The New York Rangers, for much of the 2013-14 season, have been a rudderless team. Entering Friday’s contest against the Penguins, captain Ryan Callahan had played in just 24 of 41 games, while the rest of the crew’s high-ranking personnel wavered in his absence.
There was Henrik Lundqvist looking to Rick Nash, Nash looking to Dan Girardi, Girardi looking back to Lundqvist, none of the team’s de facto leaders willing – or able – to take the helm. As the Rangers struggled through a dour December, largely without their captain, one question grew inescapable: who’s steering this thing anyway?
If there was any silver lining to the disappearing act on deck, it was the emergence of Mats Zuccarello. Someone had to step up with the bridge vacated after all, and the diminutive Norwegian simply decided if no one else, then why not me? Zucc, as it’s been noted before, isn’t supposed to be the one leading this team, but the Rangers have to take his growth as a positive. And now, with Callahan healthy and back in the lineup, Zuccarello can hand back the controls to the rightful commander.
(The rub through all this is that the Rangers need Zuccarello to continue playing as if the Captain isn’t on hand. The same goes for the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin, three players who have noticeably ratcheted things up in Callahan’s absence. If these players fall back into their early season roles as mere deckhands, the return of Callahan is rendered ineffectual.)
Back at the helm, it’s now up to Callahan to make his presence felt – and that goes beyond hurling himself at opponents and diving in front of shots. As desperately as the Rangers need that part of his game – for a galvanizing effect more than anything else – they need his offensive abilities doubly so. Their seven-goal outburst in Toronto notwithstanding, the Rangers remain one of the lowest-scoring teams in the League, and Callahan can help them in this department.
But he’ll have to be better than six goals through 26 games, a 19-goal pace over an 82-game season. The Rangers now count on Callahan for a goal output closer to 30, an expectation bred by his performance over the past three seasons. Having already missed 17 games this year that target may be out of reach, but the point remains the same: Callahan must be a recognized goal-scorer on this team.
Given his style of play, he should rediscover his scoring “touch” soon. His offensive awakening over the past three seasons hasn’t been the result of some abnormally high shooting percentage or unsustainable one-on-one play. Rather, most of his goals have come around the crease via deflections and rebounds, a product of sheer will more than gamebreaking talent. As long as Callahan keeps crashing the net, as is his wont, it’s only a matter of time before the goals start to come.
When they do – and this is assuming the team’s depth forwards continue as they are now – the Rangers will look the way many thought they would back in September: three lines capable of scoring and a fourth line with some jump. The loss of Derek Dorsett hurts, but recent acquisition Dan Carcillo should provide some snarl the Blueshirts have been visibly lacking.
And helping him in this regard will be Captain Callahan, one of just two Rangers forwards – the other being Chris Kreider – whose abilities aren’t mutually exclusive. Imagine the Rangers’ forwards sorted into a Venn Diagram defined by talent and aggression; Callahan and Kreider are the only two who would fall right in the middle. Everyone else, it seems, is on one side or the other.
There may be better offensive players than Callahan. There may be better defensive players, too. There may be better players on the rush, better players along the boards, and better players beneath the goal line. But no Ranger can do as much as Callahan as well as Callahan. He is, without a doubt, the team’s best all-around player.
The Rangers took on water through December, but with their Captain back at the helm, it should be smoother sailing from here.