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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.
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:
2. “Succeeding” — B+ to B-
3. “Treading Water” — C- to C+
4. “Drowning/Failing” — D- to F+
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 Card — Forwards Edition:
Excelling (A+ to A-)
Derek Stepan is arguably the hottest Ranger over the last month of play. His 14 points in 14 games in the month of December lead all Rangers in scoring and his 31 points on the season (9-22-30) now lead all Rangers skaters through the halfway point of the year. As my colleague, Andrew Keenan wrote, his line with Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello is really taking care of business.
In December, the line has combined for 17 goals in 15 games. Stepan and Kreider have 16 points each while Zuccarello has 14. No other Ranger’s forward has been close to that production this month with Kevin Hayes being the fourth highest scoring forward at nine points. The line has also dominated possession metrics, marking the first time the Rangers have had forwards with positive corsi for an extended stretch this season, save Marek Hrivik. Zuccarello leads the team in corsi percentage this month at 55.53% and is followed by Kreider at 54.26% and Stepan at 53.99%.
This 62-point pace he’s on would be a season-high finish for him, should he meet it.
Speaking of the Rangers’ first line…
Chris Kreider is currently on pace to finally break that 30-goal mark Rangers fans have been waiting for him to hit. At his current rate, he’d finish the year with 35—a team-leading projection. Should he meet that mark, he’d not only set a single-season record for himself, but he’d be the first player to score 30 goals as a New York Ranger since Rick Nash scored 42 in 2014-15. Before that, to find another 30+ goal-scorer you would need to go back another three years to the 2011-12 campaign, to Marian Gaborik’s 41-goal year.
Moreover, Kreider seems to finally have found the balance of using his speed and strength consistently at both ends of the rink and is one of the few Rangers who still routinely sticks up for teammates. He is one of only four Rangers skaters this season to register a fighting major, dropping the gloves with the Flyers’ Brandon Manning back on November 25th.
Kevin Hayes, in all his “lazy” glory (I see you, Rangers Twitter), is also on pace for a career-high in points (60), and goals (26). He’s also firmly bounced back in a big way from a fairly disappointing sophomore season that had many fans downright hoping he’d be traded. Earlier this season, his line along with J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner were largely carrying the Rangers five-a-game offense. That offense has regressed to the mean some, but Hayes is still finding a tremendous level of success this season. When Mika Zibanejad returns from the broken fibula he suffered in late November, the Rangers will look about as strong as any team up the middle of the ice, largely because of the productive depth Hayes offers them.
Last but not least, Michael Grabner, arguably the most cost-effective veteran scorer in the NHL this season, is, well, arguably the most cost-effective veteran scorer in the NHL this season! His 16 goals in 40 games are tied for sixth league-wide beside names like Marian Hossa, Rickard Rakell, and Evgeni Malkin. He’s on pace to finish with 32 assuming this rate continues—a feat he hasn’t reached since he scored 34 as a New York Islander in 2010-11. At just $1.65M per season for this year and next, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better cost for production value player in the league. Especially given the impact he’s had at both even strength where all 16 of his goals have been scored and on the penalty-kill where his addition, among others, has improved the Rangers record to a tenth-best 83.5%.
Succeeding (B+ to B-)
Jimmy Vesey came as advertised—fleet of foot, smart of brains, and quick of the stick. If things persist as they’ve gone thus far, he’s on pace to finish his rookie NHL campaign with 20+ goals. He would be the first Rangers rookie to score 20 goals in his rookie season since Derek Stepan scored 21 in 2010-11 and before that, Petr Prucha scored 30 back in the 2005-06 season. That’s fantastic bang-for-buck and the return on investment should have the Rangers front office smiling.
He’s currently eighth in scoring among NHL rookies this season with 19 points in 40 games, nipping at the heels of the Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (21 points in 38 games) and the Flames’ sixth overall draft pick in 2016, Matthew Tkachuk (23 points in 36 games). He’s also third in goals scored among NHL rookies with 11 behind the Jets’ Patrik Laine (21) and the Leafs’ Auston Matthews (20).
Mats Zuccarello, as mentioned in the Stepan and Kreider sections above, has given the Rangers another viable first line. The only reason I have him under Succeeding and not Excelling is because while he’s no doubt a valuable component to the trio, his goal-scoring this season is down well below where it arguably should be. He has just eight goals in 41 games this season. Over a full 82-game season, that projects to just 16 goals on the year, which would be ten short of the 26 he scored last season, even as his 60 point pace is almost identical to last season’s 61 point total.
J.T. Miller has had a hot and cold year thus far. He, along with then linemates Michael Grabner and Kevin Hayes, helped carry most of the Rangers offense through the early months of the season. Through the first twenty games of the year, he had eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. Over the second half of the 40 games he’s played in thus far, he cooled off, running into a four-game scoreless streak from November 27th to December 3rd, and a seven-game scoreless stretch from December 15th to December 27th.
