Thank God the Rangers Didn't Listen to You About Kevin Hayes

If the Rangers’ front office would have acted in accordance with the wishes of a boisterous minority of Blueshirts fans a scant four or five months ago, Kevin Hayes wouldn’t be a Ranger today. Despite a powerful rookie campaign in which his 17 goals and 45 points were good for 5th in rookie scoring that season, his regression last season left a sour taste in the mouths of a number of fans. He scored just 14 goals and 36 points and was a healthy scratch in game four of the playoff series against the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, which, had those fans gotten their way, was regressive enough to unceremoniously send him packing in a kind of effigy to a year we’d all love to forget.

But the front office had a wider field of vision than the bellowing fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead of kowtowing to the mounting pressure to blow it all up, they kept the 24-year old Boston native, signing him to a two-year bridge contract worth $5.2M ($2.6M AAV) in late July. In spite of the dissatisfaction Hayes’ re-signing produced among that contingent of detractors (here’s lookin’ at you, Rangers Twitter), the decision has been paying off in spades for the Rangers through the first near-quarter of a potentially magical season in which they lead the league in numerous offensive categories — categories he deserves a lot of credit for helping them reach.

Hayes is currently tied for the team lead in scoring with fifth-year standout and fellow linemate J.T. Miller with 18 points in 20 games. He is also second on the team in goals-scored with 9 behind goal scoring leader Michael Grabner (12). Eight of those nine goals are at even strength, too — good for second on the team behind all twelve of Grabner’s tallies. Hayes, Miller, and Grabner, in fact, have combined for a sizable percentage of the Rangers team scoring this season. The trio can lay claim to 29 of the Rangers’ 81 goals for (approximately 36%) thus far this season.

Of course, as great as all that all reads, it’s also important to remember that it’s not all sunshine and roses. Like Grabner, he must credit some of this success to a high shooting percentage. Hayes’ 27.3% shooting rate leads all Rangers thus far this season just ahead of Michael Grabner (26.1%). Yet it will regress to the mean. For context in this regard, his career shooting percentage prior to this season was an average of 13.9%. So surely, no realistic expectation can be held that he’ll continue to operate at nearly double that this year. After all, even the league’s best goal-scorers don’t produce at that kind of rate. Rocket Richard trophy-winning, 50-goal scoring Alex Ovechkin, for example, shot 12.9% last season. In fact, no one in the top-50 goal scorers league-wide last season shot at even 20% on the year. It just doesn’t happen. Players tend to average much closer to the 10-12% range by the time the regular season comes to a close. Still, even if Hayes shot at just 12% for the rest of the season, he’d likely add another 10 goals, give or take, to his seasonal total, potentially finishing the year as a 20+ goal scorer for the first time in his career.

Furthermore, as my colleague Dave Rogers pointed out recently, the Rangers’ league-leading goal differential is also a factor to consider here. Their massive +34 differential nearly doubles the second place Canadiens at +18. This works hand-in-hand with their league-leading 4.05 GF/GP, which dwarfs the second place Blue Jackets at 3.18 — a 0.87 per game difference. Hayes has been an important factor in both regards, even if that’s largely due to his high shooting percentage.

The craziest aspect of all of this might be the fact he’s been as successful as he has thus far despite relatively poor possession metrics. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Hayes is second to last among Rangers forwards in CF% with a 41.8% and in FF% with a 44.0% rating. At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Wait — I thought this was an article defending keeping Hayes? Why am I reading about so many drawbacks?” Because they’re important for the big picture, and realistically, even though his individual shooting percentage will regress, and even though his possession metrics leave a lot to be desired, he’s still finding significant success. The fact is, the Rangers have often played with a sizable lead in games this season which lends itself to seeing more shots against as opposing teams press to gain lost ground in those games. It shouldn’t surprise you to know or learn that the Rangers are dead last in the league in shot attempts while ahead at -133 and second to last in unblocked shot attempts while ahead at -72. This has, in effect, somewhat artificially lowered the possession metrics for players like Hayes, who in his prior two seasons met the 50% baseline in both CF% and FF% at an average of 50% and 50.22% respectively. Crazy as it sounds, the Rangers operating as a team with this high of a team shooting percentage (13.67%) and dominating games at this wide a margin is actually having a negative effect on the individual possession metrics of a player like Hayes because of the style in which AV coaches when the Rangers have a lead — especially a comfortable one. His philosophy often focuses on protecting a lead by not pressing the attack in games the Rangers lead in. Instead, he puts a greater emphasis on keeping the opponent’s play to the outside, even if it means more shot attempts against. As this factor slowly meets the mean as the season progresses, Hayes’ possession metrics should actually improve. Fewer blowout games will mean less sitting back letting the opponent effectively rack up shots against, so as his personal shooting percentage falls, the combination of the two will give us a clearer, more trustworthy picture of the player he’s becoming.

