Quick Hits – January 31, 2017

In this edition of Quick Hits, we’ll be looking at how Henrik Lundqvist reclaimed the crown he probably never actually lost in the first place, and why that’s so important for the Rangers’ playoff hopes. And of course, some other stuff, too. As always, down below you’ll find a table with all the Rangers’ stats over the last ten games. Away we go…

A Crown Reclaimed?
Much of the talk this season has centered on Henrik Lundqvist’s rather pedestrian stat line. And for good reason. Despite his 21-13-0 record, the King simply hasn’t looked very royal this year. The .907 SV% and 2.73 GAA he’s sporting are a far cry from the Hank of old and he’s been in net for multiple blowout games with a little less than half the season still to play. But there’s reason to hold out for hope. In his last four starts since the meltdown against Dallas in which he gave up seven goals against, he’s averaged a .948 SV% and a GAA of 1.5 and pitched a shutout against the Red Wings on January 22nd.Perhaps the rumors of his demise really have been exaggerated?

This is especially important as the Rangers gear up for what should be their seventh consecutive playoff run this spring. Given the state of the Rangers defense and how small the ice gets in the postseason, having the soon-to-be 35-year old on his A-game could be all the difference needed to make up for that imbalance.

Cleared For Contact
The Rangers appeared to be approaching a full and healthy roster with the returns of Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash, and Pavel Buchnevich this past month, but those hopes were dashed with the announcements of injuries to Marc Staal, Kevin Hayes, Antti Raanta, and Jesper Fast. Staal, who has a rocky history with concussions, hasn’t played since January 3rd due to post-concussion symptoms. As the Rangers enter Tuesday night’s contest against the Sabres, however, he, Fast, and Raanta are all expected to return, restoring the Rangers roster health to almost full capacity again for the first time since the early months of the season.

McDonagh the Lackluster All-Star?
Alright, that’s a little click-baitey, I’ll admit, but if you watched the NHL’s All-Star festivities this past weekend (which were far less interesting without John Scott’s involvement), you may have noticed the same thing my colleague Dave Rogers and I did—Ryan McDonagh looked a little out of place skating alongside world-beater talents like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. I know it wasn’t a real game, but seeing as the All-Star game is designed to highlight the NHL’s premiere offense, it also showed how limited his offense can be. Sure, he’s on pace for 40+ assists, but how much of that is the work of the talented forwards he’s playing with this season and how much of that is directly attributable to his driving the play? It’s an interesting thought experiment to keep in mind as the Shattenkirk to Rangers rumors ramp up as we approach the trading deadline.

Grabner is Still in Orbit
Inflated by a high shooting percentage, his 21 goals lead all Rangers skaters this season, yet the proverbial process of “coming back to Earth” is a process he’s yet to begin. Not only does he lead the Rangers in goals this season, but he dominated the month of January with seven of them in ten games played. The next highest scoring player was J.T. Miller with four, also in ten games. His 20.6 shooting percentage is the highest on the team among players who have skated in 40 or more games, but he’s showing no signs of letting that stop him from continuing to find the back of the net with regularity. That may partially be because a lot of his goal scoring comes from a seemingly endless string of breakaway attempts, which naturally have a higher success rate than other shot attempts. He may still come back to Earth, but I wouldn’t advise holding your breath waiting for it to happen.

Is the Wild Card a Winning Lottery Ticket?
No, not that lottery. There’s plenty of unwatchable fight left among the league’s bottom feeder clubs to interminably determine who Nolan Patrick or perhaps Nico Hischier will get to suffer with for years to come. In the case of the Rangers and the first Wild Card position they currently occupy, an argument can certainly be made that finishing exactly there would be an opportunist’s dream. If things play out as they are likely to, given the Blueshirts’ seven-point lead on the second Wild Card (currently held by the Flyers), they’d open the playoffs facing the would be Atlantic Division champions, the Montréal Canadiens, surreptitiously avoiding a first-round match-up with the titans of the Metropolitan division and, should they prevail, facing an Atlantic Division team in the second-round, possibly with home ice advantage. Sure, the team will never admit to gunning for that kind of finish, but they’d be wise to nonetheless. It’s what “happened” to the Islanders last season by a single point in the standings, with the Rangers facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, while the Islanders squared off against the Florida Panthers.


