Defense Wanted: Will Pay With Top-Six Forward

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

If there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on, it’s this—the New York Rangers’ defense is not good. It should go without saying, but for anyone still holding out hope that a resurgence of this group is on the way, it’s important that we illustrate why that’s unlikely to happen without significant roster changes leading the way.

While Ryan McDonagh remains one of the NHL’s best blueliners in their prime, as a group, this collection of players leaves much to be desired. They’re not quick on their feet, nor are they particularly skilled with moving the puck up the ice effectively to the team’s forwards—two facets of the modern NHL era that are quickly becoming paramount to owning an effective defense. This has rapidly left the Rangers out in the cold while they hunger for both.

Even the most casual fans and viewers have to have noticed the bevy of quality scoring chances in front of the Rangers net, blown defensive coverage assignments, and the frequency of odd man rushes against the team this season. Much of this lies at the feet of the defense.

The only real offensive contribution is coming from Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden, both of whom are on pace for 40+ point seasons. Rookie blueliner Brady Skjei could break 30 points, but beyond this, there’s little production to speak of. This includes Kevin Klein, who has scored 18 goals in his last two years as a Ranger but who has yet to register a tally this year, as well as both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who are on pace for seasonal outputs in the low teens. The seldom used Adam Clendening, who despite sometimes being a bit of a liability in the defensive zone does possess some of the qualities of an effective modern-day NHL defenseman, rounds out the group of the Blueshirts’ defensive regulars this season. Should Clendening play in all of the remaining games left in the regular season, ending the year with around 50 games played, he could finish with 25+ points, but he’s likely the odd man out when Staal returns from injury, just as he’s been the odd man out all year.

Throughout this season, head coach Alain Vigneault and assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom have juggled the defensive pairings in search of stability and competence, never quite finding either for any prolonged stretch of time. Things got so desperate, in fact, that they even went back to the dried up well that is playing McDonagh and Girardi together, which unsurprisingly flopped in the same ways that supported divorcing them from one another the first time around.

To date, the only pairing that began to show a semblance of stability and competence, currently disrupted due to a concussion sustained by Marc Staal, was the one of Staal and Holden. According to LeftWingLock.com, the duo has skated together for a 19.34% frequency rate, second only to the aforementioned McDonagh-Girardi combination that leads all pairings at 23.43% despite its relatively disastrous results on the ice.

According to corsica.hockey, the Rangers defense group has just one skater, Adam Clendening, with a CF% north of 50% at 60.09. Their worst offenders, the aforementioned Staal and Girardi, in order, own percentages of 46.55 and 44.57. And things don’t improve very much when shifting to FF%, either. Logic dictates we should probably value this more in this regard given both Staal and Girardi’s tendency to attempt to block opposing shots as “defensive defensemen”. Yet here the Rangers still only have two skaters, Kevin Klein and Clendening, who are north of 50% at 50.8% and 57.32% respectively.

Among defensemen who have played in at least 30 games this season, these possession numbers place Staal and Girardi among some of the league’s worst offenders in these categories. That collection of peers they’ve joined the ranks with are renowned more for their faults than their fortunes. It includes players like Calgary’s Deryk Engelland, Toronto’s Roman Polak, Anaheim’s Kevin Bieksa, and Winnipeg’s Ben Chiarot. Though this data is only top-level, in short, it’s still not great company to keep. Worse yet, the deeper you look, the worse the outlook.

For a quick dive into the deep end of the analytics pool, check out the below tweets from Sean Tierney and Garret Hohl that further graph the negative outlook using Expected Plus/Minus (XPM)—a new predictive statistic introduced in October of 2016 that attempts to analyze shot attempt numbers in order to project how well a player will perform in the future:

https://twitter.com/GarretHohl/status/821830052853649408

It’s not a pretty picture. Both from a team perspective, and from an individual player output, the XPM Impact is concerning, to say the least. Tierney’s chart actually places them, as a group, among the worst five teams in the league with the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and Philadelphia Flyers.

By any measurement or quantification—eye test or analytics—they simply don’t stack up against routine scrutiny, let alone the best competition the NHL has to offer. The production is lacking, and the possession numbers are astoundingly bad.

Perhaps there’s still a percentage of fans who’ll continue to protest this assessment, likely citing the same legacy claims riddled with buzzwords like “blue collar”, “sacrifice”, and “intangibles” to defend the honor of storied veterans like Staal, Girardi, and even Klein, but for the rest of us living firmly in 2017, it’s just not possible to continue ignoring the glaring issues they are creating in favor of selectively remembering them for the players they used to be. If the XPM Impact is to be trusted, it just adds to the stack of evidence that strongly suggests things won’t improve with this particular construction of players.

Unfortunately for Jeff Gorton, because of this, there is almost certainly no quick fix to remedy this situation this season. Both Staal and Girardi own full No-Movement Clauses and have numerous years left on their respective contracts worth north of $5M per season. Finding a trading partner for either should prove especially difficult, and Klein’s regression has also likely affected his trade value given he has another season remaining on his contract at $2.9M.

So, how can the Rangers hope to improve matters? By tapping into the only area of organizational strength they have to deal from—their group of NHL-ready forwards that have carried them through much of this season.

For all their team faults this year, many of which were well covered recently by my colleague, Dave Rogers, an inarguable fact remains—the Rangers’ forward group has been a boon this season due in large part to how deep their scoring abilities penetrate down their lineup. That depth is precisely what they could capitalize on in order to address the glaring weakness they face as an organization on the blue line.

