Rangers vs. Habs: Let’s look at those blue lines

ryan mcdonagh
Photo: Winslow Townson/AP

The final preview piece for the first round is one that is sure to decide the series, and that is the blue line. The Rangers have had issues with their defensive units all year long, but added Brendan Smith at the deadline. The Habs, who did not have such issues,  added Nikita Nesterov and Jordie Benn at the deadline, moves which improved their depth.

The Habs are projected to have the following pairs for the playoffs:

Shea Weber-Andrei Markov
Alexei Emelin-Jeff Petry
Jordie Benn-Nathan Beaulieu

The Rangers are expected to have:

Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Marc Staal-Nick Holden
Brady Skjei-Brendan Smith

Let’s be real here. The Habs have a significantly better top-four than the Rangers. However the third pair for the Rangers is miles better than the Habs’ third pair. It’s not even close. And perhaps, just maybe, Alain Vigneault moves Skjei-Smith up to the second pair. Ice time and deployment will matter in this series.

Habs Defense

First things first, let’s look at the pairings and how they actually perform. The thing to really notice here is that all but one of the defense pairings are on the “good” side of the line. The only one that is not is the second pairing of Petry-Emelin. If I’m Alain Vigneault, I’m looking at this and targeting that pairing as the one to attack. Every team has a weakness, and getting the proper matchups against that pairing could swing the series.

The above chart shows the overall deployment for the Habs players. Focusing on that Emelin-Petry pairing, they get a good amount of defensive zone starts, but it’s nothing crazy. Again if I’m AV, when I see this pairing out there, especially in the defensive zone, I’m putting my top line out there. I’m also looking to adjust and see if I can get my best faceoff guy out there. Yes, overall faceoffs don’t swing the needle much, but the situational faceoff does. This is one of those times it might matter. Pinning the Habs in their own zone is going to be critical to success.

This last bit is how Julien deploys his defense at 5v5. February 14 was Game 58 of the season. Weber, Petry, Emelin, and Markov are clearly the guys he leans on. He does not trust his third pair at all. The Beaulieu/Benn/Nesterov/Davidson quartet always swaps and doesn’t get much ice time at 5v5.

That again can play in the Rangers’ favor if Alain Vigneault is cognizant of this. He has the ability to out-coach Julien when presented with this information. Get the right matchups out there, and the Rangers might have an advantage.

Rangers Defense

Let’s all ignore how good the Clendening-Skjei pairing is. It’s not there. It’s not there. It’s not there.

The Rangers do not have a good blue line. All three pairings are on the “bad’ side of the line here. This isn’t anything new. If you’ve been watching Rangers hockey all year, you know the blue line isn’t that good. But perhaps –or maybe, I’m just hoping– there’s more to it?

As for Smith, you’ll notice none of his pairings are on this chart. That’s because he hasn’t spent enough time with one partner. But on the bright side, he’s right along that neutral line. All things considered, that’s a win.

Ok, so Skjei gets a little sheltered. Clendening was majorly sheltered. But they were really good in those roles. Sorry, I forgot. That pair doesn’t exist.

All of Staal, Girardi, McDongah, and Holden get more defensive zone starts than offensive. Smith is a little of both. So that might impact how their numbers look compared to Skjei. However if you give a role to a player, and he is bad at that role, why do you continue giving that role to that player?

For the Rangers, the answer is not really that simple. They have few options. Since I’m playing coach here (and assuming Girardi is playing), I’d go McDonagh-Smith; Staal-Clendening; Skjei-Girardi. It’s a bit more balanced, and gets Holden out of the lineup too. But hey, what do I know?

The last piece here is 5v5 ice time. And here’s where things get interesting. AV has actually changed his approach a bit. McDonagh still gets the most 5v5 ice time, as he should. But then the surprise comes, as Holden gets the second most, followed by Smith since his acquisition. Girardi is actually fourth in 5v5 ice time on the team since the trade deadline.

But low and behold, Skjei is fifth in 5v5 ice time. Maybe AV doesn’t want to throw the kid to the wolves right away. But you’d think he’d get more ice time at 5v5, right? I don’t know.

I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying the Habs have the advantage here. But they have the clear advantage. The Rangers can close that advantage with proper deployment though.

Advantage: Habs.

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  • “The Rangers can close that advantage with proper deployment though.”

    I think I just pee’d myself laughing!!!!


    We’re going to see 40+ minutes of Girardi, Staal, and Holden being skated around, passed around, shot through, shot off of, while they desperately try and ice the puck to relieve pressure, or Hank has to freeze the puck every 45 seconds. You know, I know it, 40% of the Fan base knows it.

