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I’ll admit it—I was probably unnecessarily hard on Rangers’ defenseman Nick Holden earlier this season when he was first promoted to play next to franchise defenseman, Ryan McDonagh. In fact, there’s no probably in the equation. I was unnecessarily hard on him. I sarcastically referred to him as Golden Holden, a kind of euphemism regarding the long leash AV seemingly gave him for a stretch of games early in the year.
I criticized his play in all three zones and questioned his value playing as high as he was among the defense pairings. Some of those criticisms were warranted. He had no points in those five games despite the promotion and his ice-time gradually reduced from 24:35 against the Sharks to just 14:37 against the Bruins before AV made the change to push him back down in the defensive lineup. But given the alternatives, especially the one we’re being forced to witness again as AV has gone back to the horrific McDonagh-Girardi pairing, the Rangers are best off promoting Holden again, if for no other reason than because he offers them the least worry.
But also because, frankly, he deserves it.
Holden is coming off arguably his best game as a Ranger in which he helped the team charge back to win 4-3 against an Ottawa Senators team who came out of the gate hot and quickly jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period. Holden’s play only got better as the game advanced. He opened the scoring for the Rangers, cutting the Senators’ lead to one at the 11:37 mark, and finished the night with two goals, including the eventual game-winner, scoring the Rangers fourth and final goal on a wrap-around conversion to cap off the victory.
The Senators game is only the most recent example of his improved play, however. Among the Rangers’ defense group in the month of December, Holden trails only Ryan McDonagh (10) in points with six (three goals, three assists). He has two goals and two assists in his last five games in which he’s averaged 20:57 TOI/G.
From an analytics perspective, Holden, like much of the Rangers defense, does leave something to be desired. His 47.35 CF% and 47.67 FF% aren’t great stats to point to, but compared to Dan Girardi, who the Rangers are stubbornly keeping McDonagh tied to, those figures are more than acceptable. Girardi, who has played most of the season tethered to McDonagh, currently has a 42.8 CF% and a 44.7 FF%, both of which are only marginal improvements on his career-worst 41.3 CF% and 43% FF% last season.
That difference of more than 4.5% in CF and just shy of 3% in FF are significant. While Holden isn’t performing at an impressive rate, that difference is enough to warrant a promotion in his case due to just how poorly Girardi’s numbers reflect by comparison.
The only Rangers’ defenseman with a positive CF% this season is the seldom used Adam Clendening (59.11%), and among the Rangers defensive regulars, only Kevin Klein owns a FF% north of 50% at 50.22%. Accounting for this, Holden’s numbers are actually evidence for his being trusted more, not less. Especially when you look at them next to Girardi’s numbers which prove that the extended offseason and relatively healthy nature he came into the season with has done little to improve his impact in games or salvage his downward spiraling career.
NYR defense pair shot rates.
Lots of bad to go around. McDonagh doesn't deserve being tethered to Girardi. pic.twitter.com/sK96SQxtF5
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) December 3, 2016
Getting the most out of McDonagh is paramount for the present and future of both the player and the franchise. For every night he is saddled with aging alternate captain Dan Girardi on his right side, McDonagh is being stunted from truly showcasing his offensive flair. He’s spending far too much time in his own end putting out fires because of his partner’s sagging play.
Through 36 games, Vigneault has mostly stuck with McDonagh-Girardi as his top pairing. To be exact, 73 percent of McDonagh’s five-on-five ice time this season has been with Girardi. McDonagh is capable of playing like a Norris Trophy candidate, but has been weighed down by another poor campaign from Girardi. Out of 141 NHL defensemen to skate at least 400 five-on-five minutes, the 32-year-old is tied for third-worst with a Corsi For percentage of 43.5. Only Kevin Bieksa of the Anaheim Ducks and Ben Chiarot of the Ottawa Senators have fared worse than Girardi.
Hartnett even went on to mention Holden as one of the two candidates most deserving of a promotion to replace the struggling Girardi (with rookie Brady Skjei being the other).
Clearly, I agree with him. I just think Holden deserves it more.
A common belief is that Girardi requires a babysitter of sorts when he’s deployed on the ice. This is only partially true. While it’s true that if you’re going to play Girardi for 20+ minutes a night, it’s best to do so alongside a strong possession partner who can offset his negative impact on shot attempts, it’s also true that simply limiting his time on ice in the first place is a smarter decision to make. What Girardi needs until a long-term solution is found is to see limited ice-time against lesser competition, just as he did at the start of the season when he was actually playing better due to these factors—neither of which can be accomplished by continuing to skate him on the team’s top defensive pairing.
Playing Girardi with McDonagh does reduce his (negative) impact in games to an extent, but it does so at the cost of McDonagh’s potential, and at significant cost to the Rangers’ ability to skate a competent top pairing that would otherwise see fewer shot attempts against, especially in close games.
Girardi may appear improved, depending on who you ask, but improvement is a relative term. He’s still not good, and that’s all that matters when we’re talking about a position as important as the team’s top defensive pairing.
Call me crazy, but I’d much rather go into games with a trustworthy top pairing, even if it isn’t a flashy one, instead of three mediocre ones. There’s probably no way for the Rangers to ice three good defensive pairings at the same time given the nature of the right side and Marc Staal’s current abilities, but there is a way to ice at least one passable one. Instead, AV seems content with continuing to sacrifice at every pairing in an attempt to limit the mistakes of each one’s worst player. A McDonagh-Holden combo would give the Rangers just that—a trustworthy duo. A pairing the Rangers would be better for skating together until a long-term solution can be determined. And make no mistake—a long-term solution should be sought. Holden isn’t that. His promotion to the top pairing should be temporary, but he can help today while tomorrow is resolved.
Given the fact that the Rangers win more games than they lose despite being on the negative side of shot attempts margins in most contests, it just makes too much sense to promote Holden to McDonagh’s passenger seat, maximizing the Rangers’ top pairing as a means of reducing shot attempts against. The elite goaltending and high-end scoring will continue to do what they do, likely resulting in more wins and fewer nail-biter contests. While the third pairing will likely suffer for it, given the likelihood it inherits the Girardi problem, the Rangers chances of winning close contests should improve with less of him on the ice overall and with a more competent player like Holden playing in his place.
Girardi, too, would actually benefit from the reduced role, just as he did earlier this season. Less time on ice overall and a reduction in quality of the opponents he skates against would play to his favor by limiting his exposure against the NHL’s elite skaters.
Holden, meanwhile, deserves a second opportunity to prove he can at least settle the top pairing while Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton continues to work at stabilizing the defensive group as a whole. For the time being, that’s out of AV’s hands, but playing Holden up and Girardi down isn’t.