Stats from 1/1/17 to 1/31/17 (Last 10 games)

The Rangers went 5-5-0 over the last ten games.

They tied their opposition in goal scoring with 32 goals for to 32 against.

They out-shot their opposition by a combined 307 shots for to 288 against.

Their power play tallied 3 times on 29 opportunities (10.3%) and they gave up 7 goals on 28 times short-handed (75.0%).

They won 271 of 594 face-offs (45.6%).

Oscar Lindberg by Karan Bawa

Lindberg Trade: Still a Landslide Victory, Even in Retrospect

Here’s a fun thought experiment: “Rangers trade”.

Quick—what’s the first thing you think of?

Like most fans, I’d imagine the bigger name deals immediately spring to mind. Deals like the Rick Nash trade that saw fan favorites Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov shipped to Columbus in the summer of 2012. Perhaps the captain-for-captain Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis trade in 2014, or the Keith Yandle trade that shipped Anthony Duclair to the desert in 2015? Hell, maybe recency bias plays a role here and Eric Staal haunts your frontal lobe for a few moments.

Regardless who comes to mind for you, chances are it’s of the “blockbuster” variety.

It’s only natural—most of those players are stars, or were, and performed like stars. In Nash’s case, he still is, even if his age has pushed his role back a bit.

A deal that you probably didn’t think about is the one that then General Manager Glen Sather agreed to in May of 2011 in which the Rangers exchanged prospect forwards with frequent trading partners, the Arizona Coyotes. In a quiet exchange, the Rangers dealt 19-year old Ethan Werek, taken in the second round, 47th overall in 2009, for 19-year old Oscar Lindberg, also taken in the second round, 52nd overall, in the same draft. Five years later, it wouldn’t turn out to be nearly as quiet as the day it was announced.

At the time, Lindberg had five goals and nine assists in 41 games with his native Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League (SEL). He’d also played in 18 playoff games where he registered three goals and four assists, good for sixth on the team in scoring, and had four points (two goals, two assists) for Sweden at the 2011 World Junior Championships. It was likely here where the Rangers’ interest was piqued.

Werek, by comparison, had skated in 47 games with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), scoring 24 goals and 28 assists for 52 points. Since being drafted in 2009, he had scored 116 points in 104 games with the Frontenacs.

On the surface, the exchange seemed to heavily favor the Coyotes. Why would the Rangers deal such a high-scoring Junior player, who’d drawn comparisons to former Rangers’ great Adam Graves, who was taken higher in the draft (even if it was only by five positions) for a far less productive player of the same age playing in Europe? Well, apparently because the Rangers’ scouting staff saw something in Lindberg that they didn’t in Werek—an NHL future. Time would ultimately prove them right on that hunch.

As I mentioned, Werek had drawn comparisons to Adam Graves at and around the 2009 Draft. At 6’1, 200lbs, it’s not hard to see why. Graves played most of his NHL career billed at 6’0, 205lbs. Werek played a similar combination game of physicality and scoring that didn’t put the comparison to Graves too far out of line. Yet the Rangers front office didn’t seem overly impressed by the time his second season in Junior was reaching its end. His season was repeatedly derailed by injuries, including a ligament tear in his wrist that he attempted to play through, and he capped off his season with a five-game suspension for an elbow-to-the-head, missing the final three games of the Fronts’ season, as well as their first two playoff games.

Lindberg, on the other hand, also owned a promising scouting report:

A very smart two-way center. Takes care of his defensive responsibilities, but also contributes offensively with good speed, technical skills and playmaking ability. Not an overly physical player, but he gets involved. Pretty good shot, but not a natural scorer. A team player who is good at faceoffs.
– Elite Prospects (2011)

That bit at the end about face-offs shouldn’t skate by understated. Playing against men in one of Europe’s most competitive professional leagues, Lindberg recorded the league’s best faceoff percentage in three straight seasons (63.4% in 2008-09, 60.4% in 2009-10, and 69.6% in 2010-11). What GM wouldn’t be impressed by numbers like that?

His total production was also noteworthy given the fact the SEL is a notoriously low-scoring and defensively-oriented league. In the 77 games he played with Skelleftea between 2009 and 2011, he had a total of 16 points. To put that into perspective, Marcus Johansson, the Landskrona, Sweden product taken by the Washington Capitals in the first round, 24th overall, of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft had 30 points in 87 games in the SEL before beginning his North American professional career.