Interestingly enough, Hayes’ career has also taken a larger defensive role this year beyond just his improved offensive production. He’s now part of a resurgent team penalty kill where he’s fifth among forwards in SH TOI/G at 28:03 (01:24 per game). He and linemate J.T. Miller have actually become a dynamic duo short-handed, which has probably helped to translate to better 5-on-5 chemistry. Recent NY Daily News beat reporter Justin Tasch wrote on this back on November 4th:

“We’re on the ice together pretty much every shift,” Miller said. “I think the more comfortable we get, the more tendencies we can learn in any situation. I think it’s gonna help.”

In addition to the penalty kill, Hayes has also been entrusted with more defensive zone assignments this season. He’s won 48.2% of defensive zone face-offs this season — a much-improved number compared to his previous two seasons in which he won just 36.8% and 40.9% respectively. In numerous games this year, he’s been out to help defend a lead by taking late-game draws that he’s also winning with better results. His overall face-off percentage this season is 46.7%, up from an average of just over 36% the last two seasons. That’s a significant improvement across the board.

Hayes’ resurgence after a lackluster sophomore season that left many fans sour on the 24-year-old, often including him in any many/any trade hypotheticals, now has them biting their tongues. Seriously — Rangers Twitter, where you at? All-in-all, while he’s not likely to end the year with the 37 goals and 74 points he’s pacing right now (0.54 G/GP and 0.90 P/GP), this early success should help to mitigate his eventual regression to the mean, and he’s still likely looking at a major bounceback season. His improved foot speed, which can be attributed to coming into camp twenty pounds lighter this season, and increased defensive engagement mean he’ll have much more value this season, even when he’s not scoring. He didn’t just come back lighter this season; he came back with a vengeance. One his detractors might ultimately be thankful for after all.

Return of the King

The rumors of Henrik Lundqvist’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Again.

It seems like almost every year there is a stretch of play that causes Rangers fans to declare their franchise goaltender as being “done” and they begin to look for other options. Through the first ten games of each season, Lundqvist seems to require some time to get sharp. In the 2012-2013 season, he started 5-5-0 with a 0.911 SV% and a 2.44 GAA. In the 2013-2014 season, he started 4-5-0 with a 0.914 SV% and a 2.63 GAA. In the 2014-2015 season, he started 6-3-1 with a 0.901 SV% and a 2.86 GAA. These starts would definitely be a cause for concern in a vacuum, as any team would likely have trouble winning games with them over the course of a season. However, Henrik Lundqvist is a goaltender who bounces back incredibly well and when he is on his game, he is among the top 5 at his position in the league. His career average statistics are 0.921 SV% and a 2.28 GAA. Rangers fans should have confidence that any level of play that is below this bar will generally rise to the mean. However, there tends to be a level of malcontent among Rangers fans regarding small stretches of play, specifically to start the season.

This year was no exception as Lundqvist got off to another rocky start. Through the month of October, Henrik Lundqvist went 4-3-0 with a 2.45 GAA and a 0.901 SV%. Optically, Lundqvist struggled with pucks going through him – most notably the 2nd goal scored by Arizona on October 23rd, when Radim Vrbata cut across the middle of the ice and shot it right past a set Lundqvist.

It’s very apparent as a spectator when Lundqvist is sharp and when he isn’t. And for much of October, he was not sharp – he seemed to struggle with seeing shots.

This has all seemed to turn around in the last 6 games during the month of November. Through those six starts Lundqvist has gone 5-1-0 with a 1.96 GAA and a 0.939 SV%. This span of games includes his “relief” appearance on November 8th vs. Vancouver when Lundqvist went in cold for Raanta during the 3rd period and he allowed two goals on six shots. During this period of time, Lundqvist has been absorbing more shots and controlling rebounds far better – both indications that he’s more comfortable tracking pucks. This is all great news if you’re a Rangers fan.