    But, when the dust settles and the high likelihood of us being bounced in 5 because of this, we’ll hear about the “warriors” and their shot blocking prowess and how Hank failed us because he didn’t save every single shot against.

  • Very interesting game by game history chart. Hopefully the order of colors over the next 4 – 28 games becomes red, teal, yellow and purple…. followed by the rest of the rainbow.

    I’m about as optimistic as John B on that, though.

    Thanks for all the coverage this week, Dave and co. It’s been a fun week of reading. Go Rangers!

  • Very curious how many readers have a clue what all those charts are about … let alone even look at them … I loved the movie Money Ball, (was that the name?) and the concept is proven for coaches and managers I agree, but on a blog like this, I am very very curious about the intensity of the readers with the charts. Yea, I am old school, I think that home life, wife life, children’s lives, family life in general, mental state, contract happiness, team and locker room situations between 20+ millionaires whose lives can change based on a coach or a GM in a matter of days, can skew those charts pretty good on a daily or weekly or monthly or seasonal basis. But if someone enjoys showing them to those that look at them … go for it, but I wish there was a chart to show how many readers actually get into them. Now lets get my guy a ring Rangers!!! He would have one already if not that little Weasel Brad of the Marchand … Wish I could post that pic of the Weasel … Ok Rangers lets show those Habs they are not ready to be at the top yet.

    • Those charts are easy. Difficult to generate from scratch but rather simple to read.

      First chart the x axis counts shots for averaged over 60 minutes of ice time, while y represents shots against over 60 minutes, inverse to SF/60. If you average 20 SF and 20 SA, that’s neither good not bad hence “dull”.

      The further “north” you are of the neutral line indicates that player is generating more shots on the opposing goal than they are giving up. The Closer to the neutral line indicates the player is neither spending all their time in the offensive zone, nor all the defensive zone. The further south indicates that player and their teammates are spending more time defending than producing offense. This particular chart ignores Fenwick and Corsi and only includes actual registered shots on goal.

      Shall we go on?

  • This is not a Montreal site is it? Yes we are slower, but can we maybe, just maybe feel that a McD/Girardi pair can do okay and a Skjei/Smith pair is actually a very nice second pair and Staal/Holden with sheltered minutes is better than their 3rd pair?

    We need our forwards to play defense too, but the final will be a one goal game so the issue will fall on the offense not the defense.

    • No, our forwards are not slower than theirs. The problem is, their forwards are faster than our defenseman.

      We all know, that maybe Holden/Staal in a spot where they play less than 15 minutes total would be our best chance. We all know however, that again, we’ll see 40+ minutes of Girardi, Staal, and Holden being exposed by the faster forwards. We’ll see constant icings, dump passes to no one in the neutral zone to clear the zone, etc. If the head coach has not adjusted to empirical evidence that shows Staal/Holden has been one of the worst pairings in the entire NHL in calendar year 2017 by now, call a spade a spade. We’ll see 40+ minutes of it in the playoffs.

      While I’d like to believe every game will be a one goal game, I just don’t see it happening like that.

  • McDonagh on AV (in today’s NY Post)–

    “One of the best coaches I’ve had as far as preparing a team for an opposition night in and night out. Doesn’t leave any detail behind, has a lot of experience, everything he says is usually true.”

    That’s the player’s leader of the team talking about the leader of the team. So I doubt seriously the players feel as some others out here do that somehow AV isn’t maximizing what he has to work with.

    The new-fangled age of various fancy stats is indeed fascinating–and I’ve learned a lot from them. But in the hands of non-experts like ourselves, that old saying “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous” might also apply here. For example, there were some stats that showed pretty clearly that McIlrath was the best defenseman on the Rangers last year. Then he went to Florida, and the bloggers there all pointed out that he had sheltered minutes and O-zone starts that dramatically skewed his numbers. And obviously, we learned that the league did not share the Rangers blogosphere’s enthusiasm for the kid. If he REALLY was that good, obviously, there’s no way he gets waived TWICE and no one claims him.

    Likely we will see the same situation with Clendo, who not only has probably played his last game as a Ranger, but quite possibly might not even be in the league next year. Whereas if Girardi or Staal, the “boogeymen” of the fancy stats world were bought out, I would bet a team would sign one of them.

