It’s predictions time and everybody is really high on the New York Rangers. I’m not really sure why. They’re a decent team with an elite goalie, and that certainly doesn’t make them a cup contender.
The new season is upon us, and you know what that means: It’s Predictions Time.
Predictions Time is an awful part of the year, but here we are doing it anyway because people love them (this is part of what makes them so awful). Each season, we get a lot of pundits buying into a lot of hype of such-and-such a team, which isn’t normally a big deal. “The Blue Jackets will be so good this year because they got Brandon Saad!” and so on. You can’t fault people for believing these things.
However, one thing that I absolutely do not understand is why everyone is so high on the New York Rangers.
Okay, sure, they went to the conference final last year, and the Cup Final the year before that. In fact, they’ve been to a conference final in three of the last four years, and lost in the second round in the lockout-shortened season. They also won the Presidents’ Trophy last season, which is not nothing.
But this is a team that got a little worse in the summer, having traded Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem, and grabbing Antti Raanta for Ryan Haggerty, to replace the departing Cam Talbot. Other than that, they basically didn’t sign very much at all (Jarret Stoll?) and extended Derek Stepan.
Which, again, they had the best record in the league last season, so “a little worse” isn’t perhaps that big of a deal.
But on paper, this is a team that looks very much like the fourth-best team in its own division (behind Washington, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn).
Again, they got worse, and they were a sub-50 possession team last year that relied heavily on two things: shooting percentage (their 8.4 percent at full strength last year was good for fifth in the league, only a tick behind Calgary and Colorado), and an improbable run from Talbot when Henrik Lundqvist went down with a long-term injury.
You obviously can’t count on Lundqvist missing much time once again, as he’s been one of the more durable goalies in the game over the last decade or so, and the injury that felled him was a bit of a freak thing, so maybe that alone makes up for the Talbot/Raanta swap.
But I don’t know where people get to say this is a team capable of scoring anything close to their previous 179 goals at 5-on-5 again this year. Is this a team with one of the league’s elite offenses? The 142 they scored in 2013-14 seems like a much more reasonable expectation. This is a team with a perfectly nice forward depth (when Derek Stepan is your No. 2 center, playing with Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, you’re in good shape) but nothing that really blows your doors off. Maybe Alain Vigneault subscribes to the “having four second lines and no first lines” theory of coaching that works so well at lower levels of the game, but in the NHL that shouldn’t be a plan for long-term success.
And as to the quality of that defense, the term “dramatically overrated” springs to mind immediately. Ryan McDonagh, very much yes. Marc Staal, pretty good. Keith Yandle, probably in line for a rebound. But that’s three guys out of six. Dan Girardi is bad. Dan Boyle is 1,000 years old. Kevin Klein is also bad. Despite some people ranking this D corps among the best in the league, there sure seem to be a lot of question marks.
The Rangers gave up more than 3,700 full-strength shot attempts last season. That was only 22nd in the league. It’s difficult to see where that number gets better, given the personnel.
Not that Alain Vigneault isn’t a smart and good coach, because he is. The way they play in their own zone does a lot to suppress high-quality attempts relative to what they allow overall (22nd in corsi against, 16th in high-quality scoring chances against , and 14th in overall scoring chances against), which certainly helps keep that goals-against total down.
He gets a lot of value out of even middling lineups — which, let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what the Rangers had last year — and that should continue this year, but having a league-high PDO sure doesn’t hurt. I was just talking to Thom Drance about this subject, and he said that he figures Vigneault’s particular coaching peculiarities might be worth as much as 10 points a season.
I’m not sure I’d go quite that far — does he really get them an extra 30-plus goals over a replacement coach? — but it’s clear he has a positive impact on any team he coaches; it’s hard to judge, however, because he took over from John Tortorella, a demonstrably bad coach, and was also replaced by him. It’s not exactly comparing apples to good coaches, is what I’m saying.
And of course, there’s the fact that Lundqvist is basically guaranteed to stop 92-plus percent of all the shots he faces, which in and of itself is going to be worth a boatload of goals each season. Especially when combined with Vigneault’s chance-limiting style.
The last time Lundqvist was less than a .920 goaltender was 2008-09, when the league average was only .908 (incomprehensibly low by today’s standards). He was a .916 goalie that season, meaning that he was still extremely dominant relative to the era. And by the way, that was also seven years ago at this point.
So yeah, Lundqvist is worth a lot of goals every single night, and that goes a long way toward papering over whatever roster problems the Rangers may have. When he’s healthy, Lundqvist plays 60-plus games every year, which is a lot, but Raanta for 20 or so isn’t likely to produce the same results as Cam Talbot, or even anything close to that (last year’s .936 in 14 games notwithstanding).
But if Raanta can even just kind of prevent the team from taking on water, the team’s goalies will probably deliver several wins above replacement level.
All of this, by the way, probably only applies to the regular season, because it’s hard to knock the Rangers’ postseason success, or see it as anything resembling unrepeatable. Lundqvist hasn’t turned in less than .927 in the playoffs in four years, because again, he is unbelievable. So while better teams may push the club around when April, May, and perhaps even June arrive, Lundqvist remains the great odds-leveler.
With that having been said, there’s not a ton to like as it relates to this team’s chances to be truly competitive in an improved division. Unless Lundqvist goes off, which is entirely possible.
This is a decent team with a world-class goalie, and you can ask last year’s Canadiens just how far that’s going to get you. But that doesn’t make them Cup contenders. It probably doesn’t even get them close.