The evolution of sports is an interesting beast. Forever embedded in the American (and Canadian) consciousness, competition and loyalty can breed life long interest and devotion. People spend countless hours over countless years watching their idols. The love of the sweater eventually outlives all the players you grew up watching and those who have long faded into oblivion. As players come and go, the game changes around them. Some embrace the evolution, some fail to evolve and their time within the game draws to a close.
The evolution tends to come in common themes. Players get bigger, faster, and more skilled. They are better trained, with their talented cultivated from younger and younger ages. The game itself develops more specialized roles for players and matchups and statistics become more prevalent. Trends emerge, science is tested and every team tries to gain that competitive advantage.
Talking to fans since the Rangers got eliminated, I’ve noticed a few recurring trends showing up in the discussions. The most prevalent is that Rangers fans have an absolute desire for a scoring winger on this team.
No matter what direction the Rangers go; Retool, Rebuild, or go for one more run, there will be a need for a scoring winger. Ideally it would be one who is young and can grow with the team. Pavel Buchnevich will be with the team, but he isn’t the answer to your scoring winger desires. This is by no means a knock on Buch, as he has the tools, but tempering expectations for a teenager is always a good thing. Plus, Alain Vigneault will likely shelter him initially.
An obvious way to begin our search for a scoring winger is to look into free agency. Unfortunately when the current crop of free agent wingers is less than appealing.
Throughout this painful season, one of the comments that has stuck with me is when Alain Vigneault referenced that the Rangers look good when you see the advanced metrics. That was a false statement based on what’s publicly available –teams track their own stats, but it’s proprietary and we have no idea what they track or how effective it is– and all of the analytics community was pretty confused by this statement. The Rangers felt the pain of being a bad possession team once the playoffs rolled around as they were absolutely trumped by a possession goliath in Pittsburgh.
Even though the season has felt like a fluke in the standings, there must be someway to explain their stellar season heading into the January, PDO is certainly one of the prevalent reasons. The current measurements of shot quality can’t currently explain the season or where AV’s stats were coming from (Jim Sullivann, head of the analytics department, maybe?). It is almost impossible for a team to win time of possession and be so inefficient to not out shoot the other team on a regular basis.
The Rangers have a pretty long shopping list this summer with the defensive (let’s call it) overhaul and all the restricted free agents needing signing (amongst other to do’s). Complicating things for Jeff Gorton and co. will almost certainly be Oscar Lindberg’s injury and the fall-out it will cause.
Lindberg’s season came to a very disappointing end. After a truly surprising start (that include Calder whispers in October) where he was a major reason for the Rangers’ own fast start, Lindberg eventually slipped and stayed out of the line-up. In retrospect it’s now fair to assume that his hip issues influenced the disappointing culmination to his season.
In a utopian hockey world, the Rangers’ roster would be full of 6-foot-6 tanks that all skated like the wind, possessed unreal skills, and paid equal attention to both ends of the ice.
But in reality, NHL teams can really only afford to focus on a couple of attributes in building their rosters. The best franchises have identified those characteristics within their existing talent pool and continued to add and improve over the years. The Kings, Ducks and Panthers are teams of physical giants that will grind you into a pulp, while the Lightning, Penguins and Stars have focused on speed and skill.
The 2015-2016 Rangers lost their identity. They maintained the same all-world goalie that was key to the John Tortorella-era Blueshirts who were airtight defensively, and the recent Alain Vigneault edition that became a lightning quick counterattack team. But this year’s group never quite figured out what it was beyond having that super-safety net in goal.
It’s well understood around both the Rangers organization and fan base that some serious changes to the team are going to be necessary if the squad hopes to be a serious contender this time next year, although obviously what changes will be made remain to be seen. Most of the focus immediately goes to the defense, and rightly so given the Rangers’ struggles with shot suppression and breakout passes this season, but something that’s flown somewhat under the radar is the state of the fourth line.
The Rangers’ fourth line was one of their strengths two years ago when they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, so it’s a little disheartening that these days it’s considered one of their weaknesses. Consider that season, when the fourth line consisted of Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, and either Dan Carcillo or Derek Dorsett. That season the fourth line was crucial in the Rangers’ success, helping to shut down opponents’ top competition, put the other three lines in a position to succeed on the ice, and score the occasional goal. Not surprisingly, their possession numbers in the 2013-2014 season were pretty solid, with the fourth line posting a CF% of 49.21% with Carcillo and 52.52% with Dorsett.
Per John Rosasco of New York Rangers PR, goalie prospect Adam Huska was named the USHL’s goalie of the year. Huska started 37 games this year with the Green Bay Gamblers, putting up a record of 26-9-2 with an astounding 1.87 GAA and .931 SV%.
Huska was the Rangers’ 7th round pick in the 2015 draft, and joins Mackenzie Skapski, Brandon Halverson, and Igor Shesterkin as highly rated goaltender prospects for the Rangers. Just think, it was two years ago that goalie was a weak position in the system for the Rangers. Now, one of their strongest.
Huska is committed to UConn for next season.
Evaluating defensemen has always been a tough proposition for teams. It’s a tough proposition for anyone, really. There is so much that goes into the position. Skating, positioning, reads, hockey IQ, passing, shooting, physicality. The list goes on and on. But unlike forwards, who also need these skills, success isn’t necessarily tied to on-ice production.
Plus/minus, hits, and blocked shots are the traditional ways of viewing defensive success. After all, if you’re not allowing goals, blocking shots, and delivering hits, then you are doing the things that a defenseman should be doing. It’s a fairly simple theory, but it also represents an antiquated view of the game. Much like how pitcher wins is viewed in baseball. These are stats that are kept, but not very useful ones.
Per our very own Josh Khalfin, the Rangers have signed undrafted free agent Michael Joly to an AHL contract. Joly is injury prone but a known scorer, so an AHL deal is a risk free maneuver for the organization. Since this is an AHL deal, it doesn’t count towards the 50 contract max for the Rangers, but also means Joly can’t be a call up to the NHL team under this deal.
In his overage year in the QMJHL, Joly put up a line of 33-30-63 in just 39 games. Joly was also at least a point-per-game player in every season except his first year. His issue has always been health.
Joly will be one of the many new forwards in Hartford this year. The club is expecting significant turnover. While many may look at the deal as a low key move, which it is, there is something a bit bigger at play here. The Rangers are looking at young guys to fill the holes in Hartford, instead of bringing in veterans on NHL deals. That’s right process.
It’s now been a good amount of time since the Rangers have been eliminated, and the rest of the league has settled nicely into round two, which has allowed many of us fans to absorb the loss and perhaps move on with our lives.
Although I cannot speak for all fans, I feel confident that you’ll all agree with the following statement: Henrik Lundqvist deserves better. And so, I’ve written a short open letter to him on behalf of all fans.