, to a guy who fell out of the rotation and hasn’t seen the court in weeks unless it’s garbage time.

That being said, Rivers has been playing very inconsistently for much of the season. He is a hot-and-cold type of player and is a very streaky shooter. It seemed that Rivers was trying to do too much when he was on the court, and he was failing to find the guys around him when they had open looks far too often.

After the Derrick Rose trade, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Rivers. The second unit has largely performed much better with Rose, and even when Rose was out the last couple of games due to health and safety protocols Rivers still didn’t see any playing time.

Rivers can still be a valuable trade piece because of his experience, veteran presence, and team-friendly contract. There should definitely a few teams who are interested in bringing in a guy like Rivers to bolster their scoring off the bench, including the team coached by his father, who had also shown interest in him during the offseason along with the Knicks. The Knicks might be able to get themselves a second-round pick or two for Rivers if they move him, and it is all but guaranteed at this point that they will do so.

Prediction: Gone

Kevin Knox

Kevin Knox has suffered a similar fate to that of Rivers, as the 2018 ninth overall pick has also fallen out of the rotation and has only seen the court sparingly recently. In just over 15 minutes played he’s averaging only 5 points, 2 rebounds and under 1 assist per game.

Early on in the season Knox showed an improved shooting touch, particularly from behind the three-point line, although Coach Thibodeau must not have liked what he saw from him in other areas of his game and phased him out of the rotation pretty early on.

The Knicks have reportedly been shopping Knox, although they were unwilling to part ways with him in the Rose trade last month. Nevertheless, it’s likely that team president Leon Rose and the rest of the front office were looking to save Knox for a future trade down the line, and I doubt he is untouchable now by any means.

Knox still could provide some value to a team looking to take a chance on a young guy and see if they can try and unlock something that the Knicks were not able to. He could also be an attractive throw-in piece as part of a bigger trade, but no matter what the trade looks like the likelihood is that Knox’s time as a Knick is coming to an end.

Prediction: Gone

Frank Ntilikina

Ah, the beloved French Prince. A man who will forever unite and capture the hearts of Knicks fans across the globe. After his early-season injury and COVID scare, we thought Frank Ntilikina was pretty much done as a Knick as he was forced to the bench alongside Knox and Rivers once he returned. But alas, an opportunity presented itself once injuries struck, and Ntilikina was the one Thibodeau called on to step up to the plate, which shows that he trusts him.

Ntilikina has done a solid job this season overall, especially since he returned to the rotation the last few games before the All-Star break. He hasn’t lit up the scoreboard, but that’s never been his game. He’s shot the ball selectively but more efficiently this season, and he’s continued to affect the game greatly with his suffocating defense. The offense as a whole has also seemed to flow better when he’s on the court, as he’s been able to help move the ball around while doing a good job of getting his teammates involved.

Could this mean that maybe the Knicks won’t trade Frank after all? He is a free agent after this season, and it was thought that the Knicks were looking to move on from him. They could possibly look to trade him and then re-sign him in the offseason. However, the Knicks would lose his Bird Rights, and they might want to see if he continues to improve the rest of the season. He would probably be affordable to re-sign as well, which would be appealing.

This is really a toss-up, it can go either way, but I’m going to lean towards the Knicks holding onto him and the Frank Ntilikina experiment continuing… for now.

Prediction: Stay

Elfrid Payton

We now go from the most beloved Knick to the most criticized Knick. Elfrid Payton seems like a great guy and is a solid player, he just can’t catch a break with Knicks fans. He isn’t a starting point guard, and even though he hasn’t been terrible he hasn’t been great either. He’s been good getting to the basket and even in the mid-range with a strong floater game, but his inability to shoot the ball has limited what the Knicks have been able to do offensively. He’s held his own defensively as well, but he’s been underwhelming getting his teammates involved as he’s averaged a career-low 3.7 assists this season.

Fans have been calling for Derrick Rose to replace Payton as the starting point guard ever since he came on board, but Thibodeau keeps standing by Payton and it doesn’t seem like he’s planning on taking him out of the starting role. That being said, you never know with Thibodeau, and Rose has played well as the starter in the games Payton missed with a hamstring injury.

When you combine that with guards like Ntilikina and rookie phenom Immanuel Quickley coming off the bench, it makes Payton more expendable. Plus, there have been rumblings of Payton drawing some interest from other teams. But, at the end of the day, while it is possible that Payton could moved at the deadline, there has been nothing that gives off the impression that it’s likely to happen.

