What is wrong with the Rangers top line?

The Rangers top line of Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Kaapo Kakko has looked relatively fine, but the lack of offense across the board sparked some deeper dive recently. Specifically Vince Mercogliano noted that the Rangers top line line, which has played 88 minutes together, has just two goals.

Goals can be relatively fluky and driven by luck, especially when both Kreider and Zibanejad have reputations of being streaky goal scoring. So while they only have two goals, it’s important to take a deeper dive into that line. The first question is whether or not they are driving play, which is a big success factor.

The trio is driving expected goals, and has been paired with Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, so the chances are there. They just aren’t finishing. Kakko hasn’t scored in nine games, which was when this line was put together. Zibanejad hasn’t scored an even strength goal in 16 games. Kreider hasn’t scored at even strength in six games. Suffice it to say, something isn’t working. The question is: What isn’t working?

The first step in answering the question is isolating the problem. Given Kakko is the most recent addition to the line, we first look how Kreider and Zibanejad performed without him. We also need to see how they did without Barclay Goodrow on their line, since that was not a good experiment.

Now a grain of salt is required. The Rangers really turned things around after November 12, and Kreider/Zibanejad have been together all season. Their numbers will be negatively impacted by the team’s atrocious start to the season. This might be incredibly misleading. But it is something to keep an eye on.

Also worth noting that while the duo/trio has the majority of their time with the top defense pair, there isn’t much of a drop off going down the lineup for each defense pair. So it’s a matter of the forwards, not the defense.

To break this down even further, we need to look at individual impacts for all three.

Zibanejad’s defensive numbers aside for a second, all three are net-positives in generating quality chances. Zibanejad, may slow them down a bit since his quantity of chances is way below his quality of chances, which is again worth keeping an eye on. This passes the sniff test, as how often to we see that additional pass?

So if the issue isn’t with the underlying numbers, both in quality and in quantity, then what is it? The Rangers top line can’t continue to go without producing at even strength.

Thanks to NaturalStatTrick’s line tool, we are able to, at least in the short term, identify the problem with the Rangers top line. The team shoots just 4% while they are on the ice. For comparison’s sake, here are their career individual shooting percentages:

  • Kakko: 9.7%
  • Zibanejad: 12.8%
  • Kreider: 14.4%

What this tells us is this trio is likely just getting unlucky at the moment. Be it from shanked shots, unusual opposing goalie play, or just gripping the stick too tight. Statistically speaking, the trio won’t continue with 4% team shooting when on the ice. The goaltending while they are on the ice is also something to note too, as it should be about two percentage points higher.

So what’s the solution for the Rangers top line?

There are only two choices here. The first is to break up the top line, likely flipping Kakko and Dryden Hunt. That’s not really the best option, and if anything it really highlights the need the Rangers have for a true scoring winger. That’s no disrespect to Hunt, who has been great, he’s just not a true top six option. He’s also not the kind of player that stops you from upgrading the skill level in the top six. But I digress.

With flipping Kakko and Hunt off the table, the only thing to do is to ride it out. The Rangers top line should, in theory, figure things out. This is a prime example of regression to the mean favoring the Rangers. Gerard Gallant will likely want to wait until their shooting luck changes a bit, as this trio is too skilled to have so few goals through nine games. Slumps happen. Patience is a virtue.


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