Archive for Forwards
It’s been well-documented at this point that the Rangers ousted the Canadiens in the first round by prioritizing skill throughout their lineup at forward. Montreal was a well-coached team with outstanding goaltending, but they were simply unable to match New York’s depth.
Though they employ a structured, defensive style of hockey, the Ottawa Senators pose a very different challenge for the Rangers to deal with in the second round of the playoffs. Head coach Guy Boucher is well-known for not just his neutral zone trap, but also juggling his lines.
It’s playoff time, and that means over-analyzing absolutely everything there is to analyze about hockey. Whether it’s a particular goal, a bad call, or the decision to play Nick Holden and Marc Staal in the twilight of a close game, it all deserves our intense scrutiny because well, we’re talking about a chance at a Stanley Cup here. One thing that’s especially crucial in the playoffs, and thus warranting our obsessive analysis, is chemistry.
A couple of weeks back the excellent Ryan Stimson put up a piece on just that. For those of you who don’t know, Stimson runs the Passing Project, which is an effort to track passes that take place during hockey games in order to better understand the little things that make a big difference over the course of a season. While the Passing Project doesn’t quite have every game tracked, they do have a substantial amount of work done already (almost 900 games) and Ryan’s work is worth your attention. The piece can be found over on hockey-graphs.com, and I highly recommend you read it. Read More→
Over the weekend, Alain Vigneault decided to put Pavel Buchnevich, Oscar Lindberg, and Jimmy Vesey together on the fourth line. The trio clicked immediately, despite some concerns they might be defensively deficient. It provides even more evidence to support the speed/skill fourth line over grit/toughness.
Now don’t get me wrong, every team needs snarl. We got a little bit of that last night with a good Old Time Hockey brawl. It wasn’t a staged fight. It was one of passion that involved Vesey dropping the gloves, teamed with Brendan Smith and Nick Holden against three Devils. That same Vesey has been involved in a few other tussles this season.
It’s no secret that I am a big proponent of four skill lines that can put the puck in the net. If I haven’t come out and said it, it’s been implied in almost every post I’ve written about lineup decisions and forwards. The best teams in the league, the ones that are true Cup contenders, are ones that have four skill lines. And the reason is simple. Matchups.
The Rangers’ fourth line scored twice on Saturday against Minnesota –a game I did not watch, as I was at a wedding– while dressing three young skilled guys on that fourth line. It was the first game in a week where the most polarizing fourth line player in history (Tanner Glass) did not play. Jimmy Vesey and Oscar Lindberg scored. Lindberg and Pavel Buchnevich also had assists.
As the Rangers gear up for a playoff run, a lot of the focus has been on potential opponents and/or pending lineup decisions. But I want to take a step back and appreciate the big picture for a second. In September, we all thought the Rangers had no chance of being this good. If you had told me that Henrik Lundqvist would struggle for the first half of the season, I would have guessed the Rangers missed the playoffs.
But here we are, 90 points later and a virtual lock for the playoffs. The goaltending came around. The defense is pretty bad, but there have been bright spots and unexpected scoring sources. However it’s been the forwards carrying the load by outscoring the inconsistent goaltending and porous defense. It’s time we appreciate that depth.
One of the bigger tasks on GM Jeff Gorton’s plate this summer was revamping the bottom six. The Rangers had just met a quick defeat at the hands of eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins and throughout the series (and much of the regular season, depending on the opponent) was that the Rangers depth players simply couldn’t match up against those of elite teams. I won’t beat a dead horse too much, but I will note that Tanner Glass saw significant minutes in the playoffs last year. Enough said.
Gorton rose to the occasion and made savvy acquisitions in the offseason, most notably Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, and later picked up Matt Puempel on waivers from Ottawa. While Grabner has obviously been the standout amongst this group the three of them, and call-up Marek Hrivik, have given the bottom six a whole new look. The Rangers’s bottom two lines are now primarily identifiable by their speed and puck handling ability, as opposed to their propensity to bleed shot attempts.
The Rangers’ biggest strength at the outset of the season was their depth at forward. Although their early scoring bonanza turned out to be unsustainable, it certainly showed us what four balanced scoring lines are capable of accomplishing – a complete style of play predicated on quick transitions and overwhelming offensive contributions.
Since then things have tapered off a bit, in large part due to the team’s unsustainable shooting percentage but also due to injuries. Missing Rick Nash, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mika Zibanejad has definitely altered the look of the Rangers lineup leading to a dependence on certain players to carry the team on any given night (think Derek Stepan against the Senators or Chris Kreider more recently against Colorado). Certainly when you consider that Matt Puempel is on the second powerplay unit (all due respect to Matt Puempel), it’s evident that the team’s forward depth has taken a hit.
So things are starting to look up as the Rangers’ three biggest injuries prepare to return to the ice, with Rick Nash all but ready and his latter two comrades skating in non-contact jerseys at practice of late.
As the focus of the Rangers season thus far has shifted from the goaltending to the defense, it seems that the one thing that seems to slip under the radar is the wild success of the forward group. It’s easy to have that slip through the cracks, as we like to think of ways to improve the club, potentially taking what we see in front of us for granted.
When fully healthy, the Rangers were a scoring machine. They still hold the top offense in the league with 135 goals with a full top line out to injury for an extended period of time. Rick Nash is arguably the Rangers best forward and has played just three games in the past three weeks. Mika Zibanejad is likely the most dangerous forward on the powerplay, and he’s been out for two months. Pavel Buchnevich is the top rookie, and it looks like Putin kidnapped him.
The New York Rangers have hit a prominent lull in the 2016-2017 season. It is pretty easy to expect fans to be getting antsy when your team has given up more touchdowns than the Cleveland Browns in one week, followed up by spotting Ottawa a two-spot early on. Members of the analytics community expected the team to slow down, and losing an entire first line tends to make the regression even more excruciating. Other bloggers in the Rangers community have mentioned that perhaps, a key thing the Rangers need to help turn this lull around is toughness.
One of the biggest proponents for adding toughness in the Rangers blogger universe is @NYR_Fulltilt and he laid out his points well in this post. I tend to disagree with a lot of what he says, but I have noticed that much of the backlash he is getting is disjointed yelling, making following and cheering for the team difficult at times. I am just going to flat out say my view, toughness is not an issue, nor is having four similar lines of skill, but I do think there is more to the discussion than what meets the eyes.
The Rangers are off to a magnificent start this year, and the feel is different from last season. At the risk of beating this drum again, the Rangers were heavily reliant on goaltending during their run last year. This season they are steamrolling opponents through sheer domination of scoring chances. It’s a full four lines that are able to press on the opposition.
In terms of scoring, the Rangers are getting contributions up and down the lineup. As of the writing of this post (before the Vancouver game last night), the Rangers have ten skaters (Miller, Hayes, Grabner, Nash, Stepan, Zibanejad, Kreider, Vesey, McDonagh, Zuccarello) with at least ten points, another two (Skjei, Pirri) with nine points, and another two (Buchnevich, Fast) with eight points.