-- One month into the season, and first place in the Metropolitan Division isn't held by the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, nor last season's President's Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals. Instead, it's in the hands of the New York Rangers, a team that was expected to be on the decline -- and it's largely because of their unheralded secondary talent.
Other than the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers are off to the hottest start in the NHL. They were the second team to record 10 wins, and they are now tied for second in the NHL with a record of 10-4-0.
The Rangers lead the NHL with an amazing 4.14 goals per game, are eighth best with 2.43 goals allowed per game, and their plus-24 goal differential is the best in the NHL by quite some margin:
These Rangers are different
Normally when the Rangers are doing this well, it's because of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. However, King Henrik has been uncharacteristically average, and his .908 save percentage thus far is the worst in his 12-season career. Given that he is 34, and coming off his first season in which he didn't finish at least sixth in Vezina Trophy voting, it's possible that the Rangers are finding a way to win without elite goaltending -- by necessity, if not design.
If not Lundqvist, the next most likely engine driving the team's success would be its core of highly paid veterans of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello up front, as well as Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh on the blue line. All together, these six players consume $34.7 million in cap space, which is exactly the same as all the remaining skaters on the roster combined.
While the core is certainly playing well enough, most of them are not competing at the same level as they did between 2011-12 and 2014-15, when they were all in their 20s, and the team reached the Eastern Conference finals in three of the four seasons, including an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 2014.
If neither Lundqvist nor the team's core of big-name players are driving New York's success, then how has it been possible for the Rangers to remain among the league's powerhouses? The answer can be found by examining GM Jeff Gorton's less-publicized moves this summer, and how he crafted the league's best bottom six.
As we covered in more detail this summer, the Rangers are at the tail end of their fourth peak in franchise history. Though it has probably been their greatest peak in regards to regular-season success, they are at risk of having it end without a Stanley Cup triumph.
What could Gorton do this summer? The core players who were responsible for opening the window of contention in the first place are starting to enter their 30s and showing signs of decline, and the cap space that they continue to use up didn't give Gorton a lot of room to maneuver.
All told, Gorton managed to free up about $9.5 million with the retirement of Dan Boyle, having Keith Yandle leave for the Florida Panthers and by trading top-line center Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators for the more affordable Mika Zibanejad.
Some of that space was used to back-fill the blue line with players like Nick Holden, Adam Clendening, rookie Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath (who was since traded to the Panthers for Steven Kampfer), but the rest was available to help keep New York's window jammed open with help up front.
In theory, the Rangers had just enough cap space to land one more big-name free agent, but Gorton understood that goals scored by the secondary lines are just as valuable as those scored by the top six -- and they cost a lot less.
The most publicized move was the acquisition of the winner of the 2015-16 Hobey Baker award, Jimmy Vesey, who signed a two-year entry-level contract that carries an annual cap hit of $3.775 million, including signing bonus. Coach Alain Vigneault immediately injected him into the top six, where he has been playing with some combination of Stepan, Zuccarello and Nash this season, and has scored 10 points in 14 games, which is tied for fourth among rookies.
With far less publicity, Gorton used the remaining funds to provide Vigneault with as many options as possible for the depth lines, including rookie Pavel Buchnevich, and free agents Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, Josh Jooris, Nathan Gerbe and Nicklas Jensen.
Ultimately, Vigneault chose to play Grabner, the speedy Austrian penalty-killing specialist, on the third line with J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes, and the results have been outstanding. Miller and Hayes each lead the team with 13 points in 14 games, Hayes was selected as one of the NHL's three stars last week, and Grabner is tied for the league lead with seven even-strength goals. That's not bad for $6.875 million combined.
Buchnevich and Pirri were selected to join Jesper Fast on a versatile, young fourth line, and they have already combined for nine goals and 23 points through the team's 14 games. Their combined cap hit is under $3.0 million.
Can they keep this up?
Obviously, New York's bottom six will not continue to run this hot all season. These six players have a combined 27 goals on 127 shots, for a 21.3 shooting percentage that is almost double their previous combined career average of 12.2 percent (237 goals on 1,942 shots).
In the long run, New York's fate will remain in the hands of Lundqvist and its core players, whose shot-based metrics remain far superior than those of the bottom six. But, this fast start was made possible because the Rangers understood that goals scored by the depth lines are just as useful as those produced by the high-priced core. As the Penguins proved last season, having four skilled lines that can score is paramount to a team's success.
In this case, solid play and great shooting by the team's bottom six has added at least 12 goals through the first 14 games, propelling the Rangers to the top of the division, and those points in the standings don't come off the board no matter what happens next. But whether they do stay at the top is in the hands of their stars.