Prediction: Stay

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: Why Chris Kreider Is So Dominant On The Power Play

New York Rangers, Chris Kreider

New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider has been the team’s number one source of goals this season. His eight scores lead the team, as do his five power play goals. He posted his third career hat trick in Wednesday night’s loss to Philadelphia and has scored in two straight. In other words, the longest-tenured Ranger has been magnificent around the net – especially on the power play. It’s no coincidence he’s tied with eight other players for the third-most power play goals in the NHL though. His ability to control the ice in-front of the net has turned him into a goal-scoring machine.

What Makes Chris Kreider so Good on the Power Play:

 His Ability to Find Open Space Around the Net

Very few do a better job of finding open space around the net than Kreider. The former first-rounder has virtually made a name for himself strictly by plucking off goals in the crease. Each time Kreider steps on the ice he makes a point of gaining position by the net and waiting for an opportunity to strike. Sometimes that opportunity is a rebound off a wrist-shot from 20 feet out, while other times it’s a tip-in off a slap-shot from the blue line. He’s always waiting to cash-in, game after game.

Kreider positions himself to the right of Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott perfectly. There’s not a single defenseman within reach of him when the puck ricochets off Elliott, giving him a wide-open net to score on.

The Flyers, like every other NHL team that has played the Rangers in the Kreider-era, failed to correct their mistake the next period as well.

This time Kreider waits for Zibanejad to set him up with a picture-perfect pass and cashes in once again. Just like his first goal of the game, there’s no defender to impact his shot. You’d think teams would do a better job of locating him by now, right? Considering he has been tormenting penalty-killing teams for his entire career, after all.

His Ability to Stay Calm Under Pressure

Not all goals will be as easy as the ones from Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia unfortunately, but that isn’t a problem for Kreider. For years he has been able to send the biscuit into the oven despite players draped all over him. He never feels pressure and always remains calm.

The clip above is from a game against Vancouver in 2013. Notice anything about No. 20 in blue? He’s positioned in-front of the net for the entirety of the possession, patiently waiting for a shot-on-goal that he can redirect into the twine. And when former-captain Ryan McDonagh sends a wrist-shot into the pile-up of skaters outside the net, Kreider capitalizes. Despite Vancouver’s Chris Tanev effort to interrupt Kreider’s concentration, the power play goal is scored.

Nearly eight years later and nothing has changed.

He Makes the Most of His Chances

No member of the Blueshirts makes more of their minutes than Kreider. His average ice-time of 17:27 is the fifth-most among forwards on the team, and yet, as mentioned earlier, he leads the team in goals with eight. What makes his goal-tally even more impressive though is how few shots he has taken. He has converted on eight of the 41 shots he has taken this year, an absurd success-rate of 23.5% – the highest on the team.

For perspective, only eight other players in the NHL with at least eight goals scored have converted on at least 23.5% of shots taken. Furthermore, five of those eight players spend more time on the ice than Kreider each game, which provides them with more opportunities.

This is nothing new for Kreider, however. Although he has never averaged more than 17:30 of ice time in a season, the Massachusetts-native has scored 20+ goals in five of his eight seasons. An impressive 31.5% of his career goals have occurred on the power play. All while being one of the speediest skaters on Broadway for the last decade.

It’s not by chance that Kreider is having a strong 2021 season on the power play. The guy knows how to get the puck into the net and has shown no signs of slowing down in year number nine. Nor will he slow down until someone invents a tactic to keep him out of the crease.

New York Giants: The Underrated Benefit of Drafting a Cornerback

New York Giants, Patrick Surtain

As the 2021 NFL Draft swiftly approaches, the New York Giants are doing their best to make sure they get the No. 11 overall pick correct. Following a 2020 season that saw the team make strides towards competitiveness for the first time in years, it’s vital Big Blue makes the correct choice. Most mock drafts have suggested the team take an offensive-playmaker, a pass rusher, or an offensive lineman. While all of those options would greatly benefit the Giants, there’s one position that would kill two birds with one stone – cornerback.

