As I sit here watching round one of the playoffs and think of the developments related to the New York Rangers in the last two weeks I can only admit that this piece is mostly ceremonial. For those of you who have read my sporadic blogs or happen to follow me on Twitter, part of the pride I take in finding trends related to the Rangers is the timing involved – aka seeing or saying something before most others do not. This post, let’s look at how lacking finish impacted the Rangers trends throughout the season.
Hot shooting but slipping play
When I last checked in on 3/27, the Rangers were in the midst of a 3 to 4 week regression of their shot percentage that, coupled with their somewhat above-average play, led them to a 19 point month with a 9-6-1 record. April ended up being a better month for their record, but the Rangers playoff chances was all smoke and mirrors. Most public models had their playoff probability peaking towards the end of March at around 20 percent, and while NYR kept winning due to hot shooting or timely goaltending, their actual play in terms of controlling the game (shots & scoring chances) began to slip.
Before we take a look at who stood out, player wise, I just want to state how puzzling it was to me for Quinn & Co. (the & co. being anyone who may have discussed the lineup with Quinn – assistants and management) to lock into a lineup that was clearly benefitting from some hot shooting. Throughout April the Rangers looked flat and uninspired, and yet instead of experimenting with other lineup options available (namely, balancing the forward lines with youth and mixing up the Top 4 Defense) the staff decided to stick with essentially the same lineup they found around Game 25.
This, unfortunately, was the third season in a row where only injuries led to somewhat significant lineup changes leading into a game. I believe this is/was a major weakness of Quinn as an NHL coach, who in theory had the final say on the lineup card, and I hope whoever is chosen to replace him does not strictly adhere to the “well, we won last game, so no changes” logic.
We’ll keep it very direct for the goaltending: Igor Shesterkin had another good year at even strength and should be the established starter come October. Georgiev had a better end to the year and is a somewhat capable backup. This split that he somehow continues to accomplish where he does really well on the PK but not at even strength is a bit astounding, to be honest (it’s the fourth straight year of it).
The Game Control charts for the Forwards and the Defense are sorted by the gap in their last 23 GP (since 3/28) and their season total number (largest positive gap on the left, to the lowest on the right). A few things jump out at me for the forwards. First, the overall play dropped off for almost everyone (which goes right back to NYR being flat during most of April). Second, despite the constant usage of Blackwell as a winger to Strome (even with the intermittent replacement of Kravtsov), the pair simply could not make it work even with Panarin on their left.
Also, it should be encouraging that as the month of April went on, Kreider saw less TOI while slightly improving his metrics. This is a positive to me because his place on a contending NYR team moving forward is likely in the middle six – and very possibly on the third line. Depth is king.
Oh – I guess I’m obligated to say that Howden was better towards the end of the season. But when the bar is on the floor and you still can’t break the 100 average, it’s not really a success story.
We’ll start with the positive on defense, which should be obvious on the chart, in that Jacob Trouba was getting very good results before his season-ending injury. While he is a popular name to throw around as a way to move a contract and remain very cap-flexible, I’d just overall be surprised if it happens. He returned to a level of overall effectiveness that matched his early Winnipeg years this past season, so hopefully the Rangers can wise up and pair him with Lindgren (which will allow Trouba to freely generate offense – his historical strength).
As for the rest, I think it can be simply summed up with two points. First: Lindgren-Fox stopped getting dominant results and were well below average for the first time in their careers. This should’ve been all the coaching staff needed to mix up the Top 4 Defense, but here we are. The last point brings us to Libor Hajek, who was once again one of the worst defensemen in the league. The talk of the offseason will be NYR going after Eichel or some other big 1C fish, but in reality they also need to remove the known bad of Hajek & Howden, as this will likely net them 3-4 points in the standings (at least) if they’re replaced with average NHL players.
Final team trends
Despite all my complaining about the inability for Quinn & Co. to find the right lineup I do think this season should be considered a mild success. While Jacques Martin was not kept on by Chris Drury, I think the biggest takeaway for this young team was their ability to grade out as an average defensive team in terms of expected goals against. As you can see in the chart above, it was a massive year-over-year improvement and was one of the best NYR teams since the shot-location era started for that metric.
Overall, NYR is still in a good spot. I firmly believe that the next coach will benefit from balancing both the forwards and the defense into better working complements. This starts with pairing Lindgren with Trouba and either Miller or another option with Fox. With that balance, forward lines can be found that can likely lead to younger players seeing more TOI while proven veterans like Kreider can slide down the depth chart and, hopefully, feast on the opposition’s lesser players. Who knows, maybe it’ll even lead to the Rangers being “tough to play against” … otherwise known as being a good team that wins.