While Werek projected as the better player of the two at the time, the Rangers saw a much brighter future in Lindberg—a future that’s continuing to pay dividends to this day. Lindberg is an important depth player for the Rangers. He has 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points in 86 NHL games and his 53.5% Faceoff Win Percentage (FOW) trails only Mika Zibanejad (53.7%) this season among the Rangers’ centers.

Werek, now 25, never panned out and will probably never see regular NHL action. The Coyotes ultimately elected not to qualify him, making him an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2014. He’s currently contracted with the Texas Stars in the American Hockey League (AHL) and has yet to make his NHL debut.

For a team that has traded a slew of draft picks in recent years, these types of “something for nothing” deals are vital toward restocking the cupboards with NHL level players on RFA contracts. The Rangers essentially were able to replace Dominic Moore, who was making $1.5M per year for Lindberg, who makes just $650K.

The trade may never draw the kind of high-end recollection the aforementioned deals do, but it’s proven to be a landslide victory for the Rangers nonetheless and is a prime example of their deft abilities in identifying lesser known talents in Europe.

Mats Zuccarello by Karan Bawa

Defense Wanted: Will Pay With Top-Six Forward

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.

Antti Raanta by Karan Bawa

The Wheels Are Starting to Fall Off the Rangers’ Bus

If you look at the Rangers’ team statistics and compare them to last year, you’d think that they were in a much better position this season. Their 57 points through 44 games has them on a pace to improve by five points in the standings over last season’s 101-point campaign, and they are on a pace to win 52 games, which is six more than last season. While their 2.61 GA/GP this season is all but identical to last season’s 2.62, they’ve increased their GF/GP to 3.41 from 2.84, which is over a half a goal more per game. The list of players who are scoring at a better P/GP pace over their previous season is long and includes Chris Kreider (+0.28), Kevin Hayes (+0.29), J.T. Miller (+0.21), Rick Nash (+0.06) and Ryan McDonagh (0.16). Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan’s paces are virtually identical in both seasons. Mika Zibanejad (0.79 P/GP) is slightly outperforming last season’s pace of Derick Brassard (0.73 P/GP), and ven Nick Holden (0.52 P/GP) has picked up most of the slack from the loss of Keith Yandle (0.57 P/GP). None of that considers the production of newcomers like Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei, who all outpace the players who’s spots they’ve claimed.

Statistically the Rangers are not at a significant risk of missing the playoffs. Let’s get that out of the way out of the gate as well. While they have slipped out of the top three teams in the Metropolitan division and into the top Wild Card spot, they still hold a seven-point lead over the Philadelphia Flyers currently in the second Wild Card spot, an eight-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes sitting in ninth and nine-points over the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers behind them. Given the torrid pace of the top Metropolitan teams, that first Wild Card spot will likely be a gift to the team which finishes there. That’s because the current NHL playoff format sets the two Wild Card teams against the conference leaders. In practice, if the playoffs started today, the Washington Capitals, at the top of their division and as the top team in the conference, would play Philadelphia while the Rangers would face the Montréal Canadiens, who lead the Atlantic division. While the winner of Washington and Philadelphia would then face the winner of resurgent Columbus Blue Jackets and reigning Pittsburgh Penguins, the winner between Montréal and the Rangers would face the winner of two teams that missed the postseason last year in the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

This is reminiscent of last year’s postseason where the Rangers faced off against the Penguins in the first round by finishing third in the Metropolitan division, while the New York Islanders who sat a single point behind the Rangers instead matched up with the Florida Panthers. The Rangers’ current position certainly would seem advantageous.

What’s much more troubling is how they find themselves in a significantly worse situation than last season because of their team play. Wait, didn’t I just show how statistically they’re scoring more while giving up about the same percentage of goals against? Yes, I did. But as has been much discussed, the Rangers got off to a blistering start in terms of scoring and that run up of scores had many teams saying “no mas” towards the end of games. The Rangers could sit back and wait for teams down by two or more goals to take risks and they consistently made them pay for it, running up the score.

