A week ago, it probably would have been a challenge to identify the Rangers’ best player to date. In responding to a question about Igor Shesterkin’s season, head coach Gerard Gallant said, “Igor has been our best player for the last year-and-half.”
Putting aside the problematic math, though Shesterkin was the club’s best player by leaps and bounds during his 2021-22 Vezina Trophy-winning season, the netminder had not established a baseline of excellence this season. His save percentage that has hovered around the NHL average of .906 equates to cold pizza in the aftermath of the 26-year-old Russian’s landmark .935 a season ago, which rated as the third-best in NHL history among goaltenders with at least 50 games played.
But if not Shesterkin through the early weeks of this season, then who has been the Rangers’ best player? Again, a week ago, the answer may not have been apparent.
Now it is.
And it is Adam Fox.
Entering his fourth season, two years removed from becoming the first defenseman since Bobby Orr to win the Norris Trophy as early as in his second season, it seemed as if Fox was being taken for granted. His subtlety was being overlooked, as was his effectiveness at both ends of the ice.
K’Andre Miller had become the shinier toy on the blue line. Nationally, Fox had been outshined by Colorado’s flashier Cale Makar, the 2021-22 Norris winner.
But Fox has been brilliant as the season has evolved. His ability to read plays and defend is reaching another level. He is dominating at the offensive end of the ice, ranked tied for third in goals by NHL defenseman with five, tied for second with 14 assists and second in points with 19 to Erik Karlsson’s 22 (10-12). Fox is on a six-game point-scoring streak through which he has recorded a combined three goals and seven assists.
No. 23’s two-way play has been exceptional while working with partner Ryan Lindgren, the duo generally reclaiming their status as the club’s shutdown pair after sharing the distinction with the Miller-Jacob Trouba tandem in the second half of last season and the early weeks of 2022-23.
The Lindgren-Fox pair has been on for eight goals for and six against (57.14 percent) in 193:04. The Miller-Trouba tandem has been on for six for and 16 against (27.27 percent).
Over the past 13 games, over which it has become apparent that Trouba has been compromised to a degree by nagging injuries that have forced the captain to miss multiple practices, Lindgren-Fox have been on for five goals for and two against while Miller-Trouba has gone three for and 14 against.
Individually, Fox has been on for 16 goals for and nine against, a rate of 64 percent. He has been the Rangers’ best player. By a fair amount.
Difficult as it may be, Gallant is going to have to do a better job of monitoring Fox’s minutes. The 24-year-old from Jericho ranks ninth in the NHL with average ice time of 24:59 per, though only 58th at even strength with 17:56 per.
Fox has played 26:43 or more in four of the past five games, topped by 28:17 on Saturday in Nashville, at the end of which he seemed exhausted.
Gallant would have Fox on every other shift if he could, but the season is too long for the minutes to pile up at this rate.
If you thought that Artemi Panarin was unusually inconspicuous in Sunday’s victory over the Coyotes, you are correct.
That game marked the first time this season that the winger did not have a shot attempt at even strength and only the 11th time in his 203 games as a Ranger that occurred. Panarin has gone two straight games without a shot on net at five-on-five.
Vincent Trocheck may be a better 200-foot player than Ryan Strome, whom he replaced following the summer free-agent coming-and-going. Or maybe not.
But Panarin and the new No. 16 have yet to find the chemistry that marked the three seasons in which No. 10 worked with Strome. That pair was simpatico from the start. This pair is very much a work in progress.
There is no blame game here. There are other dynamics at play. But over the 2,018 five-on-five minutes shared with Strome from 2019-20 through 2021-22, Panarin was on for 115 goals for and 74 goals against, which translated to a goals-for percentage of 62.4. Panarin’s overall goals-for percentage of 62.36 ranked second behind Brad Marchand over that span among forwards with at least 2,500 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick.
This year, Panarin’s been on for eight goals for and 12 against in 203 minutes with Trocheck for a 40 percent rate. Individually, Panarin has been on for 11 goals for and 16 against. That equates to 40.74 percent. That ranks last among Blueshirts forwards with at least 150 minutes at five-on-five.
Filip Chytil is the team leader in the clubhouse at 80 percent, on for eight goals for and two against.
Trocheck does not seem to have a defer button among his arsenal. It is extremely difficult to anticipate what Panarin is going to do next with the puck. That applies to Panarin himself, as well as his linemates. There is still a fair amount of trial and error ahead, but it is on both players to accelerate the process.
If you’ve heard talk that the Rangers’ power play — underperforming at a 14th-ranked 23.0 percent — should adopt more of a shooters’ mentality, be aware that the Blueshirts’ power play is third in attempted shots per 60:00 behind Carolina and Florida and second in shots on net behind Dallas.
Finishing has been the issue, the club ranking 25th in shooting percentage. But is it?
It seems as if the club’s 11.86 shooting percentage would more or less correspond to heavy shot volume, no? The Coyotes lead the NHL with a 24.24 shooting percentage with the man advantage, but rank 30th in shot attempts per 60:00 and 31st in shots per 60:00. Arizona is fourth in the league on the power play at 29.6 percent.