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Players, not Alain Vigneault, the problem for New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers are off to a rocky start to the 2013-14 season Hard road: The Rangers' defense has been making life tough for goalie Henrik Lundqvist. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

By Allan Muir

So much for the one-bad-game theory.

If there was some faint hope among New York Rangers fans that the 9-2 thrashing administered to their team by Tomas Hertl and the San Jose Sharks was a one-off, it took all of 20 minutes and 17 shots for the Anaheim Ducks to disabuse them of that notion on Thursday night.

The Blueshirts bombed again, this time by a score of 6-0, leaving them with three brutal losses to show for their first four games. They've been outscored 20-6, have just three even-strength goals to their credit, and are being outshot by an average of 10 chances per game. They face the prospect of another lopsided match on Saturday against the very dangerous St. Louis Blues, followed by five more games on the road.

It's early, sure, but not too early to say the Rangers are in trouble. And it's a good bet the team that started the season with a 4-1 loss in Phoenix won't be the same one that finally plays its home opener on Oct. 28 against the Canadiens.

The Rangers have been out of sorts since the start of training camp, and an awkward transition to the system implemented by new coach Alain Vigneault is getting much of the blame.

It's a fundamental shift, to be sure. Instead of shot blocking and lane jamming and quick dumps, Vigneault asks his defenders to make smart plays with the puck, to join the rush, to create odd-man opportunities. It's the sort of up-tempo style that most players crave, but this group -- one that GM Glen Sather built to play John Tortorella-style hockey -- can't seem to handle the responsibilities that go along with the freedom.

There's no system that requires Ryan McDonagh to allow Corey Perry the time and space feather a pass to the front of the New York net, or that tells Dan Girardi to slide in an effort to block that pass instead of simply tying up Ryan Getzlaf, who was left wide open to tap Anaheim's first goal of the night past Henrik Lundqvist. Or one that tells players to stand still in the defensive zone and attempt poke checks instead of physically engaging in battles for the puck.

"We know what to do," Girardi said on MSG's Thursday night broadcast. "AV gave us the game plan. We all know it. It’s been a long time since training camp started and being on the road doesn’t matter. Everyone knows what we have to do -- we just refuse to be in front of the net. We have to be strong in front and make sure we have our check, and when guys are tired we gotta get the puck out, ice it, get the pressure out of our zone. If we are not going to manage the puck well, we are going to keep getting scored on. We gotta get the puck out and live to fight another day."

Seems simple enough, right? Because it is. These guys have been making these plays all their lives, but right now, McDonagh, Girardi, John Moore and Michael Del Zotto are collectively playing the worst hockey of their careers. They're not alone in their struggles, but they're the most obvious problems. They've been soft, sloppy and unfocused. And that's on them, not the system.

It's on them to adapt.

If they can't, the pressure falls on Sather to make changes.

But what options does he have?

There's always the shake-up trade, but with around $500,000 in cap space and few movable roster parts, there aren't a lot of options -- although the Blue Jackets always seem to pick up the phone.

A call-up or two seems inevitable, but it's foolish to expect that anyone down on the farm is going to kick this thing back into gear.

So maybe Sather writes this off as the inevitable byproduct of the coaching change and a wacky West Coast-based exhibition swing. And he waits. He waits for Rick Nash to come back from his latest bout with "headaches" and for Derek Stepan to get his game in gear after missing most of camp and for Lundqvist to get past trying to do everything by himself out there.

But if this descent into chaos continues, waiting won't be an option much longer.
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