The Rangers are rolling with a 12-2-1 record despite numerous injuries and a transition to a new coach and more structured system. There’s very little to complain about at the moment, but there are some areas to watch. The fourth line was one, and now it looks like the top line is another. The Rangers top line scoring issues have been masked by a strong powerplay.
Luckily for the Rangers, their second line duo of Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere, along with either Vincent Trocheck or Filip Chytil, have been carrying the load at 5v5. With a strong powerplay, solid team defense focused on limiting quality against, and this line carrying the load, the Rangers top line scoring issues haven’t proven to be a problem. Yet.
Rangers top line scoring issues are at 5v5
The Rangers top line scoring issues are mostly focused on Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Kreider has a nice line of 10-4-14 in 15 games, but is just 3-3-6 at 5v5, plus a shorthanded goal. Zibanejad has an even worse split, with 2-8-10 for the season, but just 1-2-3 at 5v5, plus one shorthanded assist.
Kreider and Zibanejad’s inability to finish at 5v5 is at the root of the problem, but neither RW that has spent time on that line has produced either. Kaapo Kakko has just a goal and an assist on the season. Blake Wheeler seems to finally be getting moving, with 2-2-4 –his only points of the season– coming in the last 5 games since he was moved to that line.
— MoneyPuck.com (@MoneyPuckdotcom) November 19, 2023
As of yesterday, the Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko trio was a top-10 line in terms of controlling play, both quality and quantity. But it just wasn’t translating to goals over the first 10 or so games before they got broken up. Their 2.21 xGF/60 from MoneyPuck is easily the worst from the top-10. Their defensive play and overall control of play was great, though.
Making matters worse for that trio, they only shot 4% at 5v5 in their time together. Part of that is bad luck, part of that is likely gripping the stick a little too tight. But that doesn’t mean they were going to start putting up good offensive numbers. After all, that xGF/60 is not good given their role.
Removing Kakko and adding Wheeler has led to an uptick in shot attempts, but has also resulted in a significant downturn in both xG share and xGF/60, down to 2.03. That trio also has a 4% shooting-rate.
As per usual, sample size warnings matter, as the Kreider-Zibanejad-Wheeler has only a handful of games together.
Is there an easy solution?
The good news is that the Rangers top line scoring issues are not isolated to a particular third wheel to the Kreider-Zibanejad couple. Both Kakko and Wheeler have been tried, and neither have given the expected results. It’s the Rangers top line, so they need to not just score, but produce offensive chances consistently. They’ve done neither.
Unfortunately, that means the Rangers top line scoring issues are centered on their two big guns. It’s been 15 games, and while that duo is humming on the powerplay, they need to figure it out at even strength. Kreider is usually the play driver, while Zibanejad is the finisher. Naturally, Zibanejad’s 4.8% shooting rate, well below his career 13.2% rate, is the problem.
While identifying that SH% appears to be the main culprit of the Rangers top line scoring issues, there is no easy solution. The best solution right now is to reunite Kakko with the duo, as they produced better numbers, and hope Zibanejad’s SH% comes up.
In theory, as Zibanejad’s SH% climbs, the trio would become more confident, perhaps taking an extra risk here or there, leading to a more sustainable xGF/60 number that we would expect from top lines. But unless that duo gets it going, the second line will need to do the heavy lifting.
Are the Rangers top line scoring issues something to worry about? Perhaps, but it is definitely something to watch as the Rangers hit a tough part of the schedule.