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Hartnett: Rangers Likely Need One Impact Move To Bring It All Together

By Sean Hartnett
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More than half of the 2016-17 season has passed and it's difficult to get an accurate read on the Rangers.

Their 28-13-1 record has been a mixed bag. There have been times when the Blueshirts have performed like one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference and other times when their weaknesses have been apparent and exploitable.

Let's first examine their strengths. When the Rangers are fully healthy, their formidable depth up front and ability to move quickly in units of five makes their offense difficult to stop. Their 3.43 goals for per game ranks only behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Possessing four speedy and skilled interchangeable lines, the Rangers are able to cause matchup headaches against any opposition.

Their scoring depth is illustrated by nine Blueshirts at this point with at least 20 points. That list will grow to 10 once Jimmy Vesey collects his next point. Five Rangers have registered at least 30 points (Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, and J.T. Miller). Prior to this campaign, the last season in which five Rangers notched at least 30 points through the first 42 games was during the 2000-01 season.

Free agent recruit Michael Grabner has been a big surprise by providing better-than-expected production. The 29-year-old former Islander has blown away expectations by recording 27 points in 41 games. His 19 goals are equal to Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. Only Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Vladimir Tarasenko have found twine with greater frequency. Grabner is constantly putting stick on puck to cause turnovers and jump-start transition chances.

His lightning speed intimidates and backs off the opposition similar to former Ranger Carl Hagelin. Also like Hagelin, Grabner thrives on the penalty kill. His presence has helped the Rangers improve to 10th overall after finishing 26th of 30 teams last season. Given Grabner's wide-ranging contributions, his two-year, $1.65 million annual-average value contract is looking like a terrific summer bargain.

Rangers G Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, center, stops a shot from by the Blue Jackets' Sam Gagner during the game on Jan. 7, 2017, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

As a whole, the Rangers have improved tremendously on special teams compared to last season. Their power play currently ranks third overall in the NHL (23.2 percent). This is somewhat of a surprise given power play wiz Keith Yandle's departure to the Florida Panthers. No individual Ranger ranks in the top 65 in power play points. Captain Ryan McDonagh's nine lead the team.

MOREHartnett: Nash's Impending Return Just What Doctor Ordered For Rangers

By committee, they are operating one of the league's most dangerous power plays and they've done it while Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich have missed long spells due to injury. Nash and Zibanejad have yet to return to game action, while Buchnevich is taking advantage of the league-mandated five-day hiatus by getting minor-league minutes with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta have formed one of the league's best goaltending tandems. Although Lundqvist's .912 save percentage is below his .920 career average, he's stolen a number of victories. While Lundqvist has let in the occasional soft goal, he always finds his A-game in time for the playoffs. Raanta has been nothing short of spectacular, to the tune of a .921 save percentage. His ability to shoulder more of the load should allow Lundqvist to be fresh come the postseason.

MOREHartnett: Rookie Brady Skjei Proving To Be Reliable Option For Rangers

All of the Rangers' strengths are counterbalanced by their defensive deficiencies. They do not possess a natural right-hander capable of sharing first-pairing duty alongside McDonagh. Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein are regressing and are best relegated to sheltered minutes. This leaves 22-year-old Brady Skjei to assume the top pair role on his off-side. Though Skjei has thrived with increased ice time, he's still a rookie with lean experience. General manager Jeff Gorton will be on the lookout for a top-four, right-handed defenseman as the March 1 trade deadline nears.

The Marc Staal-Nick Holden pairing has been the only rock-solid blue line fixture. Perhaps, the recent success of Adam Clendening will force a longer look from head coach Alain Vigneault. With Yandle out of the picture, the Rangers haven't had a dynamite breakout and are too easy for opponents to hem in the defensive end. Though Clendening has a lot to prove, it's clear he can help advance the puck cleaner and more efficiently.

Speed, forward depth and superior goaltending have been pluses for the Rangers, but it's going to take more than that to go deep in the postseason. As currently constructed, their blue line is unsteady and in need of fresh blood.

Gorton has demonstrated that he can strike a deal that improves the Rangers without giving away the farm. I don't think the Rangers will go for broke in the weeks leading up to the deadline. If the price is too steep, I can't see Gorton paying it given the importance of keeping the young core together. You're probably looking at quality rentals rather than the headline-grabbing splashes of seasons past.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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