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Rest of Rangers’ season must be all about next season

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Wednesday night’s match at the Garden against the Flyers represents the halfway mark of a 2020-21 season that has been vaguely disquieting.

Goaltending has become a problem area. The first-line center spent the first eight weeks in virtual witness protection. The superstar left wing spent two-plus weeks in self-imposed exile after being hit with politically motivated and unsubstantiated assault charges from over a decade ago. The team’s most dynamic offensive defenseman was expelled for offensive behavior. The pair of marquee kids is nowhere close to meeting expectations that may or may not have been unrealistic. Is everyone having fun, yet?

The NHL point system is designed to create illusionary success. When you say the Rangers are 11-12-4, that sounds better than pointing out that the team has won only 11 of their 27 games. The record, though, is not the issue. Would anyone have expected better under the aforementioned issues?

The issue is what appears to be a stalled dynamic. If the Blueshirts appeared to be way ahead of the timetable a year ago, they now appear behind schedule, although there is the school of thought that this season that is being contested under unique circumstances represents the often obligatory one-step-back-to-take-two-steps-forward portion of the program.

It has been a slog, though, hasn’t it, through a first half that is all but done? There is no going back. But the mandate now for the hierarchy and the head coach is to ensure that the second half of the year becomes a runway into 2021-22. It is always important to compete, there is always a reward of its own in winning (and learning how to win) but accumulating points to try and somehow become relevant in playoff conversations seems way beyond the point at this point.

The rest of this season has to be about next season.

And that, in my opinion, means that is on David Quinn to give more responsibility to guys who will be — or are projected to be — part of the long-term future here even at the expense of players who have performed well and have earned time but likely won’t be a part of it when the team returns to prominence.

And while that is going to be on the head coach, Quinn must have the support of president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton in order to reprioritize the agenda. If this is not an all-in movement then it will fail.

Here’s what I mean. Ryan Strome has had a pretty decent year. Taken in the context of the two troubling months for both Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, Strome might even be having a better 200×85 season than he did a year ago when posting fancy stats in partnership with the Russian Rockette.

But there is little realistic chance that Strome will be here when his contract expires at the end of next season. So perhaps Filip Chytil — who has not been as effective since returning from the broken hand as he was through the first handful of games prior to the injury — should be given the opportunity to play top-six minutes with no-doubt top-six wingers. Or is Chytil, in his fourth pro season but still only 21 years old, not ready for top-six matchups?

Here is a crazy thought (or not). Coming out of last year’s draft, there was much talk that Kaapo Kakko’s best position might be center. Given the sophomore Finn’s struggles to create offense and get off the wall coupled with the organization’s issues down the middle, would it be nuts to give him a shot there?

By the way? There are folks who do evaluations for a living who believe Alexis Lafreniere should be a center. Or would that be too much too soon to put on the 19-year-old?

The power play has been impotent, ranked 27th in the league at 14.1 percent in having gone 0-for-12 over the last three games and 3-for-28 over the last nine contests. Yet Quinn keeps trotting out the same personnel on the first unit at the expense of Kakko, Chytil and Lafreniere.

Over those last nine games, and even with Panarin missing the first seven of them, Strome got 28:49 on the PP while Lafreniere got 17:06, Chytil 12:04 and Kakko 11:07. Wouldn’t you like to see Julien Gauthier get some sort of a crack at playing with the man-advantage? Do you know how much PP time he has for the season? That would be a total of 3:31, or 18:11 fewer than Colin Blackwell.

Rangers Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko
Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko
Getty Images (3)

Don’t get me wrong. Blackwell has earned his time. He’s been a valuable add to the lineup. But is there any realistic expectation he will be a part of the team when it ripens? That has to be the predicate on which deployment decisions are made.

The Rangers need to put Lafreniere in his best position to succeed. Again, maybe it is unfair to hold the team and the first-overall to the norm under conditions where the teenager has not been able to see his parents for months, but this sure hasn’t been what anyone expected. The question is why? Is the organization doing something wrong here?

This was supposed to be a building block year for the Rangers. Not only can it still be one, that is what it must become. The second half of 2020-21 is all about 2021-22.

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