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 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 Lafreni̬re was moved up to the second-line. There were questions about how Lafreni̬re 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 Р+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, Lafreni̬re tallied four shots on goal, his season-high. He also scored his first, and only, NHL point in the game Рan 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 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.

New York Rangers: Filip Chytil Deserves More Praise

Filip Chytil, New York Rangers

The New York Rangers have one of the most talented, young teams in the National Hockey League. Big-name players such as Igor Shesterkin, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, and Alexis Lafrenière have garnered more media coverage than most veterans – and rightfully so. Shesterkin was outstanding in the first NHL games of his career last season, sporting a 10-2 record and a .932 save percentage. Kakko was the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, and in his rookie year, he tallied 23 points. Fox racked up 42 points last season, tied for the fourth-most among rookies. Lafrenière, to put it simply, is the most highly touted prospect in years. Each of them are huge pieces of the Rangers’ future, but there’s another young guy who hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves – 2017 first-round pick Filip Chytil.

Why Filip Chytil Deserves More Praise:

His Hot Start to 2021:

Chytil has been on the third line for each of the Rangers’ four games this year, and with each of those games has come improvement. He’s currently riding a three-game point streak, including a goal in two straight. His goal on Friday night against Pittsburgh was nothing short of spectacular, as he flexed his magnificent stick-handling to tie the game at 1-1 in the second.

The Rangers should be ecstatic that the center on their third line is able to make a play like that. Depth is a vital aspect of a successful hockey team, and Chytil provides that.

His Chemistry With Kakko and Di Giuseppe:

Head Coach David Quinn has struggled mightily this season to find the best line combinations for his team. He is yet to send out an identical lineup card for two consecutive games. But luckily for him, it appears his third line is ready to be set in stone. In three games for the New York Rangers, the line of Phillip Di Giuseppe on the left, Chytil at center, and Kakko on the right has an impressive +4 scoring differential. That is the best plus/minus of any line combo on the team this year.

It’s clear that Chytil is benefitting from his new linemates, but just as impressively, Kakko is finally starting to look like the player he was supposed to be when he was drafted in June 2019. He looks significantly more confident on the ice now than when he was playing alongside Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome earlier this season. That’s not a knock on Panarin or Strome, but it’s clear as day.

The fluidity of the sequence above is beautiful. Chytil senses Di Gieuseppe to his right, and Kakko knows he’ll be getting a clean pass to try a one-timer. Textbook hockey. The chemistry between the three is striking.

His Continued Growth Over The Years:

Since playing his first game in 2018, Chytil has done nothing but develop. It took him 15 fewer games in 2019-2020 to notch the same number of points (23) he had in 2018-2019. His efficiency improved as well, scoring three more goals on 19 fewer shots. Now in his third full season on Broadway, the 21-year-old is playing the best hockey of his life – and he’s only going to get better. It’s time Filip Chytil gets the respect and praise he deserves.