The Underrated Benefit of Drafting a Cornerback at No. 11 Overall

The Role a Strong Secondary Plays in the Pass Rushing Game

On paper, a cornerback’s main duty is to defend against the opponent’s passing game. Whether that be via soft-zone, press-man, or any other scheme that Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham draws up, that is their job. A strong secondary-unit does more than just wreak havoc on opposing receivers and quarterbacks though. It allows the pass rush to get after the QB and forces the opponent to adjust their style of play. The Giants would reap the major benefits of this style of play by taking a defensive-back in round one this spring.

Following the 2019 season, the Giants knew they needed to improve their secondary. They allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game in the NFL and consistently failed to get off the field in crunch-time. To fix this issue they went out and signed James Bradberry. Bradberry outperformed all expectations in his first year with Big Blue in 2020, earning the first pro-bowl nod of his career. But it wasn’t only Bradberry who enjoyed a successful season – the entire Giants secondary improved significantly. The team allowed 26.2 less yards per game through the air and finished as the 17th-ranked unit in the league. Along with the improved pass defense came an uptick in pressure on the QB.

The Giants finished 2020 tied for the 11th-most sacks in the NFL with 40, 11 spots higher than their ranking in 2019. Despite not signing a dominant pass rusher in free agency last offseason, their pass rush improved. How? Strong play from the secondary. It’s not a coincidence both sections of the defense improved either. Almost all of the best passing defenses rushed the passer effectively in 2020.

The Correlation Between a Strong Passing Defense/Sacks

Of the six-best defenses against the pass in 2020, three of them finished in the top-six for sacks. On the other end of the rankings the correlation is relevant as well. Of the 10-worst pass defenses, five of them were in the bottom-10 for total sacks. A strong secondary allows the defensive line to produce something called a “coverage sack.” That is when a team forces the QB to hold onto the ball for an extended period of time, allowing the pass rushers to blow the play up.

The biggest example of a player benefitting from strong secondary play, and converting on “coverage sacks” is the Giants own Leonard Williams. In eight games with the team in 2019 Williams posted a measly 0.5 sacks. He did, however, register 11 hits on the QB. It was clear in 2019 that Williams needed only one more second to turn those hits into sacks. And when he received that extra second this past season, he made it count.

In 16 games with Big Blue in 2020 Williams was simply dominant. His 11.5 sacks led the team and were the 7th-most in the NFL. Nothing much about the former No. 6 overall pick changed heading into 2020. He was the same player but this time around had a group of high-football-IQ players behind him. He pounced on his secondary’s success and showed everyone why he was taken so high back in 2015.

Who Would be in Play at No. 11

If the Giants were to go the CB route in round one, which I strongly endorse, there are two players on the table: Patrick Surtain from Alabama and Caleb Farley out of Virginia Tech. Both are projected to be lockdown corners at the next level, and with good reason. Each played against top-tier competition while in college, possess nearly identical long, rangy frames, as well as a wealth of skill to play in almost any type of defense. They’re each projected to go in the top-15 of the draft this April.

Let’s say the Giants like Surtain a bit more because of coach Judge’s connection to Alabama, and take him at No. 11. He would immediately slide into CB2 opposite Bradberry. It’s fair to say the Giants would have one of, if not the best CB duo in the NFL with that pairing. It would be extremely difficult for an opposing to QB to find an open receiver each play, thus giving the d-line time to do their job.

There’s no need to draft an edge rusher at No. 11 overall or overpay for one in free agency this offseason. Continue to build up the secondary and the sack production will increase as a result. When there’s a chance to fill two positions of need with one player, you must take it.

New York Rangers: Which Line Combo is Best For Alexis Lafrenière?

New York Rangers rookie Alexis Lafrenière has struggled to adjust to the NHL – and it’s obvious. Despite getting more than 14 minutes of ice time each game, the seventh-most among forwards on the team, he has tallied just a single point in 12 games. Rangers coach David Quinn has done his best to try and get the 2020 No. 1 overall pick going, but nothing has worked thus far. Coach Quinn’s favorite method of attempting to solve Lafrenière’s struggles has been mixing up his line-mates almost every game. Through the first 12 games of the season, the rookie has been a member of six different line combos, by far the most on the team. Here’s which combos have worked well, and others not so much:

Which Line Combo Has Worked Best for Alexis Lafrenière?