That pace is fading, though. When you look at some time spans, you find momentum turning:

10/13/2016 – 11/30/2016

24 GP 16 W 7 L 1 OT 33 P 0.69 P/PG 3.67 GF/GP 2.42 GA/GP

12/1/2016 – 1/17/2017

20 GP 12 W 8 L 0 OT 24 P 0.60 P/PG 3.23 GF/GP 2.85 GA/GP

Their goal scoring, while still very strong, has dropped almost a half a goal per game, while their goals against is up almost half a goal per game. Things get even more troublesome when you look at the Rangers’ last ten games:

10 GP 5 W 5 L 0 OT 10 P 0.50 P/PG 3.90 GF/GP 4.10 GA/GP

While their goals for has improved, their goals against continues to drop. By almost all accounts, last season was salvaged by Henrik Lundqvist. The defensive zone play had deteriorated, but Hank was still Hank. Even as his goals against average increased last season over the rest of his career, his save percentage remained near career constant at .920. While there are few good metrics to look at just how difficult a goalie’s saves are over a season, those who watched the Rangers last year know that the area in front of his net was littered with welcome mats for opposing teams. Through much of the season, he was under siege.

Until recently, while no defensive darlings, the Rangers hadn’t been giving up the same number and quality of glorious scoring chances against. Still, Lundqvist has struggled much of this season. He’s at career lows in goals against per game (2.72) and more importantly to the Rangers’ chances, save percentage (.907). In the span of 24 team games since December 1st, Hank is 7-5-0 with a .895 Sv% and 3.15 GAA. The team has been rescued some by Antti Raanta, but he’s now out with a lower-body injury. Even the Rangers’ top quality backup couldn’t help in their most recent games. The Rangers’ average defensive play has dropped to well below average and even with their high scoring pace, as shown above, they’ve hit .500 over their last 10 games. In that span, Lundqvist (3-3-0, .859 Sv% and 4.14 GAA) and Raanta (2-2-0, .876 GAA and 3.85 GAA) have been unable to compensate.

Had Lundqvist played this way last year, the Rangers likely would have finished the season closing in on a lottery pick. This season, they’ve been bailed out by their ridiculous scoring pace. That will likely be enough to again drag them into the postseason the way Hank did last year. Once they get there, and once time and space shrink because of the raised intensity and increased quality of competition, the Rangers may very well find themselves in a familiar position to last season, where they were comically out matched by a significantly better team in the opening round.

They had better hope that Henrik Lundqvist can again find his crown and scepter, because he will be starting next year at age 35 and with four more years at $8.5M AAV. The team around him has an aging defense, no significant defensive prospects beyond rookie Brady Skjei and no real offensive prospects they could move for young defensive help. Their offensive side of the ice, while not stacked with superstars, has plenty of young talent, however the defensive side, from the net on out, has become a huge liability. One with no clear path to improvement.

Michael Grabner by Karan Bawa

Should the Rangers Trade Michael Grabner?

When Rangers GM Jeff Gorton signed Michael Grabner on July 1st, 2016, I’m not sure even he thought the return on investment would be this good. As the Rangers have officially eclipsed the halfway point in the season, Grabner, 29, has 19 goals in 41 games. His goal scoring totals put him in a five-way tie for sixth in goals scored with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Montréal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson, and Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak.

All 19 of his goals have been scored at even strength, too, which leads the league while putting him ahead of rookie phenom Auston Matthews (18) and the league’s single worst blueprint for growing a proper playoff beard, Sidney Crosby (17).

This scoring rate has him on pace to finish with nearly 40 goals (38) should this rate of production hold true through the end of the NHL calendar year. In fact, should the fleet-of-foot-Austrian eclipse 30 goals this season, it would mark the first time he’s done so since 2010-11—more than six years ago while he was still a member of the rival New York Islanders at the young age of 23.

It’s not just Grabner’s scoring that’s significant, either. His contract is equally impactful. The two-year, $3.3M pact he signed with the Rangers is worth just $1.65M per season. That incredibly low AAV has helped to cement his position as one of the league’s best bang-for-buck signings of the summer, perhaps second only to Blue Jackets forward Sam Gagner (whose resurgence has him on pace for what could end up being a career-high 30-goal season) or Florida Panther’s forward Jonathan Marchessault (a former Rangers camp invite who is on pace for 54 points).

So why on earth should the Rangers even entertain the idea of trading him? Well, because ultimately they may not have much of a choice in the matter due to the looming Vegas expansion rules that threatens to rob Broadway’s best of one of their best.

