Archive for Defense
Per Larry Brooks, Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman has rejected a contract extension from the Rangers worth $9 million over three years. Stralman, who signed as a free agent during the 2011-2012 season, has a line of 1-7-8 in 63 games this year while playing on the second pairing with Marc Staal. The recent acquisition of Kevin Klein –couple with Stralman’s poor play lately– has moved Stralman to the bottom pairing with John Moore.
Stralman is on the final year of his deal that pays him $1.8 million ($1.7 million cap hit). Despite the low offensive production, Stralman is the team leader in relative puck possession (+7.3% Corsi relative). He starts 51.2% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which helps his puck possession stats a bit, and has seen the fourth-highest quality of competition among defensemen (which makes sense based on his usage).
The rejection is a bit….confusing. Then again, Andrew MacDonald turned down $4 million a year from the Islanders. So what do I know?
When the Rangers sent a 2015 5th round pick to Vancouver for Raphael Diaz, many wondered where he would fit in. The Rangers seem set in the top-four with Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Marc Staal. They also have a fairly effective third pair in John Moore and Anton Stralman, although that pairing has been rather inconsistent of late. With Justin Falk serving as the backup, the acquisition of Diaz –at least on the surface– seemed odd.
But this isn’t an acquisition that we should sleep on. Aside from the obvious depth issues (Falk would be getting at least 10 minutes a night if there were an injury to one of the top-six), the Rangers are one of the worst in the NHL at getting production from their blue liners. Diaz isn’t just some scrub pick up. He’s got more points than Moore, Stralman, Klein, Falk, and Staal. From offensive production alone, he’s already third among Rangers blue liners.
When the Rangers made their Michael Del Zotto for Kevin Klein swap with the Predators, they gave up on a frustrating offensive talent and went with the less able but more reliable stay at home, physical type. What they also did was commit to a player whose size and physical ability is likely to be on the Rangers blue line for several seasons. They also committed to someone that inadvertently may be a road block for one of the franchise’s key draft picks, Dylan McIlrath.
While Klein doesn’t possess the same potential snarl or size as McIlrath, the additional four years (at $2.9 million per year) means the Rangers have solidified their third pairing with the type of player they’ve needed for what seems like generations. Is there still room for McIlrath? With his skating ability still his biggest question mark, Mcllrath’s future is at least partly dependent with how Klein acclimatises to New York, with the initial solid performances promising.
Anyone watching the Rangers to begin the year wouldn’t have foreseen this (individual) turnaround. Anyone paying close attention to the Rangers’ popular no. 5 for most of last year wouldn’t have predicted this scenario either. However, without doubt – thanks to the impressive turnaround in his play – Dan Girardi has become an essential, can’t-be-allowed-to-leave piece of the Rangers puzzle.
Girardi was error prone throughout the Rangers indifferent start to the season. Rather than being part of the solution he was part of the problem. However, the past two months have seen Girardi return to being the indispensible, minute eating, shot blocking rock on the Rangers blueline. Over the past ten games, only three times has Girardi had less than 3 blocked shots. Only twice over the same period has Girardi not being credited with at least two hits. He’s back to his shutdown best.
Girardi’s return to his old form has coincided with the Rangers extended hot streak and has helped the Rangers really develop a core to match even the best teams in the league. With Henrik Lundqvist’s return to form, three capable offensive lines, strong special teams and a dominant top defensive pair (Girardi and Ryan McDonagh), the Rangers are becoming a team no one will want to face come playoff time. This all brings us to the already much discussed free agency and Girardi’s opportunity to cash in.
With Michael Del Zotto back in the line-up consistently and finally cobbling together some consistent form the likely trade suitors will increase as Del Zotto starts to rack up the assists (3 in his last 4 games). Of course, with Del Zotto improving in recent weeks (as has most of the roster) the Rangers stand to benefit. Here’s the dilemma: if Del Zotto is playing well, it might make him more attractive to other teams but all of a sudden the Rangers can’t afford to deal him.
In theory, Del Zotto should thrive in Alain Vigneault’s system. It’s been his decision making that has let him down. Vigneault encourages defenseman to step up into the play, play aggressively and try and keep plays alive in the offensive zone. All those theories fit with Del Zotto’s skill set. When Del Zotto is playing well he is still a unique player on this roster.