Over the course of Lundqvist’s career with the Rangers, there has always seemed to be somewhat of a symbiotic relationship between Lundqvist and the team’s offense. When the team has found goal scoring difficult, Lundqvist tends to play above his average level of play and carries the team to victory. And when the team’s scoring is near the top of the league, Lundvist tends to play more poorly. To be fair, a lot of this has to do with the team’s overall style of play. When the Rangers have trouble scoring goals, e.g. during the Tortorella era, this is generally the result of the team playing a more defensive style which allowed Lundqvist to thrive.

Conversely, when the Rangers are scoring in droves, e.g. during the 2015-2016 season, the team has a more up-tempo attacking style that puts a lot of pressure on Lundqvist to make far more difficult saves.

There is something special happening this season, however, that has gotten a lot of press. The Rangers are scoring goals at an incredible rate. Through the 6 games to start the season in October, the Rangers averaged 3.5 goals per game. Through 8 games in November, the Rangers averaged 4.625 goals per game. And while the Rangers goal scoring continues to increase, the Rangers goaltending, backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist, has also improved. Not to be outdone, Antti Raanta is also having a great season thus far. In 5 starts, he has gone 4-0-0 with a 0.938 SV% and a 2.05 GAA. Having a backup that can pick up a significant portion of the load is a boon to the Rangers. Raanta started 18 games last season and is currently on pace to start about 24 games this season, barring any injuries. This puts Lundqvist’s workload at roughly 58 games, which would be the fewest of his career (outside of the 2014-2015 season in which he sustained a long-term injury.) This relatively low workload will be key for Lundqvist as he will be well rested for the playoffs, something that will be especially important as the season wears on with the constrained schedule due to the World Cup of Hockey.

Conventional wisdom dictates that their rate of goal scoring will decrease over time. If the Rangers can continue to have elite goal scoring and can combine that with elite goaltending, which Lundqvist is exhibiting as of late, then they could be on the verge of making serious noise this season.

 

Papa John's Files for Bankruptcy After Rangers Promo

No, Papa John’s is not actually filing for bankruptcy because of the Rangers promo, but they may be regretting offering it up right about now.  It probably seemed like such a good way to sell an inferior pizza to Rangers’ fans.  Anytime the Rangers score three or more goals, Papa John’s offered those in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas 50% off their regular priced pizzas the following day using the promo code “Rangers3” online. This promotion has been in place for a few years now. After the 2013/14 season, this may have seemed like a good idea. The Rangers were averaging just 2.61 GF/GP that year. It may not have even seemed too terrible when the Rangers put up 3.02 GF/GP and then 2.84 GF/GP in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons respectively. I wonder what their marketing executives think about it now, though, with the Rangers scoring at seemingly impossible 4.24 GF/GP through 17 games this season. The Rangers, have tallied enough for half off pizza for their fans 13 times so far. It’s a good thing for Papa John’s that they didn’t offer up the other 50% to give free pizza if the Rangers doubled that goal total in a game since they’ve scored six goals or more three times.

Ok, enough Papa John’s. Seriously, one slice is probably too much. What about the Rangers goal scoring, though? Should we take a look at their numbers in all their glory? You can see their game-by-game results over at our Schedule/Results page. That’s one way to look at the production that has placed the Rangers at the top of the standings. Here are some other ways to put the Rangers production this season into context:

  • The Rangers have scored 72 goals so far this season, the next closest team is the Montréal Canadiens with 56.  That’s 16 more goals.
  • Not surprisingly, the Rangers also lead the league in 5-on-5 goals with 49, 12 more than second place Montréal.
  • The Rangers Goal Differential — how many more goals they’ve scored than given up — is +34. Montréal is second at +18.
  • The Rangers have scored 17 goals in the first period (tied for 4th in the league), 31 goals in the second period (1st) and 24 goals in the third period (2nd). They haven’t played any over time games.
  • The Rangers, at 4.24 GF/GP would need to be shut out in the next 5 games in a row to get under the Canadiens’ 3.29 GF/GP.
  • To get down the league median 15th place Detroit Red Wings at 2.47 GF/GP, the Rangers would need to be shut out in their next 12 games in a row.
  • Over their first 17 games last season, the Rangers had 20 fewer goals total (52).
  • The Rangers have 6 players on pace for 30+ goal seasons right now.
  • Michael Grabner, the team leader with 10 goals only had 8 in 80 games last season.  He is currently tied for second in the NHL in goals.
  • Jimmy Vesey is 2nd in the NHL among rookie goal scorers with 7.  Patrik Laine, the one player ahead of him with 12 goals for the Winnipeg Jets was the 2nd overall pick in this year’s draft.
  • Brady Skjei currently leads all rookies in assists (10).  He’s currently 4th in the league among all defensemen.  Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh is 3rd with 11 assists.
  • Brandon Pirri and Dan Girardi are tied for the team lead in Game Winning Goals (3)
  • Only three regular Rangers players have not scored a goal yet this season (Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Kevin Klein).

There has been a lot of chatter around the league and among Rangers fans alike about whether this production rate is sustainable. It’s likely not. The last team to average over 4.0 GF/GP was the 1995/96 Pittsburgh Penguins.  That Penguins team benefited from three generational talents in Mario Lemieux (161 points), Jaromir Jagr (149 points) and Ron Francis (119 points). No one would put anyone on the Rangers’ current roster not named Henrik Lundqvist alongside any of those three, and Hank’s never been much of a goal scorer. Since the 2004/05 season was lost to a lockout, the highest GF/GP belonged to the 2009/10 Washington Capitals at 3.82. The Rangers’ shooting percentage is 14.6% so far. They lead the league in that department last season, too, but at just 10.0%.

With the talent, speed and chemistry they possess, don’t expect them to completely drop off the goal-scoring cliff anytime soon, though. If they slip back to shooting at the 10.0% they managed last season for the remaining 65 games and keep up their middle-of-the-league 29 shots per game, they’ll end the season with another 189 goals scored, for a total of 261 on the year. That would put them among the top-5 goal producing teams of the last half a dozen seasons. Either way, regardless of whether their scoring drops off or not, I sure wouldn’t want to be Pappa John’s right now. They’re still in business, so that means someone is eating their pizza, but those who do and live in the New York Tri-State area have been eating it on the cheap so far this hockey season.

Three Reasonably-Priced Defensemen the Rangers Should Target

To state the obvious, the New York Rangers are no strangers to blockbuster trade deals. In just the last five years, they’ve been involved in five of them. Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Keith Yandle, Marian Gaborik, and Eric Staal—in name only—were all involved with the Blueshirts in sizable trade negotiations that, especially in the cases of all but Nash, lit the fuse for the NHL’s fireworks display at their respective trade deadlines. Conventional logic would tell you not to be surprised if they attempted another one this season given their early success. After all, bolstering this roster, particularly the defense, for the strongest possible playoff run does make a lot of sense. They have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL which could possibly be tapped into to try to pry a valuable player their way, and it could even be justified through the lens of striking while the iron is hot and/or in not wanting to sacrifice another postseason opportunity for a now 34-year old Henrik Lundqvist. But that’s not the argument I’m going to make here. I actually think the wiser option is to take a more conservative approach.

Despite being linked to a number of high-profile defensemen including Jacob Trouba and given the generally high cost of trading for impact players—costs the Rangers have ponied up to pay for five straight seasons—it’s much smarter to be a bit more frugal this go–round. Below is a list of three right-handed defensemen, all of whom naturally play the right side of the ice, who I think the Rangers would be judicious to target this season prior to the deadline to strengthen their only real organizational weakness, and at a fraction of the cost they’d otherwise pay for a household name.


Cody Franson, 29, $3.325M AAV | Buffalo Sabres

Franson was on the path to becoming one of the aforementioned household names but in spite of his early success, he’s recently found himself re-defined as untrustworthy, which is strange given we’re talking about an offense contributing defenseman who can move the puck well, and who has 190 points in 474 games in his NHL career. He’s twice topped the 30-point bar with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. That 14-15 campaign, in fact, was one of his best production years. His 32 points that season came in just 55 games – a 0.58 P/GP pace that prorates to 48 points over an 82 game season. He was poised to sign one of the richest contracts as an Unrestricted Free Agent in the summer of 2015, yet somehow was passed over for months, eventually signing a rather shocking two-year/$6.65M contract with the Buffalo Sabres on September 10th, 2015.