A few months ago I wrote a column here speaking to the fact that one way or another, the Rangers were going to lose a very good player in the coming Vegas expansion draft. In it, I mentioned Grabner by name as one of the bigger threats to lose, in large part due to the success he’s found with the Rangers this season:

So why risk losing such an important, productive player? Because keep in mind that the Rangers have a limited number of protection selections they can make, and there are arguably more important forwards here who can offer the team more value over a longer period of time than Grabner can. He’s done a bang-up job, but younger impact forwards like Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller mean more in the franchise’s bigger picture.

Fast forward to today and little has changed. Grabner is still a powerful force behind the Rangers resurgent penalty kill, currently 10th in the NHL at 83%, and his scoring, as mentioned earlier, is still team-leading. Yet the situation surrounding him is also the same, and that’s where the conflict comes into play.

As Larry Brooks also pointed out in his recent column championing Grabner while outlining the problem his production can create this summer, the Rangers are almost certainly going to opt to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender from exposure to Bill Foley’s Golden Knights. Conventional logic presumes these forwards to be the same group Brooks conjured up that includes Rick Nash (NMC), Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes.

There’s simply no easy means of including Grabner. Not without making a significant change to that forward group. The only way to protect Grabner through this route would be to trade one of these other players in order to open a forward slot to use on him instead. Which begs the question—who are you cutting out to keep the soon-to-be 30-year old?

It’s not an easy question to answer because history tells us despite the revelation he’s been this season, it’s not likely to repeat. Not at this rate, at least. He’s still shooting at an abnormally high 22.1%—a number that the league’s leading goal-scorers don’t operate anywhere near over the full breadth of an NHL season—and because of this, it’s arguably more important to protect the aforementioned group of forwards instead, despite the tremendous success he’s found as a first-year Ranger. That young collection of forwards simply offers the Blueshirts more in both promise and potential in the bigger picture. It’s not a slight against Grabner. It’s just a matter of logistics in accounting for tomorrow.

Brooks posited that “the Rangers either are going to have to trade one of the aforementioned seven projected protected forwards — and by June 17 — or they will be obligated to expose their current leading goal-scorer for claim in an expansion draft”. But that is only true if you conveniently ignore the fact that another option exists—trading Grabner himself.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that trading Grabner at this point might be a Goldilocks zone moment. Should the stars align, the Rangers could, in theory, sell him while his stock is arguably at the highest point of his career, with one year remaining on his contract, just as he’s entering his thirties—a period in a player’s career where most skaters begin a noticeable downward trend in production. The best show only a gradual decline from that point on, but it’s an important line of demarcation that earnest NHL general managers routinely draw a soft line in the sand at.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t speak to the fact that dealing Grabner would increase the likelihood that one of Antti Raanta, Nick Holden, or Jesper Fast are take by the Golden Knights instead, not to mention the fact that any trade the Rangers do pull off would need to be for a returning player or players who are ineligible for the draft themselves. After all, what use is there in trading Grabner for a player who will effectively take his place at the top of the risk chart for Vegas’ pending expansion plans?

Regardless, the Rangers don’t have much choice in this matter. None of the solutions to the pending problem are going to feel good, but selling high could net the Rangers a nice return package for an asset they arguably have to move lest they risk losing him for nothing. And make no bones about it—losing him for nothing would hurt far more than trading him for assets they could use going forward without him. There’s no guarantee that the Golden Knights would select him but leaving him exposed is a high-risk gamble they’d be wise not to test.

Trading him ahead of the expansion draft storm might actually be the most sensible outcome here. Could a team be convinced to part ways with a first-round pick for the speedster, for example? Maybe a combination of second or third-round picks and a prospect or two? The Rangers could surely benefit from either.

Goals are at a premium in this league, and scoring 30 of them in a season is no easy feat. Only 28 players scored 30 or more last season, and only 15 players scored 30 or more the season prior. It’s rare these types of players hit the open market, and when they do, they tend to get offered exorbitant dollars and term to bring their talents to a new city. Getting your hands on a 30-goal scorer who costs just $1.65M against your salary cap is a dream scenario 29 other NHL general managers (soon to be 30) would no doubt desire to pull off. But, just how much would they be willing to give to get one like Grabner? Would acquiring Grabner complicate their own projection lists?