The 24-goal, 58-point pace he’s on right now would see him set a career high in both goals and points in his young NHL career.
Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined with a significant injury, having broken his fibula back in late November, but was one of the Rangers most productive scorers before ending up on the shelf. Prior to the injury, he had 15 points through 19 games—a 0.79 P/GP pace. Though the break has taken a number of games away from him, it’s not inconceivable or unrealistic that he picks up where he left off when he returns to the lineup.
That 0.79 P/GP clip he was performing at is important to take note of once he does return, as his actual season totals may appear light given the reduced number of games he will end up playing in this season. Not only does it project to 65 points over a full 82-game season, but it’s a greater indication of his growth as a player when you account for his P/GP performances over the last few seasons. He’s gradually improved year-after-year, beginning with a 0.48 P/GP pace in 2013-14. He followed that up with 0.58 in 2014-15 and 0.63 in 2015-16. That’s the kind of progress the front office should be especially impressed with.
Rick Nash has missed time due to two separate groin injuries this season, but his play between them has been impressive enough to still have him pacing another 30-goal season. Should he meet that pace, it would be the eighth of his NHL career.
He’s seen his role reduce this season, as he’s averaging just 16:05 TOI/G, down from the 16:56 TOI/G he averaged the previous season, but he’s also part of the reason the Rangers forwards are as deep as they are.
Jesper Fast is the Rangers’ everyman. My colleague, Dave Rogers, praised him heavily back on December 13th, and little has changed since. He’s still arguably the Rangers most important bottom-six forward, and the 30-point pace he’s on is more than respectable for the kind of player he is, in the role he’s asked to fill.
Pavel Buchnevich, like Zibanejad, has been dealing with a significant back injury, categorized by the NY Post’s Larry Brooks as “disc and back issues”. But also like Zibanejad, Buchnevich found plenty of success despite the small sample size. He has eight points in ten games this season. So long as those “disc and back issues” don’t become chronic, and provided he effectively rehabs them back to full health, there’s no reason to believe he can’t return to the Rangers as the same dynamic scorer and possession monster he was before he left the lineup to deal with the nagging issues.
According to corsica.hockey, among Rangers forwards who have played in at least ten games this season, Buchnevich is second best in CF% (55.09) and fourth best in FF% (54.55).
Matt Puempel, the former first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators (24th overall in 2011), was claimed by the Rangers back on November 21st after the Senators officially gave up on him, placing him on waivers with the intention of getting him to their AHL affiliate. Though he’s dealt with at least one concussion on the season (and is currently out again with concussion-like symptoms), he’s performed admirably on a makeshift fourth line that’s seen a revolving door of players all season (due to numerous injuries).
He has six points in 13 games as a Ranger thus far this season. He may have been looked at as a warm body to plug into an injury-depleted roster when they originally put in the claim for him, but it’s hard to imagine the Rangers aren’t fairly impressed with how well he’s performed in New York to this point.
Marek Hrivik, like Puempel, was probably seen as a temporary patch to plug a leaky fourth line that’s seen its fair share of injuries this season but has actually found a niche there. His combination of tenacity, strength, and size are still ideal given the manner in which the Rangers fourth line has been deployed this season. He has just two points through 15 games, but as Adam Herman wrote back in mid-December, he’s still making a case for a long look, even as the Rangers get healthy again.
Treading Water (C+ to C-)
Oscar Lindberg came into this season coming off a significant offseason surgery to repair a “bilateral hip labral”. There’s no doubt it’s taken him time to find his NHL legs again because of it. There’s also no doubt that the early shooting percentage luck he was playing with when he scored five of the 13 total goals he registered last season in the first three games of the season probably placed unfairly high expectations on the fourth-line player.
His 51.1% Faceoff Win Percentage (FOW%) percentage is second to only Mika Zibanejad (53.7%) among Rangers centers this season, but he’s yet to score a goal this season and has just five points in 26 games played.
Josh Jooris, who the Rangers lost to the Arizona Coyotes’ claim when they placed the veteran forward on waivers back on December 11th, never seemed to find the traction he needed to in order to nail down a permanent roster spot. He missed most of the preseason with a nagging groin injury and might have escaped being placed on waivers in late October when he suffered a separated shoulder.
He had just two points (a goal and an assist) in twelve games with the Rangers, averaging just 8:36 TOI/G.
Drowning/Failing (D+ to F)
Brandon Pirri shot the lights out early in October, scoring four of his six goals in the first seven games of the season, but he’s more than just cooled off. He’s gone frigid, scoring just two goals in the 32 games since then.
His last goal came against the Devils on December 11th, and prior to that, you’d have to jump back twelve more games to November 15th against the Canucks to find another. The water is deep, and his head is well below it right now, as his all-around game provides very little value to the team when he’s not scoring.
Nicklas Jensen and Cristoval “Boo” Nieves don’t meet the minimum games played requirements.