It’s no mystery. Dan Girardi was pretty terrible to start the season. The switch from a shot-blocking system to an overload system exposed the defenseman’s skating a bit, and he was torched by the same players who he used to defend so well in previous years. The problems weren’t just limited to defense either. Even though he’s not known for his scoring, Girardi still took a whopping 15 games to record his first point and 18 games to notch his first goal.
Over those first 25-30 games, Girardi took a whipping from us. But over the last 15-20 games, Girardi has found his legs, and appears to have adapted to the system. It’s tough to quantify a defensive defenseman’s worth via stats, especially when there’s a chance his stats could be skewed by playing with Ryan McDonagh. That said, Girardi is still being used as the team’s top defenseman on the right side. He gets a ton of PK time, he is facing top competition, and he is doing so with less than 50% of his starts happening in the offensive zone. Axel Fant-Eldh was able to put together this chart showing how Girardi’s resurgence has been evident as well.
But it is the qualitative (eye) test that really shows Girardi’s improvements over the last month or so.
With Marc Staal returning to the line-up tonight, speculation will begin (again) as to whether the timing of his return is right, and whether Staal will ever be able to return to his previous best. In addition to the obvious chase for a playoff spot, and the continued (prolonged) acclimatisation to the new coaching staff, the Rangers will need to treat the second half of the season as an audition of sorts for Marc Staal.
There’s no question that Staal – at his best – is an elite All Star calibre defenseman, capable of shutting down the league’s best scorers, while also contributing offensively. However there are a boat load of questions regarding his durability, the task of re-projecting his long-term potential, and subsequently measuring his relative importance to the Rangers. In addition, the club needs to consider the financial risks that come with committing to such an injury prone and potentially concussion-vulnerable player.
Suit kicked off our annual midseason grades yesterday with his review of Alain Vigneault and the coaching staff. As Suit mentioned in his preamble, we all hand out ‘performance grades’ around the mid-way point of the regular season and just after the commencement of the playoffs. As always, these grades aren’t just based on stats, but also the execution of each personnel or player’s respective role within the organization.
We do not take these grades lightly. Each grade is very well thought out. For the defense, I graded based on two areas: on-ice performance based on role on team, stats (both traditional and #fancy) based on role. It’s important to note that I stressed role on the team. This means that a player like Dan Girardi will be graded based on his role as a shutdown performer, and Michael Del Zotto on his offensive contributions.
A quick note about the numbers being used: Goals-Assists-Points, Corsi, OZone starts, Quality of Competition faced. Details here.
Ryan McDonagh (6-17-23, 51.3% Corsi, 47.4% OZ starts, 29.6% ToTm QoC)
Dion Phaneuf. Yes, I said it. The Rangers have a huge question mark in an area – defense – which on paper at least, they have had good depth. Michael Del Zotto is likely, barring a stunning turnaround, on his way out of New York in the summer (at the latest). Marc Staal’s long term future is full of doubt due to injury. That leaves –on paper– two key cogs: Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. McDonagh is a stud, he’s a future, perennial Norris candidate if he gets some support; unfortunately Dan Girardi is no longer the guy to provide it.
Girardi’s game appears in decline, and yet he’ll still get paid handsomely in the summer, based on past achievements. His play this year has been underwhelming (on a team that, in his defense, has collectively underwhelmed) and he hasn’t been the same consistent presence we grew to appreciate, for the last two years. That’s a long time, playing under his normal assumed levels, to commit to a long term future at a big financial cost.
Alain Vigneault commented after the Rangers’ turgid performance in Tampa on Monday that “Nobody touched a soul”, referring to his team’s lack of physicality. This has been an underlying issue for large parts of the season so far. In the mean time, Michael Del Zotto continues to be, at best, inconsistent (and the subject of countless traded rumours in the media) and John Moore also has yet to find his game consistently. As you can see, there is plenty of room for improvement on the blueline.
While the Rangers forward unit appears to be more settled with the demotion of JT Miller (who simply needs playing time at this stage), despite the relatively decent performance of the blueline corps, the Rangers appear in need of an injection of physicality. Is it about time they took a look at Dylan McIlrath?
Mcllrath’s development curve is trending in the right direction. While in Hartford the big, bruising 1st round pick has begun to add an offensive dimension to his game but perhaps more appropriate is that he also leagues the American Hockey League in penalty minutes (with 102 penalty minutes in just 18 games) and if you check the box scores regularly enough, you’ll have noticed a few majors along the way.