10 Early Thoughts on Rangers

Three games into an 82-game season – even if some fans seem to think it’s an eight-game season – the Rangers are 1-2.

They could be 2-1 or 3-0 or 0-3.

And while all points gained — and all points lost — matter when they add them up at the end, the record is hardly significant right now.

What is important, critical really, is that the Rangers have miles to go in their development as a team, and the development of the style they will play.

[Coverage of Rangers-Blues Starts Tonight at 6:30 PM on MSG and MSG GO]

Three games in, the Rangers have yet to play a complete game. They haven’t played fast, mostly because they haven’t managed the puck well enough. They haven’t defended the way they need to defend – and the calling card of this franchise since 2011 or so has been that all of its success and all of its offense starts (or doesn’t start) with defense. Team defense.

[Watch: Giannone & Maloney’s Rangers Morning Skate Report]

That means the way the Rangers make the smart play through the neutral zone or at the offensive blue line, how they pressure the puck on the forecheck, how they control their gaps, and of course how they handle the puck in their own end and guard the area in front of their own net. For stretches in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Montreal, they did a lot of those things and certainly did them better than they had in Toronto the night before.

The room for improvement is vast.

Thoughts:

1. It was interesting to me that coach Alain Vigneault treated Game 3 as a crucial one. He made some controversial changes to the lineup. Fans were up in arms, to no surprise, and you could certainly disagree with them. But if you’re not going to use all the guys on the roster, why have extra guys on the roster?

So he sat Brendan Smith, who had hiccups in Games 1 and 2, and he scratched Filip Chytil, and he carried 11 forward and seven defensemen, limiting Tony DeAngelo’s minutes after the youngster struggled in Toronto.

Vigneault went with Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer. I don’t think Holden and Kampfer should be playing in place of Smith and DeAngelo, who has shown tremendous puck skills and some sandpaper. But, again, you have to use your seventh and eighth D at some points, and Holden and Kampfer are legit spare defensemen, at worst.

2. The win, by the way, improved the Rangers’ record to 65-28-6 in the second game of their last 99 back-to-back sets.

3. As for Chytil, well he’s 18 – barely 18 – and I thought he looked lost his first two games, the second of which ended with him on the pine for the second half of the game. He’s got tremendous skill, but very few 18-year-olds make the jump to the NHL successfully, and I don’t know if Chytil can or if he will get the chance to do so.

I also know that if he’s not ready – and the coaches see him in practices and take apart his shifts on video and know a heck of a lot more about his level of readiness than we do – then he’s better off playing at a lower level, playing tons of minutes, and working on being ready to play at 19 next fall. There is zero wrong with that.

And perhaps he will now that the Rangers assigned him to Hartford Wednesday morning.

So the coach went with 11 forwards Sunday because he only has 12. That is why the Rangers claimed depth forward Adam Cracknell off waivers from Dallas Monday. Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff coached him with the Stars and had some input. That move also kind of tells you what the Rangers think of Matt Puempel and, for now, Boo Nieves, down in Hartford.

[8 Facts You Need to Know for Rangers-Blues]

4. Through three games, the biggest positive is the power play, which not only has four goals in three games but moves the puck quickly, precisely – though still sometimes once too many. Much of that has to do with newcomer Kevin Shattenkirk and his ability to run the power play from the point, and unlike some other PP quarterbacks who’ve come and gone, his willingness to shoot it sometimes.

But don’t discount at all Chris Kreider’s work in the dirty area in front. He’s just set a solar eclipse on opposing goalies. Yes, he’s done that before. He’s doing it better now. And by drawing the attention of the opponent’s defensemen, Kreider is opening things up for Mats Zuccarello along the right wall and Mika Zibanejad (four goals already) in the left circle. Zibanejad is going to get massive opportunities this season.

5. Shattenkirk has been as advertised. And that’s not completely a compliment. He’s just an awesome puck-mover, with a knack for exiting the zone with his legs or with the pass. Yes, he’s terrific on the power play. Elsewhere? Like the team, he’s got a lot of room for improvement, especially around his net.

6. The Rangers, despite their soft/skilled/speedy makeup, have delivered a whole bunch of big, loud, clean hits so far. Some of the biggest delivered by unlikely dealers: Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Pavel Buchnevich, Kampfer and Paul Carey.

7. Another positive is the remarkable event of the video review crew getting two calls correct in one period of the Rangers-Canadiens game Sunday.

8. The Rangers still have plenty of speed and offensive ability – when they aren’t being pinned in their own end or turning it over in the neutral zone. But I thought Toronto got “happy” (John Tortorella’s term) with the big lead and went all Harlem Globetrotters, which helped the Rangers’ comeback Saturday night. Also, the Maple Leafs, talented and young and dangerous as they are, won’t be mistaken for the ’95 Devils anytime soon.

In the first segment of the Mercedes-Benz Rangers Post Game show, Steve Valiquette, Ron Duguay and Al Trautwig look at how favorable bounces and stellar goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist lifted the Blueshirts to their first win this season.

9. Henrik Lundqvist pitched a very solid shutout Sunday, after a terrible outing Saturday – but still, has to be better – and a mediocre outing in the opening loss to Colorado. He can’t be Three Or More very often. Just cannot.

That said, the Rangers’ D zone play, forwards and defensemen, including the penalty kill and even strength, has not been nearly good enough. This has been an issue. They don’t use their speed in their own end of the rink. Instead, only one man chases the puck. It’s a recipe for disaster and Ruff will have his hands full fixing this.

10. I’m having a hard time thinking of a player who’s been consistently good so far. I mean, guys – Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, Brady Skjei – have had their share of moments. But I can’t name one guy who didn’t have a nightmarish turnover or dreadful defensive play in the first two games.

[Coverage of Rangers-Blues Starts Tonight at 6:30 PM on MSG and MSG GO]