The Lines:

Lafrenière-Chytil-Gauthier

Very few probably remember that this line even existed. The third-line for the first game of the season, the three found little success while on the ice together. The line existed for only that first game and hasn’t been seen since. It must be said that perhaps coach Quinn decided to switch things up a little prematurely. After all, it was Lafrenière’s first career game and he had no preseason games to help build chemistry.

The rookie registered one shot with the line, took his lone penalty of the season, and had a -1 plus/minus in 13 minutes of ice time.

Panarin-Strome-Lafrenière

For his second career NHL game Alexis Lafrenière was moved up to the second-line. There were questions about how Lafrenière would fair playing on the right side, as he had played almost exclusively left wing while in Rimouski, but he ended up playing very well. In his first game with the line he had his best plus/minus of the season – +2. He also totaled three shots, tied for his second-most in a game.

The following game didn’t have the same success unfortunately. In 14 minutes of ice time Lafrenière managed to get only one shot on goal and had a -1 plus/minus.

Lafrenière-Zibanejad-Kreider

In an attempt to give a scoring-spark to the rookie, coach Quinn moved the No. 1 overall pick up to the first line. On paper, the idea seemed great. Kreider’s high hockey-IQ and Zibanejad’s otherworldly goal-scoring ability would certainly provide scoring chances for Lafrenière, right? Well, not so much.

The first-line was not only a poor fit for Lafrenière, it was also statistically the worst line he was a member of. In two games, he registered just one shot and posted a -2 plus/minus while averaging 17 minutes of ice time in the two contests.

Lafrenière-Howden-Kakko

Another one-hit-wonder, the “under age 22” line existed for only one game. I personally wish coach Quinn gave this line another game to build chemistry. Something about young, underrated players on the same line works very well. For example, the line of Di Giuseppe-Chytil-Kakko that existed earlier this season was stellar prior to Chytil’s injury.

Notching three shots in under 15 minutes with the line, Lafrenière looked very comfortable.

Lafrenière-Zibanejad-Buchnevich

Despite struggling mightily on the first-line two games prior, the rookie returned to the top line and showed great improvement in the January 28th contest against the Sabres. In 15 minutes of ice time, Lafrenière tallied four shots on goal, his season-high. He also scored his first, and only, NHL point in the game – an overtime goal to give the Rangers a 3-2 win.

It must be pointed out that the goal occurred in a 3-on-3 format, not the typical 5-on-5. Meaning Lafrenière still has not accounted for a point with any five-man line this season.

The line would end up playing four total games together, double the number any other Lafrenière line played. In those four games, he totaled nine shots and a 0 plus/minus. Having Buchnevich, a true right-winger, on the opposite side helped immensely.

Lafrenière-Howden-Di Giuseppe

The most recent line combo created by the jigsaw-puzzle-fanatic David Quinn has played two games together thus far. Neither game has been particularly inspiring. In more than 26 total minutes of ice time with the line, Lafrenière is yet to record a shot and has a -1 plus/minus.

I am fully expecting to see a new line be sent out for Friday’s game against the Bruins, as should you.

So, Which Line is Best?

If game seven of the Stanley Cup Final was tomorrow, and I had to send out a line with Alexis Lafrenière’s name on it, I’m putting him on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich – no questions asked. Those four games were the best Lafrenière has played all season. He was drafted by New York to score points, and playing alongside two proven veterans give him the best chance of doing that.

On the other hand, ff you’re looking for a line full of potential and the opportunity to burgeon into a line of the future, then putting him alongside Brett Howden and Kaapo Kakko would be the correct answer. Each of them has a unique skillset that would allow the other to grow. Howden’s physical-play compliments Kaako and Lafrenière’s quickness very well. Meanwhile, Kaako’s ability to shoot the puck on net would provide excellent tip-in opportunities for the other two. On top of that, Lafrenière’s passing talent would get his teammates loads of scoring chances at the net.

What do you think would be best for Alexis Lafrenière? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts on the situation.

New York Giants: Can Julian Love be the answer at CB2 in 2021?

New York Giants, Julian Love

The New York Giants had a great defense last season, much to the surprise of many. One of the weak spots of the unit, however, was CB2. James Bradberry was elite as a lockdown CB1 for the team, but on the other end of the field was a revolving door of cornerbacks.

This has resulted in many believing that Giants would look to address that position over the offseason, but it might not be as pressing of a need as we thought.