In December of 2014, James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail penned an extensive column encouraging the Maple Leafs, who still had Franson under contract at the time, to make re-signing him a priority:

“Franson has also grown into a top pairing role, logging 275 of his 348 even strength minutes (80 percent) alongside captain Dion Phaneuf so far this year. Despite those minutes and some tough situations, when Franson has been on the ice, the Leafs have been a 50 percent possession team, nearly 4 percent better than when he’s on the bench. He drives play, and more than ever, teams are looking for that.”

They didn’t listen. Instead, they signed him to a one-year deal that took him directly to UFA status in July of 2015. 29 teams balked again, leaving Franson out in the cold until early September when the Sabres finally came knocking. His time there has been up-and-down and marred by a particularly bad concussion, but at just 29-years old and again facing the prospect of Unrestricted Free Agency this summer, he’s someone the Rangers would be keen to inquire about. The Sabres are going nowhere fast and will no doubt explore selling their UFA-to-be players, Franson included, as rentals. It’s unlikely the cost will be very high in a deal for him, but the Rangers should express interest early before any bidding wars might open up.


Dennis Wideman, 32, $5.25M AAV | Calgary Flames

Wideman is renowned these days for the cross-check he gave Don Henderson that earned him a massive 20-game suspension from the NHL (later reduced to 10 games by an independent arbitrator), but there’s more to the player than his reputation in this case. At 32 he’s looking at Unrestricted Free Agency this summer and plays for the currently second-to-last-place Calgary Flames, but he has a history of being a relatively productive player even as he continues to play on the wrong side of 30. In the last five seasons, this current season included, he has 123 points in 232 games – all with the Flames. That’s an average of 0.53 P/GP – good for 43 points over an 82 game season. Twice in the last three seasons, he’s operated with an individual PDO north of 100, and while his average CF% (47.2) and FF% (47.26) numbers are well south of 50% in that span, in a relegated role with the added benefit of zone starts (something the Flames are doing with him now), there’s still enough gas left in the tank to expect some benefit should the Rangers acquire him. Wideman is quite similar to the recently retired Dan Boyle in playing style. Especially the version of Boyle the Rangers had under contract for the final two years of his NHL career where they tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to still capitalize on his puck-moving skill and quick feet in spite of his struggling defensive-zone coverage and propensity for costly turnovers. It may not have worked out with Boyle, but it might yet with Wideman given he’s seven years younger than Boyle was when the Rangers signed him. That time could be all the difference between success and failure.

Michael Stone, 26, $4.0M AAV | Arizona Coyotes

Stone began the year on IR and has only played in five games for the Coyotes so far this year, but the right-side partner of Oliver Ekman-Larsson is an underrated minutes-eater and point-producer. Since joining Arizona as a regular in 2012-13, Stone has 87 points in 271 games played (0.32 P/GP, or 26 points over 82 games). Over the last three seasons in which he’s played the bulk of his games, he’s averaging 21:22 TOI/G skating on the Yotes’ top defensive pairing. For a poor Coyotes team that hasn’t made the playoffs since a miraculous run to the Western Conference Final in 2011-12, Stone has still managed to average a 48.3 CF% and a 47.9 FF% in the last three seasons. They’re below the desired 50% mark, like Wideman, but given the state of the Coyotes team he’s playing for, there’s reason to hope that a trade to a better-balanced, higher-scoring team (like the Rangers) would boost them.


