ryan mcdonagh

The below post was written by Rob Luker. Rob used to write for Blueshirt Banter, but retired for a while. He sent me this and I was more than happy to post it. You should be following him on Twitter here. He is a great follow with tons of good hockey insight. He also wrote this article from the summer.

I presume most or all of you have seen the recent Progressive Insurance Dad Support group commercial? There’s a little bit that applies to the Rangers, at the moment:

“Next thing you know I’m telling strangers that defense wins championships … well it does.”

The reason I start with this is not because I’m a staunch believer in that defense is the key to championships (although as I approach 30 here I have definitely said a few of those lines), but rather because the Rangers offense we’ve seen so far through 21 games may be the best we’ve seen since the 2013-2015 seasons. The defensive effort by this team, however, is so far the worst of any NYR team since public advanced stats have been available (2007-08). What am I basing this all off of? Expected goals, for and against, per 60 minutes. If you are not familiar, check out this original piece by @DTMAboutHeart and Emmanuel Perry’s version via Corsica (5v5, score adjusted).

For weeks now I’ve watched the NYR corner of twitter/the internet mostly enjoy the recent play of the Rangers, with a few caveats. This won’t be surprising to anyone watching night in and night out, but the key to the win streak was mostly a red-hot power play, Henrik Lundqvist putting up a 0.927 all-situations Save%, and an improved (albeit still bad) defensive effort. There have also been a few folks correctly pointing out that this team is most likely not a Stanley Cup contender due to a myriad of depth reasons, and I’m ok with that overall. With all that said, despite the glaring hole at 3C and AV’s spin-the-wheel Defensive pair philosophy, I still think there is a better team given the roster options as we sit here today, especially when it comes to lowering the xGA/60 rate that could lead to more long-term success this season.

The above chart provides some context before diving into season-level and player-level data. The Tom Renney years, by just peeking at generic shots for and against, was very disciplined/structured hockey. The Rangers rose to and sustained a top 10 level of shots for all while consistently ranking in the top 10 for shots against (meaning fewer shots on net). This gave way to Johnny Torts, who played a higher-event brand of hockey while Sather & co. collected some real offensive assets to help. Vingeault came into a pretty good situation, and while the defensive game has gone to shit, the offense has at least stayed in the top-half of the league (yes, NYR ranks 31st in xGA/60 as of 11/21).

So, what could potentially help bring down this horrendous expected Goals Against per 60 rate? Well, first off, a lot has been made of AV and his cronies personnel decisions, and rightfully so given how Gorton constructed this team. Let’s identify the culprits:

I went with a minimum of 5 GP because I’m really, really hoping Boo Nieves stays up and that we never see Adam Cracknell again. For further context: the average team xGA/60 so far this season is 2.26. The bad news with this is that every Ranger except Pavel Buchnevich is above 2.26 (he is at exactly 2.26). That being said, we pretty clearly have three tiers here of “bad, real bad, and horrible” – let’s focus on the right side of the chart, first with the defense:

As we can see pretty clearly, our top three regular offenders in xGA/60 are seeing their highest rates of their careers. Brendan Smith flat out needs to be better, but he also came from a Detroit club that was historically staunch at limiting good chances for their opponents. McDonagh has grown up on Broadway, but also had to wear around a 212 pound vest by the name of Girardi for years on end. Skjei in his brief career thus far is proving to be a high-event player, with only Smith having a higher xGF/60 rate this year. From a Corsi Attempts per 60 the trend is still similar with the exception of McDonagh (which was expected now that Girardi isn’t sliding around in his own zone).

I’m not going to go as far to say I had high hopes for Desharnais, but at the same time I don’t think many thought he wasn’t a bad option to center the bottom six back in the summer. Miller and Vesey are akin to McDonagh – they’ve so far only experienced a system that, whether by design or not, is all about trading chances and speed. The Corsi Attempts per 60 spell much of the same trouble.

This ultimately brings me to my not-revolutionary point, which is that something needs to change when the Rangers are in their own zone, and ideally before they get much further into the season. To keep it concise, here’s a list of items that may help, even if there’s little chance of them happening:

  • Brendan Smith finding his footing
  • Not playing Steven Kampfer
    • His xGA/60 is on the lower half, but his xGF% is the worst amongst NYR D.
  • Lindy Ruff not coaching the defense
  • Promoting Boo Nieves to 3C (via general TOI), while Desharnais find s a groove at 4C
  • Trying Vinni Lettieri over Paul Carey as the depth forward for Desharnais

Now, of course, I’ll go ahead and state that expected goals are not the end-all-be-all of evaluating an NHL team, nor is any statistic at this point. The challenge for the Rangers this year is that right now they rank 23rd in Corsi For %, and typically the “contenders” as we reach the spring are teams that are top 10 xGF% teams with at the very least a middling-ranked CF%.

In the end, I sincerely hope that NYR management and coaches are going to try some new ideas for the defensive zone, because I’m not quite ready to give up on this group of forwards (not to mention Lundqvist).


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