After the Rangers disappointing loss to the Oilers on Saturday, there was a lot of justifiably upset fans on Twitter dot com. I was partially one of them, however because I was traveling back from Thanksgiving I did not actually see the collapse. And while I did watch the extended highlights the morning after, it reminded me why the phrase “sleep on it” exists to an extent. It avoids the Rangers blame game, a bit.
There are certainly reasons for the Rangers overall poor start which we will certainly get into, I still cannot shake the feeling that this team simply cannot catch a break. Only one year ago the theme of being a Rangers fan was somewhat splitting into one of two directions: simply full-on enjoying the wins or screaming into the void that they weren’t playing that well and that significant help would be needed.
This year, rather than getting outplayed on most nights, the Rangers are losing in new creative ways that would make a lottery-bound team proud. It feels a bit American Football-esque: where a known-good team just makes a few key mistakes that leads to losses that should’ve been avoided (and maybe wouldn’t have happened if the other team also made one mistake). In a completely unrelated note, I am also a Bills fan.
Forward lines lead the Rangers blame game
I put the side by side season rankings up first because if the chart above represented another NHL team, I would not hesitate to call them good and possibly even a contender. I won’t go as far yet to call the New York Rangers the latter, however with a return to some previously discarded lineup choices, I don’t think this version of the Rangers is far from replicating their good play of the first 16 games.
To drive the point home in an utterly cliché way, here’s a quote from Moneyball when Billy Beane is explaining to his owner as to why they thought better days were ahead (emphasis mine):
“Because I believe in what we’re doing. I believe the numbers. I believe the record doesn’t accurately reflect the team and where we’re going to be at the end of the season. Peter and I feel very strongly that we need to stick to the game plan, and you can tell your partners to start booking their tickets to the playoffs.”
The driving issue for me lately has been the forward lineup choices (please note the word choices, or arguably a game plan), which is a twofold problem. Eight games ago, Gallant & co. decided to reunite the kid line while promoting Kravtsov and then Gauthier. After that, it was a safety valve move that we saw a lot last year, with Barclay Goodrow being elevated to top six TOI.
What ensued was the rate of Expected Goals For per 60 by the Rangers began to drop, as the Kid Line couldn’t recreate the magic they showed in the spring consistently and Goodrow followed suit (because he’s never been able to help generate offense, ever).
As a subsequent result, the Rangers started giving up more scoring chances against. Again, this is mostly twofold. Despite frustration with Kaapo Kakko, he makes a significant positive impact as a forward when it comes to limiting shots & chances against. With lowering his TOI and elevating Goodrow, the second part of the problem exposed itself: which is that Goodrow has been downright bad when it comes to shot & chance based results this year.
I show his RAPM chart not to place full blame of the recent events on Goodrow, but rather use it as a proxy for the GM & coaching decisions that have led us to this spot where he is once again playing top six or nine minutes. Goodrow is a coach’s dream because he keeps it simple. The problem with this is that you win in today’s NHL with skill, of which Goodrow has a limited amount for an NHL-caliber player. He is only a positive impact in a fourth line role.
So how do the Rangers right the ship? As you can see in the With or Without chart above, conveniently the clear line of delineation down the diagonal middle gives us simple clues as to who should be playing more TOI than others. Line combos as of Sunday indicate the kid line will likely be broken up, however Vesey returned to the top line with Zibanejad & Kreider.
Having Vesey playing top six minutes will only work if the third line plays very well – which means it cannot involve Goodrow. Kravtsov is healthy and ready to go, and should absolutely be there, because we simply do not know yet what the Rangers have in him (not to mention they’re in need of offensive skill).
While this will be my only comment on the defensive pairs, the forward choices have negatively affected them. In the first 16 games, all three pairs were putting up acceptable to good results, with the top 2 pairs easily above 50% in shots & chances. Since then, Miller-Trouba has visibly struggled as has any combination of the third pair. Miller-Trouba is the major concern, and both likely have more to give, but in the meantime the coaching staff needs to recognize that it’s the forward choices that have influenced the play overall.
Goaltending is better but should likely improve more
I’m calling a bottom on Jaro Halak’s performances. Overall he’s been very solid on the PK, which indicates he can still play overall. To be clear I do agree he’s let in some regrettable soft goals at even strength, however I just don’t think it can statistically continue.
It will be unlikely that Igor Shesterkin ends up with the dominant numbers he showed all of last year. This is normal as year-over-year goaltending results are notably volatile. That being said, he has shown to be up to a higher level lately and if the team can right the ship with some lineup choices, then we’ve all seen how good that can go.
Look, in terms of the Rangers blame game I think everyone involved with the organization has a share. That being said, it is hard for me to not look to the GM and coach first given certain roster options that the coaches have to work with and then the questionable-at-best choices made by the staff as a result. And while the players of course need to find a way to finish games, it’s simply an odd game where chance plays a higher role than in other sports.
I would much prefer the Rangers go through the mud now than at some point in the spring. There is massive risk to that because it is prone to misinterpretation of play and the standings clock running low, but with any luck on and off the ice there should be time for NYR to turn it around.
If not, the pendulum of last season reaching unexpected highs will have swung fully the other way.