The multiple players the Giants put out there at CB2 continuously underwhelmed for much of the season. However, their last guy ended up being the best guy. In Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys, the Giants decided to give 2019 fourth-round pick Julian Love a try, and it worked out really well.

Love, who was a very good cornerback at Notre Dame, broke up a couple of passes and displayed tight coverage throughout against one of the premier wide receiving units in the league. He played a big part in the Giants holding Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup to under 50 receiving yards each. Love shored up the weak link in the Giants secondary with his play and provided them with two legitimate corners for the first time all season.

Love’s play made Giants fans wonder why it took so long for the team to give him a shot at cornerback. It is his natural position, after all, and he was one of the nation’s best in college.

Over his three-year career with the Fighting Irish, Love totaled 176 tackles, 5 interceptions, 39 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. He was a Consensus All-American in 2018 and was also a Thorpe Award finalist, which is given to the best defensive back in college football.

Since Love has been with the Giants, they’ve been using him as more of a safety than a corner, which is something he didn’t play much of in college. Despite showing some promise in his role, it was clear at times that Love was playing a new position. He was even starting to see his playing time disappear because of how crowded the Giants’ safety group became, and it was looking like he was on his way to being another wasted draft pick. Not anymore.

As someone who’s been calling for the Giants to try Love at cornerback for a while now, it was great to see them finally give him a shot. Ideally, you would’ve like to see them make the move sooner so we could’ve had a bigger sample size, but the promise Love showed against a good offense is intriguing.

I’m not saying that the Giants shouldn’t add to the cornerback group at all during the offseason, but they should be more confident in Love’s abilities. I, for one, think his play has made CB2 not as big of a need as it was prior to Week 17.

The Giants would still be wise to use a mid-to-late round draft pick on a defensive back or sign a lower-tier free agent for depth and insurance purposes, but I think that they should go into next season, giving Love every opportunity to start opposite Bradberry each week. He should definitely be the lead candidate.

Will Julian Love be the answer? That remains to be seen. But after what he showed when given a chance, he has definitely earned more of them going forward. Most thought that the Giants would have to look elsewhere to fill the void in the secondary, but for all we know, the Giants might not have to look very far after all.

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.

How the New York Rangers can fix their issues in net

New York Rangers, Igor Shesterkin

Blown leads, last-minute goals, and painful overtime losses have become a staple of the 2021 New York Rangers. They have held a lead in all but one of their eight games this year, yet they’re only 2-4-2, giving them sole possession of last place in the East division. There are a variety of reasons why they continue to give away games, but the biggest is obvious – poor play from their goalies. The struggles at the position have led the coaching staff to try unconventional ways of fixing the issue, yet all of their methods have failed thus far. In a 56-game season, every game matters. Here’s how the Rangers can fix their issues in net, and as a result, get their season back on track:

How the New York Rangers Can Fix Their Issues in Net

Make Igor Shesterkin the Full-time Starter

Very few Ranger players had as much offseason-hype as goalie Igor Shesterkin coming into 2021. The 25-year-old player from Moscow, Russia, had been advertised as New York’s goalie of the future last season, and in 12 starts, he looked the part. He went 10-2 as the starter, stopped 93.2% of the shots he faced, and surrendered 2.52 goals per game. Heading into 2021, it looked as though the Rangers, and Shesterkin in particular, were going to be a real force in the division.

Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, that offseason-hype has not translated to the ice this season. Shesterkin has struggled mightily this year, allowing 2.73 goals per game, stopping a measly 89.4% of shots faced and posting a 1-2-1 record. All of those numbers are bottom 10 in the NHL among qualified goalies. Because of those struggles, the team has shown no hesitation to put in their other goalie, Alexandar Georgiev. In most cases, this move would make sense. But not for the Rangers.

Georgiev has been even worse than Shesterkin so far in 2021, and he has shown no signs of improvement. He’s stopping only 88.6% of shots faced, giving up 3.27 goals per game, and has posted a 1-2-1 record so far this season. Yet despite his poor play, the coaching staff continues to give him opportunities. And in turn, they’re greatly halting the growth of their true No. 1 goalie – Shesterkin.

Get Shesterkin Consistent Reps

A number of NHL teams have adapted the goalie 1A/1B system over the years, and for some, it has worked very well. Dallas goalies Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger have both been among the best at their position so far, and their team is 4-1-0 through five games this season. The Stars had success using the same game-plan last year as well, but with Ben Bishop instead of Oettinger.

