After a 3-1 loss in Los Angeles on 12/10, two key forward changes that are still active today in the lineup were made by David Quinn and David Oliver. First, Chytil moved off the wing and back to 3C. Second, Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich was reunited. NYR went out on 12/12 in San Jose and had one of their better results of the year, posting a 59% Corsi and a 55% Expected Goals For rating at 5v5 in route to winning the game 6-3. While other changes had previously been made because of injury or coaches’ decision around the whole lineup, these changes paved the way to some of the best NYR play of the entire season.
Given Ryan Strome’s higher-than-career generation of shots and chances this year (we’ll leave Panarin out of this, for this post), the Rangers now have three centers playing fine to very well in Zibanejad, Strome, and Chytil. Depth is the key to any NHL team playing well, so allowing Chytil to play against middle or bottom six competition is a luxury that the Rangers have at the moment. The only reason Chytil appears to be negative on the chart above is because in his first 21 GP he was lighting it up in the top six, mostly with Buchnevich and Kreider. So, in reality, he’s playing at about the same level, but just with less TOI.
As for the rest of the forwards, two other trends stick out. First, the top-six as a group are all seeing better 5v5 results. Quinn and Oliver seem to be leaning on them more in terms of TOI, as it’s visible to see that stable groups have formed when you look at TOI charts from HockeyViz. Second, moving Howden to the wing of Chytil and then adding Kakko to complete the recent third line has elevated the play of Howden and Kakko as a whole. While they’re not actually good (in terms of consistently out shoot and chancing the opposition) yet, competitive play out of Howden and Kakko will go a long way in their NHL development this season.
On Defense, there were two main changes between games 20 and 30. First, Quinn and Ruff broke up Skjei-DeAngelo, which I’ve spent time pointing out was one of the best pairs NYR had going. Second, Libor Hajek got injured in Game 27, just in time for Marc Staal to replace him on a pair with Tony DeAngelo. I left the xG impact of Hajek’s first 30 on the chart just for the sake of comparison.
Since Game 31, there is one stark trend and one more subtle. The stark one is up in that chart, where weak links Marc Staal and Ryan Lindgren have seen much better results of late in terms of shots and chances for and against. When Staal and Lindgren can limit their negative impact over a decent sample (12 games isn’t large, but it is enough to identify trends), the Rangers suddenly go from a bottom five defensive unit to somewhere around league average. That is huge for this consistently top-15 offense.
The subtle trend is the TOI and subsequent play of Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba. In this 12 game stretch, the pair is getting almost 16 minutes a night at 5v5 alone (Staal-DeAngelo are at ~11:30 and Lindgren-Fox ~9:30). In the first 30 GP, Quinn and Ruff were approaching the D-pairs with a more balanced deployment, as no pair was over 13 minutes per night (on average). Skjei-Trouba aren’t seeing great results together, but we’ve seen more out of Trouba once he got away from Hajek and on the whole they’re not far from a 50% shot and chance share against top competition.
As with most stretches of good play with a team that is not expected to be good; the question shifts from what has changed to can this continue? Personally, I’m less worried about our talented forward core than I am the depth of the defense. Staal, while posting better expected goal results with DeAngelo, is still struggling with shot share (an indication he cannot prevent offense and/or exit his zone successfully). Lindgren struggled for a good period despite being paired with Fox, but I do think the lower TOI has helped him pick his spots and be smarter over the course of the game.
In the end, the Rangers put up a decent and interesting effort against the Avalanche on Tuesday with them on a back to back. The Avalanche are legitimate this season and have been trending up, so it was encouraging to see. It’s the height of irony that the moment the Rangers begin to play better as a team, the goaltending support has dried up. If (when) that support returns, we will find out if this run of play is an indicator or more of a blip.