For now, it’s a problem the Rangers can continue to ignore, but as we draw closer to the close of the NHL season and closer to the Vegas draft, I would expect the Rangers, at the very least, to entertain the idea. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it could offer a silver lining with far more value than the risk of losing him for nothing.

Halfway There Report Cards: Forwards Edition

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: Defense & Goalies 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 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.


Incomplete

Nicklas Jensen and Cristoval “Boo” Nieves don’t meet the minimum games played requirements.

Halfway There Report Cards: Defense & Goalies Edition

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.

#NewYearNewRangers

Every year around this time millions of Americans make resolutions and #newyearnewme trends. The Rangers, in their pursuit of postseason success, might as well follow along. With a few cliché resolutions and a #NewYearNewRangers approach, they may be able to get there.

Quit Taking Shots
Drinking less is a common theme for resolutioners and, while the Rangers will want to continue to “rip shots” on the offensive end, the defense must sober up.

On the season, the Rangers remain a top-10 team in shots against – ranking 9th at 29 shots per game. That number is actually better than contenders like Chicago (23rd), Pittsburgh (28th) and CBJ (11th). In 15 games in December, the Rangers shots against was a strong 28.33. However, their Fenwick Against per 60 (FA/60) is more concerning.

In December, their FA/60 ranked 19th at 41.64. In other words, teams were missing the net about 13 times per game, suggesting that the low shot totals are a bit luckier than face value would suggest (though you could make the argument that being in shooting lanes consistently, as the Rangers often are, causes shots to go wide). That number puts them in poor company. The teams worse in December were, in order, Vancouver (41.91), Dallas (42.33), Chicago (42.75), Buffalo (42.76), Pittsburgh (42.80), Florida (42.82), New Jersey (43.94), Toronto (46.01), NYI (46.98), Arizona (48.20) and Colorado (49.40). That’s a ten-team list no contending team wants to be a part of, despite the presence of Chicago and Pitt.

For the Rangers, this probably requires more offensive zone time, as they really haven’t been good at possessing the puck. They owned a mere 48.16% Corsi For through fifteen games in December.

Beef Up
To make a playoff run, teams can’t carry dead weight in their lineup. As real life gyms begin to over-crowd, the Rangers should be hitting the metaphorical roster gym to bulk up.

Jeff Gorton’s biggest test of his short tenure here will be addressing the defense before the trade deadline. As my colleague Phil Kocher mentioned here, there are a number of good targets out there, but the price makes everything tricky. Trading forward depth (especially youth, like J.T. Miller) could prove costly as bottom-six scoring hasn’t been good for this team lately. That leaves futures as the only option.

The concern with giving up futures is—perhaps unfairly—that doing so is measured by winning a Cup. Can a guy like Jacob Trouba or Dougie Hamilton, who may be had for a couple of good picks, be the final piece? Hard to say. But it’s difficult to imagine an upgrade on defense having anything more than a marginal effect if the Rangers cripple their forward depth in the process.

A byproduct of giving the defense corps a little juice is shedding a bit of dead weight. Presumably, that means reducing the minutes that Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein play, as neither has been particularly good this year. There are no anchors in the lineup this season—though Brandon Pirri needs to hit the net if he wants to avoid that label—but the defense (the right side in particular) leaves a lot to be desired. So, some gym time to beef up the blue line will be key in 2017.

Squad Goals
With Dylan McIlrath gone and Tanner Glass buried in the AHL, the Rangers have formally ushered themselves completely into the new era of hockey that has no place for fighters. In fact, the Rangers are tied for dead last in fights this year with just four on the books. But, while fight totals don’t indicate too much in the Win-Loss column, this team does have the tendency to turn the other cheek. That was plainly evident when Henrik Lundqvist got mollywhopped by Cody Eakin.

While it appears that both Nash and Vesey were tempted to do or say something, and we know that guys like Klein and Kreider are willing to throw, this team has a bad—albeit impossible to quantify—habit of not protecting each other. They aren’t going to do it with heavy mitts, so there must be a team-wide emphasis on protecting one another.

We don’t know what’s said on the bench or in the dressing room, but on the ice, this team doesn’t seem to have much “fight” when rough stuff metastasizes. In the regular season, you can probably get away with that, but to prevent teams from taking liberties over the course of a playoff series* the team will have to make a conscious decision to be a better friend in 2017.

