The New York Rangers earned the first seed in the NHL's Eastern Conference because of a crystal clear identity. They outwork you every single shift, every single night. The Rangers don't always pass the eye-test: As someone who has watched about 90% of the Rangers' games this season, they don't always look like a No. 1 seed, a team that nearly won the President's Trophy. It's a credit to coach John Tortorella that the Rangers are a legitimate Cup contender. They aren't the most talented team in the world by any stretch, but were able to get where they are because Tortorella was able to get every player on the roster to buy in to the philosophy. If the Rangers are going to hoist the Stanley Cup in June, they'll have to play that same way for four long rounds. Everyone has to buy in.
Enter Chris Kreider.
The Rangers signed Kreider just days after he won his second NCAA National Championship at Boston College. He's the team's most exciting, most highly-touted prospect in years. Interestingly, the Rangers, a team that finished with 109 points in the regular season, don't have a player like him on their current roster. Sure, prospects have flamed out; some never pan out quite like the hype machine had envisioned. Perhaps that's what will happen with Kreider. But when you read descriptions of him and his game, you could throw in the name "Malkin" instead of "Kreider" and it remains accurate: A massive physical specimen with silky hands, blazing speed and the ability to rack up goals.
Kreider practiced for the first time with the Rangers on Wednesday, and there's a chance he suits up on Thursday when the Rangers open up their first round series with the Ottawa Senators. But would it be the right move?
Here is the dream scenario, and one that would make the Rangers the favorites for the Cup. Kreider lives up to the hype and fits right in. He slots somewhere on the second or third line and gets time on the second power play unit. His speed and nose for goal are evident and he becomes the Rangers' second most natural goal scorer behind Marian Gaborik. He takes the load off Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan as the main goal guys, and all of a sudden the Rangers are creating favorable matchups on the majority of their shifts. Kreider also isn't a liability in his own end; he knows his coverages, busts his butt every time out there...
And that's where the crux of the Kreider decision lies. The Rangers were successful this year mainly because there's a culture that has been built by Tortorella. They're a relentless, defense-first team, and the responsibility of keeping the puck out of their net falls as much on the forwards as it does on goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers couldn't have finished first in the East this season if top-line guys like Gaborik and Richards didn't do their part in their own end, hustling back to break up plays, playing physically and getting in the way of passes and shots. The Rangers simply are not talented enough to overcome poor defensive play, or have someone in the lineup who isn't going to play with the same constant effort and defensive smarts as everyone else.
It takes time for players to buy in to Tortorella's style. You won't find many bigger defenders of Sean Avery than me, but it became apparent early in the year that a player like Avery just didn't fit on these Rangers. It wasn't because Avery isn't talented. It was that he was never going to put himself on the line every second he was on the ice. It's not just Avery, either. There's a reason Mats Zucarello has never been a Tortorella favorite.
We do know that Kreider is an immensely talented offensive player who has the tools to become a legitimate NHL star. But is it worth throwing him into the mix now, in the playoffs, where defensive hockey and physicality often win the day? Perhaps it would be better for Kreider to practice with the Rangers this whole postseason, so that by next training camp he's had a real taste of the "Tortorella Culture". While Kreider is more talented than some of the Rangers' lower line players like John Mitchell and Ruslan Fedotenko, it may just be better for the Blueshirts to roll with what's got them there.
But if Kreider is indeed special, and can come in right away and make a difference? Who knows where the Rangers end up.