There are two key factors to keep in mind with any acquisition the Rangers might attempt. The first is player cost. All three men have manageable contracts and are impending UFAs. If the decision to attempt to trade for any of them carries closer to the February 28th trade deadline, the Rangers should have plenty of available cap room to accommodate a deal. The second is the acquisition cost. With all three defenders playing for teams that are not likely to make the playoffs, it’s incumbent upon the Rangers to not pay ransom pricing for any of them. This is a rental situation, though it could have a bigger picture future if any of the three truly impress the Rangers’ front office. Long-term the Rangers are probably front-runners to sign current right-side, right-handed St. Louis Blues defenseman and pending UFA Kevin Shattenkirk, who they’ve been linked to for the last two seasons. Should both sides seek a deal to bring the New Rochelle, New York product home, he’d slot in nicely next to Ryan McDonagh. But for exactly that reason the Rangers would be foolish to trade for him ahead of free agency when he’d cost them nothing but money. If they need a refresher as to why that’s so important, they ought to look across the sporting aisle at their arena partners—the New York Knicks—who learned this lesson the hard way when they paid more than they should have to secure the services of Carmelo Anthony prior to free agency. The Knicks could have signed him without having to deal multiple players and draft picks but unreasonably did so for an early look at him in a Knicks uniform. I know, I know – “basketball isn’t hockey!”. I know. But the point stands despite the difference. It just makes more sense to be prudent this season. The Rangers can still dramatically improve their defensive depth in a deal for any of the players I listed here and they won’t have to sell the farm to get them. If for no other reason, it would be nice to cut the fans a break from the seemingly yearly race to give away another first-round pick. Keep it this time. Use it to draft the next Chris Kreider, or the next J.T. Miller, or the next Brady Skjei. And in the meantime deal from a position of strength to address the teams only visual weakness.

Rangers' Special Teams Top the 100% Mark

It is said that if you combine a team’s penalty kill percentage with its power play percentage — commonly known as PDO –, anything over a 100% total means your specialty teams are helping you win games. It makes perfect sense, too. If your power play is scoring more goals than your penalty kill is giving up, then the club’s special team situation is a net positive over the season. During the 2015-16 season, the New York Rangers PK performed at just 78.2%, while their PP, much improved over previous seasons, sat at 18.6%. When you combine these two numbers, the net result falls beneath that 100% threshold at 96.8%.  This year, however, when you add their 21.6% success rate on the power play to the 82.9% penalty kill rate, they have a PDO of 104.5%.

While their Power Play was improving over recent years, the penalty kill, had been falling off. That 78.2% was the Rangers lowest season total on the PK since the 1988-89 season’s 77.0%. What’s worse is that the Rangers’ PK in recent seasons prior to last year was one of the team’s strengths, repeatedly ranking them in the top-10 of the league. The two prior years saw the PK at 84.3% and 85.3% respectively. They also found themselves short-handed more frequently last season compared to recent years and even their short-handed goal total on the season was way down.

Season PK% TS PPGA SH GF
2016-17 82.9% 41 7 2
2015-16 78.2% 243 53 3
2014-15 84.3% 235 37 10
2013-14 85.3% 232 34 11

Seeing that the penalty kill had become a drain on their stellar 5-on-5 production and improving power play, Jeff Gorton set out in the offseason to sign forwards that would help improve the team in that role. He settled on Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Josh Jooris. All three have had considerable success killing penalties on previous teams. Grabner was especially known for using his speed to force other teams to have to consider protecting against his short-handed offense. Back in the 2010/11 season with the New York Islanders, he put up 6 short handed goals. While he’s never repeated that feat, he did score 3 more in 2013/14. Even when the production hasn’t been there, the threat of a breakaway against keeps attacking teams on their toes when he’s on the ice. Grabner is the only forward that Gorton brought in who has spent significant time on the penalty kill this season, though. Jooris through five games prior to being injured spent just 31 total seconds on the penalty kill –a single shift. Gerbe never won a roster spot and left for Europe after he and the club agreed to terminate his contract.

Instead, the resurgence of the Rangers penalty kill falls most squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff, led by Head Coach Alain Vigneault. Marc Staal (2:19) and Ryan McDonagh (2:18) lead the Rangers in SH TOI/GP. That displaced Dan Girardi (2:43/GP) atop the leader board in that category this season. Instead, Girardi is down to a much more manageable 1:46/GP, almost a full minute less per game than in the 2015-16 season. New faces up front have filled in as well. Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller have teamed up to form a new forward duo that resembles the good work put in by Rick Nash and Derek Stepan the past few years who have seen roughly the same usage as the previous season. In fact, Hayes and Stepan have the Rangers’ only two short-handed goals so far this season. Nick Holden and Kevin Klein on defense and Jesper Fast up front have rounded out the bulk of the penalty kill minutes.