*Caveat: A good power play could have the desired effect, in singular games. Imagine if they called the slash on Kris Letang and the Rangers scored twice on a 5:00 advantage last season in game 3…

Beach Bods, Not Dad Bods
To keep pace in the Metro, the Rangers have got to stay hot. NHLers don’t have trouble picking up chicks and Dad Bods take up a lot less real estate in the NHL than the other major competitive leagues (LOL). But the Rangers’ division is loaded with teams whose bodies just won’t quit.

New York sits in third in the Metro and entered 2017 as winners of seven of the last 10 with 55 points. That would put them in first place in the entire Western conference.

If the playoffs started today, five teams from the Metro would be in the playoffs and, outside of Montreal, they might be the five best teams in the East. Columbus has earned the sash for Ms. December, as they’ve won 16 in a row, and the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Capitals had won nine straight and taken points in 24 of 30 games, combined, before the loss to Buffalo.

While the Metro will eventually cool off a bit, the Rangers are going to have to hit the tanning bed, get some Botox, or trade for Hilary Knight if they want to stay hot enough to beat anyone in this division, come April.

Wanderlust
Invariably, the Rangers’ only meaningful 2017 resolution is to win the Stanley Cup. Should they fall short of that, the other resolutions are relatively inconsequential. The schedule dictates that they won’t travel a ton of miles through the second half of the season, as they have just one trip to the West Coast remaining, but they’ll certainly want to book at least a couple of flights heading westward in June.

Despite the lofty goals that we Americans tend to set for ourselves, only 8% of us actually follow through with them. That’s elite goal-completing company. If the Rangers want to be an elite team and achieve their ultimate goal, which is, as it has been for the better part of the last decade, to win the Cup, they’ll need to make a few tweaks in 2017.

While 2016 featured a lot of good for the Rangers, they’re in a position where sticking to a few resolutions can make them serious contenders, if not favorites.

First Things First – Rangers Finally Have a Top Line

The days of the five goal-a-game Rangers, with their top to bottom scoring depth and red-hot powerplay, are long since passed. Following a string of poor performances beginning with a 4-2 loss against Columbus on November 18th, the Rangers had been largely reliant upon individual performances by their players. Like Rick Nash, who had developed a hot hand while in between groin injuries, scoring seven points in eight games before being injured in the first week of December. Or Michael Grabner’s blistering scoring pace to start the season, which had him hovering near the league lead for a while. The Rangers team that had been largely reliant upon offense driven by high-speed plays and shots off the rush was devastated both by injuries and forward lines that had once shown chemistry, such as that of the Miller, Hayes, and Grabner combination which failed to consistently make the scoresheet.

On an off chance, Rangers’ Head Coach Alain Vigneault reunited what had been an on again off again line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello. The line had never been consistently held together in previous seasons with Zuccarello more often than not on the wing of Derick Brassard, while Kreider and Stepan had played together numerous times with wingers that had included Ryan Callahan, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Jesper Fast. Vigneault took a chance by reuniting the line given that all three players had been slumping throughout November.

In the 15 games through the month of November, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello underperformed with nine and eight points respectively. Kreider, upon returning from injury, produced just six points in 13 games. Zuccarello and Kreider had both gotten off to hot starts in October but had both cooled down considerably in November when they had been placed on Mika Zibanejad’s wings. Among other issues, the Rangers had begun to mirror the team of the fall of 2015, in which high-scoring could no longer mask what were terrible possession metrics. In November of 2016, Derek Stepan was a clear representative of the team’s failure to control the puck with an abysmal 40.4% corsi. Only Kevin Hayes and Dan Girardi fared worse with 39.88% and 38.11% respectively. Zuccarello and Kreider were among the team leaders in corsi, but that does not mean much. Kreider was second on the team in corsi at 48.6%, which was nearly a 15% drop from where he stood in October pre-injury.

December would bring a different type of game for Kreider, Stepan and Zuccarello. Early December was centered around the supposed goalie controversy between Antti Raanta and Henrik Lundqvist while in the background three players began to control the offensive play for the New York Rangers. Suffering greatly from injuries to three top six forwards in Buchnevich, Zibanejad, and Nash, the Rangers were desperately in need of offense. The current top line of Kreider – Stepan – Zuccarello has since become the answer to the team’s scoring woes. In the midst of suspect goaltending and defense, that line has shown for the past month that it can dominate on a team that has been lacking in most statistical categories.