The Rangers are not the Stars, however.

New York is preventing Shesterkin from getting into any rhythm by swapping him out every single game. He had his best game of the season last Thursday night against Buffalo, allowing only two goals on 25 shots in a 3-2 OT victory for the Rangers, but what did he get as a reward for his stellar play? A seat on the bench for the next game. To make things even worse, Georgiev played terribly in said game, allowing five goals.

Help the Defense Build Some Confidence

There’s more to the goalie position than stopping pucks, though – and it appears head coach David Quinn has forgotten that. One of the most important aspects of the position is communicating with the defense and building relationships with your defenseman. It’s impossible for Shesterkin to do that successfully while sitting on the bench every other game. And as a result of Quinn’s inability to decide on a full-time starter, the defense as a whole is underperforming – particularly in big moments.

New York has blown a lead in five of their games this year, losing four of them. In each of those instances, it is clear the defense is not performing to their maximum potential. They haven’t had any opportunities to build chemistry with a goalie, and it would benefit them greatly if they got to play with Shesterkin for multiple games consecutively. Coach Quinn needs to recognize this before the season is too far gone.

There’s a reason Shesterkin was named the starter out of training camp – he is the future in net, after all. The Rangers must let him build confidence and rhythm if they wish to make the playoffs. The clock is ticking.

New York Rangers: Colin Blackwell making the most of his opportunity

Colin Blackwell, New York Rangers

When the New York Rangers called up forward Colin Blackwell from the taxi squad to replace Brendan Lemieux, they were looking for a spark to ignite a struggling group of forwards. And so far, albeit only two games, it looks as though coach David Quinn made a great decision – a rarity for the Rangers’ head coach. In each of his first two games with the team, Blackwell has tallied a point. He scored his fourth career goal this past Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and notched an assist in Tuesday night’s loss at Buffalo. Though a very small sample size, the Harvard-graduate has been exceptional.

Colin Blackwell is Making the Most of His Opportunity:

How He Got to Broadway:

When drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft No. 194 overall, the odds were against Blackwell. On average, a draft class produces around 60 NHL players, with the majority of them being drafted in rounds one or two. The difficult road to the big-leagues was no exception for Blackwell, who didn’t play his first games in the NHL until 2019 when the Nashville Predators called him up for six games.

The next year, he spent the first half of the 2019-2020 season with Nashville’s AHL team, the Milwaukee Admirals. While in Milwaukee, Blackwell impressed the organization by tallying 23 points in 26 games and earned another shot at the NHL. In 27 games with the Predators in 2019-2020, he accounted for a modest 10 points. Those 10 points weren’t enough to earn a contract extension, though, and he entered the 2020 offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Over the course of the offseason, Blackwell garnered the interest of multiple teams and eventually chose to sign a two-year deal for $1.475 million with the Rangers.

His Rangers Career:

Blackwell knew he had an outside chance of making the roster out of training camp when he signed, but a little adversity was obviously nothing new to him. He took the challenge head-on and fought for a roster spot during training camp. Despite a strong showing in camp, the large number of skilled forwards on the Rangers’ roster left Blackwell on the outside looking in – again. He was placed on the taxi squad and stayed there for the first four games of the season.

Game Number One

After a slow start to the season for the Blueshirts, the stars aligned, and the Harvard-alum was granted an opportunity to make his mark. Blackwell wasted no time to make said mark, scoring a goal on one of his first shifts with the Rangers.

To score a goal in your first game with a new team is impressive in its own right, but to get it via tip-in off a slap shot is extraordinary. The concentration and hand-eye coordination that is required to perform a tip-in successfully is remarkable.

Game Number Two

Heading into the next game, expectations were conservative for Blackwell. Very few believed he’d be able to make a big contribution for a second consecutive game. But all odds were defied once again, as he assisted on the first goal of K’Andre Miller’s career.

While his second point with the Rangers wasn’t as impressive, it’s still worth recognizing. Blackwell does exactly what he needs to do to give Miller a chance. He locates the open man, slides the puck over softly, and lets the rookie do the rest of the work. Exactly how you draw it up.

No one expected Colin Blackwell to be making contributions for the Rangers when he signed with the team a few months ago. Most viewed him as a depth-piece with a bit of upside. But here we are, watching a player make the most of his opportunity.