As far as a systemic approach to shutting down opposing power plays, the Rangers have used an up-tempo attack at both blue lines and for any contested pucks. They are supporting each other in battles so that puck turnovers have a good chance of being cleared. Just as they do at 5-on-5 play, they rely on active sticks and speed rather than physicality to disrupt plays. Even short-handed, when they get control with a little extra time, they look for a good first pass to possibly create some offense while down a man or use puck possession in order to back off the opposition. This has lead to increased offensive chances as well as decreased zone time.

With the man advantage, the Rangers have continued to improve. While the almost 4% increase in conversion from the prior year is the most obvious sign of their increased performance on the power play, the “eye ball test” shows exactly why this 2016-17 Rangers team is different than in years past. Under Vigneault’s stewardship since coming to the Rangers, the passing on the power play has not been an issue. In fact, their ability to complete passes and move the puck had led them to over handle the puck during their time in the offensive zone. Rather than get shots on net, they’d continually opt to try to upgrade their scoring chances and angles. At times that would result in beautiful control of the puck followed by an attempt that was either a tap in or a remarkable save by the opposing goalie. However, it was feast or famine much of the season. When the team was clicking offensively, the extra passes resulted in production. When they weren’t, they passed until they turned the puck over and their opponents cleared it down the ice.

So far this season the passing is just as crisp, but starting in the pre-season led by Mika Zibanejad and Brandon Pirri, the Rangers had a new mantra. “Shoot the fucking puck,” wasn’t just something screamed by fans in the Blue Seats anymore, but instead became a matter of course. The Rangers would gain the zone, set up in an Umbrella style power play system with a true point at the center of the blue line and with shooters setting up on the half walls, then with a combination of movement and clean, smart passing, the Rangers would work the perimeter, moving the puck high to low to high again, while also threatening with quick passes to the forward in the slot. This work slowed down opposing penalty killers and the slot threat kept them from over pressuring the outside, giving the Rangers the opportunity to try to run defenders out of position. If this was last season, that would lead to two, three or four extra passes before a turnover or a shot on goal. Now, though, the shot may come off the rush or the player in the slot might take the shot after a couple of passes, sometimes he plays catch with the player on the half walls. Other times the player on the half walls rips a one-timer, or he might move the puck to the defender at the point for a shot. In short, the Rangers shoot much more often but are also much less predictable. They have a multitude of weapons all capable of scoring. It leaves the opposing team tired and hemmed in their zone. It also keeps goalies moving from side-to-side so that when the shot finally does come, they are not always set on their angles to stop it. The team also jumps on rebounds and is more than willing to shoot again, and again if they get the opportunity.

This combined threat of a penalty kill that can limit the offense of opposing teams and a Power Play that can produce as contributed to the hot start the Rangers have gotten off to this season. Through 15 games the Rangers have an 11-4-0 record and have scored 11 power play goals while giving up just 7 goals while short-handed. They’ve also given up no short-handed goals against but have scored two short-handed goals themselves. Their special teams have now scored 6 more goals than they’ve given up in total. So their special teams play spot them a half a goal per game lead against their opposition on average. That’s a winning recipe and a contributing factor towards why the Rangers are winning much more than they are losing this season.

Jacob Trouba – Winnipeg Jets

Why Trouba's Deal Won't Stop Trade Speculation

Trouba-watch is officially over. For now.

Earlier yesterday afternoon the Winnipeg Jets announced they had reached a two-year contract agreement worth $6M ($3M AAV) to end a months-long stalemate with the 22-year old rearguard.

Back in September, on behalf of Trouba, his agent, KO Sports CEO and founder Kurt Overhardt formally requested a trade from the organization via a statement declaring “the situation is not about money; it is solely about our client having the opportunity to realize his potential as a right shot NHL defenseman.” The declaration came as a shock to the hockey world as Overhardt continued, citing “to the Jets credit, the club has two outstanding right shot veteran defensemen and our client simply wants the opportunity to have a greater role. As a consequence of the Jets depth on the right side, we believe it is in both parties’ best interest to facilitate a mutually advantageous trade.”