Powered by a sudden resurgence by all three players, the line has been finding its way onto the scoresheet as demonstrated in recent games against the Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. When not scoring, the line has provided energy with an aggressive forecheck leading to a high percentage of the team’s scoring chances. The energy provided is to be expected from players such as Mats Zuccarello, who is known for his feistiness despite his small stature, and Chris Kreider, who is finding the game he demonstrated in the preseason, while Derek Stepan had been known more for his simple play. Now feeding off his linemates energy, Stepan has pushed both his line and team to play better.

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%. After being last among teams in corsi in November, the line’s play along with that of players like Marek Hrivik has helped increase the team by 9 spots to 21st in the league.

With Rick Nash listed day-to-day and Buchnevich and Zibanejad soon to be returning, it’s imperative that Alain Vigneault keep his current top line together. The Rangers have featured various lines this season which have dominated scoring for the team, but none have maintained the consistency on the scoresheet for as an extended time as the trio of Kreider, Stepan, and Zuccarello. If the line’s current play is to continue, the Rangers have a unit they can look to in order to get the team out of struggles and potentially return to the high-energy offense that was on display in October.

Mats Zuccarello by Karan Bawa

Zucc Falling Short of Scoring Potential

Mats Zuccarello—he of a career-high 26 goals last season—has potted just one goal in his last 21 games. It was an empty netter.

Through his 21-game drought, which dates all the way back to the last time he beat a goalie on November 13th, the slick Norwegian has transitioned from the embodiment of a team that places skill over grit to the frown-face emoji of regression.

Through their first 16 games in which the Rangers were healthy, the team averaged a staggering 4.06 goals per game—a 333 goal pace over an 82-game season. Were they to finish the year at that rate, it would be the best mark since the 1995-96 Penguins scored 362 (4.4 gpg) more than 20 years ago. In the last decade, only the 2009-10 Capitals have scored more than 300 goals; they tallied 318.

Perhaps the most-discussed facet of the Rangers’ scoring (and return more towards the mean) is their shooting percentage (SH%). As a team, their SH% was 13.77, putting them in the company of the league’s elite individual shooters. In the 21 games since, that number is just 9.71%, which falls on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Some of that can be attributed to injuries, but that’s an abnormal regression, even if it is representative of the team’s inconsistencies as a whole.

For no skater is the dropoff more apparent—or problematic—than Zuccarello. Through the first 16 games of the season, in which he scored six goals on 38 shots (2.34 per game), he was finishing at a pace of 15.8%. That’s just a smidge higher than last season, where he finished at 15.7% after a stunning first-half SH% of 19.3%, before Rick Nash’s injury in February.

Through the last 21 games of this season, Zucc’s shooting percentage has plummeted to just 2.27% on 44 shots. Take out the empty-netter, and it’s a goose egg. At roughly 2.2 shots per game, he’s still, essentially, getting the same number of chances as he was early, but the finishing touch isn’t there.

It can be tempting to say that his shot total will go up and eventually, he’ll start potting more, but, over the three previous seasons, he’s only averaged 1.99 shots per game. The recent 2.2 number remains a jump and makes the lack of scoring even more puzzling. And Zucc, as a pass-first player, isn’t taking low-quality shots that would cause a natural dip in shooting percentage.

In fact, Zucc’s expected goals for (xGF) – which provides a reasonable barometer for shot quality – stands at 24.78 and leads the Rangers’ forward group. Of Rangers forwards with at least 100 shots, he ranks fourth in xGF per 60 minutes, at 2.76. That’s a strong indicator that his scoring touch will improve as, last year, the Rangers top five in xGF all finished top five in goals.

For any player going through a slump, the solution is a big question mark. The good shooters keep shooting, keep going to the net, and he’s just snakebit cliches all apply, and he’ll eventually start scoring again. Putting him on a line with Rick Nash, when he returns, should also help.

Zucc has always been more of a playmaker than a finisher, and his assist totals (14 in the last 21 games) are still decent. Plus, he still gives a good two-way effort, even if he’s not as feisty as he once was (thanks, MSL!). But the consequence of last year’s scoring ability is an expectation for this season. For now, it’s hard to imagine this team escaping its shooting woes and scoring slump without him potting a few, especially until players return from injury.