The Rangers are on pace to have a league-leading eight forwards—Michael Grabner, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Derek Stepan,  Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad—finish the regular season with at least 20 goals. Grabner, Kreider, and Nash, in fact, are all on pace to score 30 or more. Beyond this collection, you’ll find even more offensive talent, including 21-year old Pavel Buchnevich and 29-year old Mats Zuccarello. Not even some of the league’s highest-scoring teams can lay claim to the same cavalcade of goal-scorers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are first and third overall in GF/GP, both project to finish the regular season with six 20+ goal scorers. The same is true of the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who round out the league’s top-five highest scoring squads.

In no uncertain terms, this crop is an embarrassment of riches that we haven’t seen on the Garden’s ice for a decade, dating back to the 2006-07 Rangers squad that was led by Jaromir Jagr’s 96-point season. Yet even that team didn’t have the same depth of scoring this year’s team does. That 06-07 team closed the regular season with just five skaters who scored 20 or more goals and as a team, they finished 18th in the league with 2.84 GF/GP.

I get that the idea of removing one of these players is an uncomfortable one to entertain, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a better, more effective means of acquiring a young, promising defenseman on the right side of 30, which is exactly the type of player they could acquire if they were willing to trade one of their high-scoring forwards.

Despite the fact that drafting is the smartest approach to developing young talent, drafting, in this case, would not only require a bit of luck but would likely still require a few more years of seasoning. Free agency may not be so viable, either. The only high-impact defenseman who might be available as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Kevin Shattenkirk, is expected to come at a heavy price, even as reports continue to surface suggesting New York is his destination of choice.

Again, it’s an uncomfortable thought, but could say, Mats Zuccarello, signed for two more seasons beyond this one at a very manageable $4.5M per year potentially sway Anaheim to part with a player like 25-year old Sami Vatanen? Vatanen signed a long-term extension this past summer worth $4.875M per season for the next four years, but the Ducks are in a bit of a pickle regarding the list of players they may end up needing to expose in the pending Vegas expansion draft. Because of this, the logistics for a deal aren’t especially strong until after the draft concludes, but the stars could align this summer. Should they lose a player like Jakob Silfverberg to the Golden Knights, for example, acquiring a player of Zuccarello’s caliber could help to offset his loss, and they would be dealing from a position of strength given the depth of their blue line.

Zuccarello has been a staple on a dominant line with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider this season and is wildly popular among fans and teammates alike, but similar to the Brassard trade last summer, moving him while his value is high could be key in convincing a trade partner to give the Rangers what they arguably need more than the diminutive fan favorite.

If not Vatanen, perhaps the Rangers, for similar reasons, could re-open negotiations with the floundering Jets in an attempt to acquire 22-year old Jacob Trouba instead?

As I mentioned back in November regarding Trouba:

In spite of all of this, Trouba and the Jets still haven’t done quite enough to completely quell the rumors of his departure. If anything, they’ve actually exacerbated them given the short-term nature of his contract and how much more valuable he likely now appears to the list of teams reportedly interested in acquiring him. He’s now a contracted commodity and signed to a very reasonable deal.

Trouba, despite rescinding the request upon re-signing with Winnipeg, did formally ask to be traded this year citing concerns over his ability to compete on the Jets’ roster where he’s been slotted behind Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers on a strong right side. Myers is currently injured, but with he and Byfuglien signed long-term, it’s a situation that’s unlikely to resolve itself without removing one of them. Zuccarello, in particular, would probably be of significant interest to the Jets. He’d likely slot in comfortably on their second line beside Bryan Little (the jokes would write themselves) and Mathieu Perreault (should he not be lost to Vegas in the draft). Trouba’s two-year, $6M extension would also be especially attractive to the Rangers who are probably going to need to execute a painful buyout of Dan Girardi’s contract in order to get out from under the crushing weight of his deal when the first buyout window opens this summer.

Trading Zuccarello, or any of the Rangers high-scoring forwards, wouldn’t be without complications, but the depth of players they can likely tap to backfill the loss of one, just as they’ve done all season long while battling various injuries, is at the very least consoling should they opt to do so.

So long as the goal is to win while future Hall-of-Famer Henrik Lundqvist still has the legs and the will to aid the Rangers in completing the Stanley Cup mosaic hung on the wall of the dressing room every Spring—and make no mistake, that is still the goal—then rectifying this problem needs to be top-of-mind for the front office, and this needs to be acted on sooner rather than later.

Coupled with Lundqvist’s regression this year, there is no alternative to fall back on if the heaviest workload can’t be shouldered by him. Instead, the Rangers will need to rely on superior offense and a competitive defense (that this current group can’t offer) to carry that burden, whether this becomes a new normal for The King or not, and especially if it does. That could begin immediately if the right deal can be made to bring in a young, impact defenseman. Especially one who plays the right side, where they are notably vulnerable today.

Doing so would not only be a boost to Ryan McDonagh, who could arguably enter Norris conversations as soon as next season should he be given a partner he doesn’t need to clean up after every other shift, but it would also balance the Rangers attack as Lundqvist approaches the age of 35—a line of demarcation that history tells us goaltenders frequently begin a noticeable decline in performance from. With four years remaining on his contract that will take him to his 39th birthday at $8.5M against the cap for every one of those seasons, the Rangers can ill afford to ignore this problem much longer, and the timing may never be better if they have serious aspirations to win with this group before the Vegas draft takes a bite out of their roster this June.

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