Halfway There Report Cards: Defense & Goalies Edition

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

Wednesday night’s 5-2 victory over the Metropolitan Division rival Philadelphia Flyers represented a bit more than a hockey game. The game itself was another two points, but by the final whistle, it also officially marked the halfway point for the New York Rangers for this 2016-17 NHL season. That mark will be an important one here at ClearedForContact.

RELATED: Halfway There Report Cards: Forwards Edition

As will become customary, we’re going to take a look at individual player performances, broken down into five grading groups, as of the halfway mark of the season. Those groups break down as follows:

1. “Excelling” — A+ to A-
2. “Succeeding” — B+ to B-
3. “Treading Water” — C- to C+
4. “Drowning/Failing” — D- to F+
5. “Incomplete”

In the interest of not overly complicating things, players will be graded in these groups so we don’t get too caught up in the minutia of arguing the differences between an A and an A-minus. Any player who has played in fewer than ten games, or has been re-assigned to the AHL or Junior hockey (despite playing more than ten games, if possible) will receive an Incomplete grade given the lack of games played to adequately judge their play.

So, without further ado, I give you the 2016-17 CFC Halfway There Report Cards — Defense & Goalies Edition:

Excelling (A+ to A-)

Ryan McDonagh is unsurprisingly the diamond in the rough for the Rangers blue line this season. His 25 points in 40 games have him tied for sixth in scoring among NHL defensemen with Blue Jackets’ rookie standout Zach Werenski.

No Rangers skater averages more time-on-ice than the captain (24:11), and his nine power play points dwarf the next highest producing defenseman, Brady Skjei, who has just three in 41 games this season.

The Rangers could surely benefit from getting him a little help on his right side, but that’s a topic for another day.

…and the Cam “He Should Start Over Lundqvist” Talbot award goes to, Antti Raanta! His stellar play as the King’s backup has all the usual suspects not just questioning Lundqvist’s claim to the throne he himself built, but demanding that Alain Vigneault name the Finnish netminder the Rangers starter, due in part to Lundqvist’s struggles this season, no doubt, but also as a reward for Raanta’s exceptional performances.

Among goaltenders who have played in greater than ten games but fewer than twenty, Raanta is tied for third in wins (10) with Chicago’s Scott Darling. His .921 SV% and 2.28 GA/A lead Lundqvist’s unnaturally low .913 SV% and 2.49 GA/A this season.

Succeeding (B+ to B-)

Given the low cost of acquisition (a fourth-round pick in 2017), it’s hard not to consider Nick Holden a rousing success through the first half of his first season as a Ranger. He currently leads all Rangers defensemen in goals with eight in 41 games played, and his 21 points are just four shy of team-leading Ryan McDonagh‘s 25 on the year. 

It’s hard to envision Henrik Lundqvist south of Excelling, but the King of New York just doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable atop his throne this season as he has in seasons past. He trails his backup, Antti Raanta, in SV%, GA/A, and shutouts, and his 17 wins on the year are just seven more than Raanta’s ten. It’s an unusual set of circumstances given the exceptional player we’ve known over the last decade, but he hasn’t been dethroned just yet, so drop those pitchforks and torches, angry mob. At the very least, his history tells us he deserves every opportunity to find that top gear we know he’s capable of playing at.

Adam Clendening
, like Pavel Buchnevich, just met the minimum games played requirement to not be given an Incomplete grade thanks to a convenient (for him) “upper-body injury” suffered by Marc Staal. Wednesday’s game against the Flyers was officially his tenth game of the season. Despite the small number of games he’s played in and the fight he’s faced to draw into games on a more consistent basis, in the games he has played in, he’s shown to be an adept possession player. He leads the Rangers defense in nearly every meaningful possession metric, which is why it’s still so confusing that he can’t, at the very least, draw into a consistent rotation with struggling veteran defenders Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein.

Brady Skjei
 had a very unrealistic bar set for him when he was unfairly saddled with high-praise comparisons to fellow blueliner Ryan McDonagh heading into this season. While like McDonagh, he’s a smooth-skating, two-way player, unlike McDonagh, it wasn’t likely he’d produce at a high enough rate to warrant the correlation.

Despite this, Skjei has met or exceeded expectations for stretches this season and was recently promoted to partner with McDonagh against the Flyers (though this is arguably more a result of the failures of Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein to grab the brass ring than it is a performance-based promotion). Still, among rookie blueliners, this season, his 17 points in 41 games is second only to Columbus blueliner Zach Werenski who leads the league with 25 points in 37 games, and he’s third among Rangers defensemen in scoring behind Nick Holden (21 points) and Ryan McDonagh (25 points).

Treading Water (C+ to C-)

Kevin Klein might have bad-ass Viking hair this season, but he’s also taken a step back in terms of his on-ice performance. He’s been shuffled up and down the right side of the lineup and has even been a healthy scratch a few times this year. He’s pacing just over 20 points on the year but has yet to score a goal this season despite scoring nine in each of his previous two campaigns with the Rangers.

It was believed that Marc Staal, like Dan Girardi, would benefit from the longer than usual summer break the Rangers experienced this past offseason. A leading fan theory was that the number of games and time spent on the ice running deep into the playoffs over the last four seasons had tired him out, and the hope was that an extended summer would rejuvenate him, leading to a bounce-back year. Unfortunately for the Rangers, that hasn’t happened. His play has only marginally improved but is still largely in decline, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the Rangers defense given his AAV and the years he has left on his contract.

BlueshirtBanter’s Jack McKenna covered this well in a late December column you can read here.

Drowning/Failing (D+ to F)

Misery may love company, but Dan Girardi is without it to this point in the season. While I’ve been critical of Klein and Staal’s performances as well this season, only Girardi is outwardly failing the Rangers both monetarily and in most in-game situations, no matter his usage. His negative draw on Ryan McDonagh is a well known, well-beaten dead horse, but that point is made no less true because of this.

Girardi has seen marginal improvements from an analytics perspective, improving from a miserable 41.08 CF% last season to a slightly less miserable 43.9 CF% this season, for example, but whatever progress he’s made overall hasn’t been nearly enough to justify his salary cap hit (AAV), the remaining years on his deal, nor the number of important minutes he continues to play on the ice this year despite the recent reduction in his ice time covered well by BlueshirtBulletin.com writer Tom Urtz here.

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