Last season, we witnessed what is most certainly the beginning of the slow death of the New York Rangers as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
They had about as successful a regular season as we’ve been accustomed to recently, but they were dropped in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in just five games as the holes in their game noticeable through their underlying numbers that peeked out behind their record became very, very evident.
Now we have a team with an aging and expensive core with virtually zero reinforcements coming up through the system, as the front office’s mantra of selling the farm in the attempt to ‘win now’ for so many years is quickly starting to catch up to them.
The Rangers finished 2015-16 with a 46-27-9 record, good for 101 points and third place in a very strong, or, well, top heavy, Metro Division. They finished 11th in both goals for and goals against, which makes perfect sense considering where they ultimately ended up in the standings. That said, their underlying numbers suggested that their results were considerably more positive than their play warranted.
For starters, the team finished fifth in the league in even strength goals per hour (2.43), up with the likes of Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington, even though they were in the basement of the league in generating shot attempts per hour (51.5) with the likes of Buffalo, Columbus, and Arizona. Their leading scorers, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, and J.T. Miller all had pretty high shooting percentages, which coincides with the fact the team had the league’s highest PDO at 102.4.
Now, this could be dispelled somewhat if the Rangers were really good at generating high quality chances in spite of their low offensive possession numbers, but that wasn’t the case either. According to War-on-Ice, they ranked in the bottom third in the league in both scoring chances and high danger chances for per hour. It’s pretty clear that the Rangers weren’t an above average offensive team even though their goal totals would suggest otherwise.
The team’s strength last season was most certainly keeping the puck out of the net thanks largely to the excellent play of Henrik Lundqvist (and Antti Raanta when called upon). They ranked fourth in the league in goals against at even strength per hour (1.93), but, like with before, there’s reason to believe that these results weren’t completely indicative of the way the team played in front of them.
The Rangers allowed 57.2 shot attempts against per hour, putting them in company with Edmonton, Calgary, and Columbus, which, uh, isn’t good, obviously. Again, a step further also shows them allowing way more high danger scoring chances than the average team, which would explain why Lundqvist was one of the best goalies in the league last season when looking at adjusted save percentage.
So, overall, what do we have here? The epitome of a PDO bubble that was waiting to burst. When you’re consistently eaten alive in shot attempts both ways, and you’re going well in goals for and against based on high shooting and save percentage figures, you aren’t going to have a good time.
Based on what I went on about in the last section, it shouldn’t be all too big of a surprise that just about everybody on the Rangers had pretty ugly possession numbers last season. In terms of qualified regulars (players who played 300 minutes or more at even strength), only Dylan McIlrath, Keith Yandle, and Chris Kreider had a Corsi For percentage at or above the even 50.0 per cent mark. This issue, in my option stems largely from their defensive core and its inability to consistently move the puck out of the defensive zone and turn the play around.
Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle had the best possession numbers in relation to their teammates and other defencemen, which would make sense, of course, considering they received far and away the most offensive zone starts on the blue line. Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein were the Rangers’ two best overall defencemen last season, as each faced difficult competition, pretty heavy defensive zone starts, and managed to have positive relative possession numbers. On the other end of that, though, was Dan Girardi and Marc Staal who are known to be shut down defenders, which, well, in their case, is really just code for bad.
Girardi and Stall made a significant amount of starts in the defensive zone, this much is true, but neither of them faced the top competition that McDonagh did. Also, when looking at both Stall and Girardi’s with and without you numbers, it becomes clear that whenever the team’s forwards were thrown on the ice with them on the blue line, their ability to generate scoring chances went down, and they ere ultimately hemmed in the defensive end. Yes, I understand that possession numbers will be effected negatively due to defensive zone situations, but these two were completely eaten alive, even more so than other defencemen on different teams who played similar roles were.
The Rangers do, though, have a pretty deep forward group with a top-nine that can produce offence from top to bottom. Their biggest strength is down the middle, as Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan provide a pretty underrated two-way, one-two punch, while J.T. Miller, a natural centre, plays the wing, and Kevin Hayes, who can also provide offensively, rounds out the group on the third line.
