At this point, Rangers vs. Flyers the day after Thanksgiving
has become a part of the holiday tradition (or just another hockey game if
you’re Canadian). And if you watched, you saw the Rangers eke out a win in front
of an exceptional performance by Henrik Lundqvist.
You may have also noticed
that the Rangers didn’t play particularly well, not having the puck much but
capitalizing on their scoring chances when they did. This has been the story of the Rangers
for some time now, with the team miraculously pulling out wins despite poor
process – the Rangers currently have a league-high 12.15% shooting percentage.
All of this leads to a very valid question: what’s going on with the New York
It’s important to add some context and systems analysis in
order to best understand the Rangers under Alain Vigneault. Since he took over
as coach the Rangers have played a style of hockey that emphasizes forcing
turnovers at the blueline, creating odd-man rushes, and aggressive
forechecking. As a result the Rangers have the highest shooting percentage in
the NHL for the combined seasons of 2013-14 to present day at 8.41. Add to the mix that the Rangers have had
Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best if not the best netminders over the past
decade between the pipes, and you can see why the Rangers typically lead theleague in PDO (for that same time period since 2013-14 their PDO also tops the
NHL at 101.5, so you get the idea). All of this is to say that the Rangers high
shooting percentage and save percentage are both naturally elevated.
The New York Rangers.
This has become extreme – low shot share, bloated GF%, lots of luck. pic.twitter.com/S9ZjMNW0BG
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) November 28, 2016
This season however we’ve seen a dramatic example of this,
with the Rangers prolific offense leading the league with 56 goals for at even
strength so far this season for an average of 3.17 per 60 minutes of even strength hockey.
Coming into the season fans knew that the team’s forward depth would be a
strength, with Jeff Gorton making several savvy acquisitions to compensate for
the teams decidedly dismal defense. Still, this can’t be normal right? And more
importantly, is it sustainable?
Let’s start with what’s obvious – the Rangers have some of
the best forward depth in the league, with four balanced lines each capable of
scoring. A lot of this has to do with some fresh faces such as Pavel
Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad, but we’ve also seen some outstanding
play from Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Chris Kreider. As a result on any given
night someone on each line is liable to be having a particularly good game, and
even without superlative performances from any particular player the mere
threat of four capable lines is enough to put teams on their toes.
To illustrate what four balanced lines has done for the
Rangers consider the following: the line of Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, and Jimmy
Vesey has shot 12.5% this year, and that’s not even the line with the highest
shooting percentage. That honor would go to the line of Kevin Hayes, Michael
Grabner, and J.T. Miller, whose shooting percentage so far this season is a
whopping 20% (Brandon Pirri, Pavel Buchnevich, and Jesper Fast also have a 20%
Sh% together but have played about half as many minutes). Alain Vigneault has
been juggling his lines a bit this season as a result of injuries, but the
point stands, as individual units, each line is way over performing, even by
the Rangers’ typically high shooting percentage standard.
All of this naturally points to the idea that the Rangers
hot streak is going to cool off at some point, even if their shooting
percentage does remain somewhat high. To that end the evidence is obvious, with
their CF% being fourth worst in the league. Anyone with eyes can see why – the
Rangers are good in transition, but getting to that transition game has proven
difficult for them.
Even with rookie Brady Skjei and captain Ryan McDonagh
somewhat filling the void left by the departure of elite puck-mover Keith
Yandle, the Rangers struggle in their own end. Their slow, aging defensemen Dan
Girardi, Marc Staal, and Kevin Klein (who helped paper over defensive defects
last season, but is having a bad season this time around) simply can’t cut off
other teams’ passes or limit shots against, sometimes leading to play like we
saw the day before Turkey Day against the Pittsburgh Penguins (I’m thinking
specifically of the shift that lead to the Penguins 5th goal, where
the visitors looked almost like the old Soviet National team skating circles
around the Rangers in their own end).
The counterpoint to this notion is the idea that the Rangers
don’t need to have the puck all the time, because their otherworldly goaltender
will handle whatever shots get through and all their defense has to do is limit
truly dangerous chances and get the puck to the offense so they can generate
their own. On that front the Rangers seem to be doing a pretty good job, with
their SCF% being the seventh best in the league at 53.55%, and their SCF60
standing second only to the newly reinvigorated Toronto Maple Leafs at 10.81%.
Those readers who have been watching NHLNumbers over the past several weeks
will know however that scoring chances is not exactly perfect in terms of evaluating
the danger of chances generated by a team, with xFSh% being a slightly more
exact measure. The Rangers top the league there too, with their 7.06% xFSh% leading the top five of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins,
Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets.
So what we’ve got is statistical affirmation of what’s
otherwise apparent: the Rangers forward corps is among the deepest and most
balanced in the league, their goalie remains on another planet, and their
defense is in serious need of improvement. They could certainly do to have the
puck more if they’re serious about being a contender, with recent results
telling us that the teams with the best CF% throughout the regular season
typically go the farthest in the playoffs. Their shooting percentage, even to
the extent that it’s naturally elevated by the rush-based offense Alain
Vigneault likes to play, is bound to come down.
What’s curious however is that
they are truly getting some of the best scoring chances in the league, with
their four balanced lines providing a relentless attack that most teams simply
can’t deal with when it gets going. What remains to be seen is whether that
alone is enough to carry them to postseason glory, because while they’re
certainly a bubble team as currently construed, history tells us that the teams
with the best CF% typically go all the way.