    Again, I am no expert on these stats. But I do know this. Hockey is THE hardest game to truly measure statistically. There are so many intangibles to what creates chemistry amongst players…the kind of chemistry that leads to on ice success that I think is difficult if not impossible to measure. And, I truly believe that if we could assemble all 31 NHL GMs, their evaluations of players would in many cases be quite different than what many on this blog believe to be true.

    • Well said EdEdEddie, especially in that last paragraph where I think you are sort of agreeing with my point, very hard because of the intangibles and chemistry. I totally agree with you about evaluations of players by different GM’s and coaches.

    • In other shocking news, the Moon was quoted as saying that it truly doesn’t mind following the Sun by rising in the east as well, replying:

      “One of the best Suns I’ve had as far as preparing the sky for an opposition night in and night out. Doesn’t leave any detail behind, has a lot of experience, everything the Sun says is usually true.”

      In other words, as someone who implied they were a journalist/reporter before…a softball question and a cookie cutter answer?

  • Good one John. And I’m sure the moon probably would say that! 🙂

    You are absolutely right. Softball question. But if McDonagh wasn’t a fan, he could have said something like, “Good coach. We’ve won a lot here with him”. Or if he was a Tort’s fan, maybe “We’ve been blessed because in the time I’ve been here, we’ve had two really good coaches. AV came in and we continue to be succesful”.

    Obviously, could you be right? Sure. But this is what you learn when you do what I do for a living… learn how to connect the dots. So here are the dots we know….

    1) The coach has been succesful here, more so than his predecessor.

    2) Players WANT to come here, especially young players. They CHOOSE to play for this organization and this coach when they could have gone anywhere else.

    3) The GM, who was part of the management team that concluded that Torts was no longer the right fit (rumored and reported strongly that it was because he had lost the room), just gave him a huge extension and raise putting him in the elite status of coaches. No chance that happens when it did if there was any chance at all that the players didnt feel strongly about him.

    4) AV has been here for four seasons. To the best of my knowledge, there’s hasn’t been a player, current or former, who has ever complained about this coach, even off the record. In a market like NY, you think Brooks or a national writer that searches for this stuff wouldn’t have a few nuggets that implies the coach may not have the full support of some players?

    5) Then there’s this, written by Kevin Hayes in his own words (no reporters asking softball questions here), and published in the Players’ Tribune today…

    “Now, I’ve known Kreids for a while — he’s also from outside Boston and went to BC — so he was pretty straight up with me about the city, the fans and the media. But it was all good stuff. And Brian Boyle … this guy was leaving the Rangers and he still had so many positive things to say about the organization. He explained how Alain Vigneault was a fair and honest players’ coach and liked offensive players who commit to defense.

    “Another date I’ll never forget? December 30, 2015 — the day AV gave me my first healthy scratch. I had wanted to build on the success of my rookie year, but I didn’t realize until the beginning of my second season that I hadn’t done nearly enough over the summer to get ready. Not nearly enough to meet my own expectations to become the player I know I can be. Getting scratched after struggling for nearly three months was sort of when things got real. No lie, it was embarrassing.

    “That’s when I vowed I would never let this city down again.

    “In the first round of the playoffs last year, we dropped two out of our first three games to the Pens. Before Game 4, I found out that I was going to be a healthy scratch. And not just for that game, but for Game 5, too.

    “When we got back from Pittsburgh after losing the series, I kept to myself for a few days. I had never felt so ashamed, really. And the thing is, I was in a contract year. The same brutal thought consumed me for the next couple of weeks:

    “This is how I’m going to be remembered here — as the kid who went out on two healthy scratches.

    “And that’s sort of when I vowed to myself, to the boys, to Alain, to the organization and to this city that I would never let them down again.”

    So what did we learn from this? We learned that both Kreider as well as outgoing Ranger Boyle sung AV’s praises to Hayes. No chance Hayes (or Vesey and the other guys coming next year) come here if the coach is not well regarded. If Hayes wasn’t an AV fan, he wouldn’t have even brought the coach up, let alone speak so glowingly of him.

    We also learned that all the nonsense that Hayes resented AV for “making an example out of him” (we even had someone call it a “cowardly act” by the coach!) was just that–total bogus nonsense. Hayes knew he wasn’t good enough. And obviously, he cares deeply what the coach thinks and took full responsibility for trying to make himself better this year–which, despite his late season slump, he has largely done.

    So we have this. We have Miller a few weeks ago commenting on his own past shortcomings and how AV is just trying to make him better. And on it goes.

    Meanwhile, there is NOTHING out there that supports the notion that has been circulated only in the blogosphere that AV isn’t a highly regarded coach.

    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…newsflash! It’s probably a duck!

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