They could probably use some work on the wing, especially after the disappointing season that Rick Nash had. Nash only managed 15 goals and 21 assists thanks largely to a minuscule 8.2 shooting percentage, but still, his possession numbers indicate that he wasn’t driving the play at the same pace that he has throughout his career. Thankfully for the Rangers, though, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider both stepped up and contributed at a nice clip offensively, recording 26 and 21 goals respectively, albeit, with pretty high shooting percentages.
And finally, I don’t think I need to go into much detail here, but the Rangers are excellent in net with Henrik Lundqvist, who, at 33 years old, is still one of the game’s elite goalies.
The Rangers are hammered down with some pretty bad contracts right now. Rick Nash at $7.8 million Marc Staal at $5.7 million, and Dan Girardi at $5.5 million really isn’t very attractive, especially as they continue to age and the Rangers young players like J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes (all of whom are currently RFAs) all inch closer to commanding more expensive deals.
Currently, they have seven forwards, four defencemen, and two goalies from last year’s group signed into next season with just under $19 million in cap space to work with this summer. That may seem like quite a bit of room to make improvements, but it really isn’t when you have half of a roster to flesh out and not much in the way of young, cheap talent on the way up.
The Rangers, such as it’s been for a while now, don’t have any picks in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. So if they’re going to make major improvements to their roster, it’s more than likely going to need to come via free agency. And, err, based on how they’ve been handing those picks out like Halloween candy the past few years, they probably shouldn’t be looking to mortgage any more of their future assets right now.
While they do need somewhat of a retool, the Rangers are still in win now mode and I can’t really imagine them deviating from that, especially while Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist are signed and playing at the level they are. With that in mind, I’m sure the Rangers will be looking to kick tires on some of the major free agents on the market this summer. But before they do that, as I alluded to in the previous section, they’re going to have to dump some contracts.
Rick Nash had a pretty treacherous season and is turning 32 years old this summer, but he only has two years left on his deal at $7.8 million, and, well, he’s still Rick Nash, so he might be an attractive buy-low option for a team in need of a star winger. I have no idea what the Rangers can really do with Girardi or Staal, to be honest, because there isn’t much that’s redeeming about either contract right now. Maybe they could try to pawn them off to a team like Vancouver who doesn’t really seem to know what they’re doing? Regardless, moving either one will be significantly more difficult than moving Nash, unfortunately.
If they can’t move any of those contracts, I have a very difficult time seeing how the Rangers will make any upgrades this summer. Hayes, Kreider, and Miller are all in need of new RFA deals, and at ages 24, 25, and 23 respectively, they’re going to be looking for longer term deals with pretty decent pay raises, considering they each had pretty solid seasons offensively last year. I mean, even if you give them exactly what they were paid last season (this surely won’t happen), that’s a combined $7 million that eats a good chunk of the $18 the Rangers have available.
So in an idea summer for the Rangers, they get all three of those RFAs signed, they move one of Girardi or Staal (ideally the former) without having to eat any money, they pawn off Rick Nash for a decent return of prospects and picks to help restock their farm system, and they add a free agent puck moving defenceman like Alex Goligoski, and a good winger to fill in Nash’s spot, like Andrew Ladd or Kyle Okposo.
Realistic? Maybe not. But it’s certainly doable if they’re willing to get creative and smarten up on which players should stay and which should go.
Here we are, witnessing the decline of the New York Rangers right before our eyes. They boasted some of the worst possession numbers in the league last season, and, unsurprisingly, their PDO bubble burst and they were booted in the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games.
Their core is getting older, and the team is plagued with bad prospects. But not all is lost! They still have a handful of good players and one of the best goaltenders in the league.
The key for this team moving forward into the 2016 offseason will be realizing where their boat anchors are, and finding ways to get rid of them so that upgrades can be made in free agency, because at this point, they really can’t afford to just keep selling the farm for upgrades on the trade market.