That trade never formulated despite a number of potential suitors, including the Rangers, who Bob McKenzie reported “would be right at the front of the line of any team that would be having interest in Jacob Trouba”. Partly because, as was also reported, the Jets never received a serious enough offer to consider it, but also largely because they could ill afford to do so in the first place. Not only were the Jets likely to be losing the best player in any trade of Trouba, but the message that dealing a player who decided to sit out after making his formal trade request public would have been a tough one for Kevin Cheveldrayoff to deliver. The only rights Trouba held under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was the right to withhold his services. He lacked arbitration rights or the threat of Unrestricted Free Agency. Had the Jets bent on this the organization would likely have appeared powerless to the rest of the league’s general managers. For a market that already faces an uphill battle enticing UFA players to sign with them imagine the struggle they would endure with their own RFAs going forward had this precedent been set. It’s not difficult to see why it was important for the Jets to come out of this looking strong.

Trouba was playing a dangerous game of chicken with the Jets. His biggest hurdle was staring down a looming December 1st deadline in which, according to the CBA, he’d have to sign a contract with the Jets (or with a team who acquired his rights) or forfeit playing in the NHL for the rest of this season. Despite the apparent strength of his desire to leave Winnipeg, signing with the Jets ultimately made the most sense given how little leverage he had in the process. Winnipeg, after all, held the ultimate trump card here with that deadline — a deadline that could have shelved him for the remaining NHL calendar year had both sides held their ground as it passed.

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. One of the biggest concerns for interested teams this summer were the reports that Trouba was seeking a long-term deal worth around $5.5M per season. Few clubs, especially those most interested in him like New York, Boston, and Detroit, could afford to sign him to such a deal without moving out significant salary in exchange or in ancillary trades to clear enough cap room to accommodate his asking price. At $3M per season for the next two years, however, those same teams would have far less trouble making room to fit his new pact. Furthermore, if the Jets were to trade him at some point this season, not only would the acquiring team benefit from seeing him in NHL action with their club prior to offering him a big-money deal, but they would be eligible to re-sign him to an extension as soon as July 1st, 2017 — an aspect of this situation that Chris Johnston of Sportsnet astutely pointed out:

This, in effect, would give any team dealing for him a little more breathing room before committing to a long-term deal with a player who has the makings of a first-pairing defenseman, but who has yet to comfortably prove he is one. That’s especially valuable moving forward in any potential trade negotiations.

I have little doubt that as this season develops the Rangers will continue to monitor the situation with Trouba and the Jets. While trade talks may subside for the time being as Trouba’s focus shifts to mending fences in the Jets’ dressing room and getting back to business on the ice, the trade deadline will be of particular interest given the hot start the Rangers are off to this season with their league-leading team scoring. If they expect to make a serious run in the postseason, addressing the need for a puck-moving right-handed right side defenseman should be at the top of their mind and according to Bob McKenzie, it already is.

Even in Hindsight, Bridging J.T. Miller was the Smart Move

With J.T. Miller’s explosive start to the season, my colleague, Phil Kocher has written a very informative and detailed article on why the Rangers management missed the boat when they re-signed the young forward to a two-year, $2.75M AAV bridge contract this past summer. To be fair, Phil and I had a similar discussion on the BlueshirtsBrotherHood.com forum at the time of the signing, so he did not write that recent article benefiting from the hindsight of Miller’s impressive start to the season where he’s scoring at a point per game clip. He’s held that view since the signing — Phil was wrong then, and even in light of Miller’s success through 13 games, he’s wrong now.

There are two vacuums that you could look at J.T. Miller’s re-signing in and come to the conclusion that he should have been extended to something like a five-year, $4.25M-$4.5M AAV contract. You could look at the start he’s had to this season and lament, “if only”. You could also look at the $2.5M or so the Rangers had in available cap space and say, “I sure wish we gave Miller $1.4M of that and locked him up for five years instead of two.”

We don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The first argument assumes he’ll maintain something resembling this pace over the next 69 games and into the playoffs. Yet Miller’s history suggests otherwise. Last season prior to his new contract, he had separate 8 game (February 21 – March 8) and 7 game (November 28 – December 11) point droughts along with another 10 game span (October 13 – November 6) where he put up just two points, along with the final 7 games of the regular season (March 27 – April 9) where he again had just two points. This accounts for 40% of his season when he produced just 4 points. He also produced in streaks as well. He opened the season (October 7 – October 10) with 4 points in his first 3 games. He had 7 points in 8 games (December 12 – December 30), 10 points in 10 games (January 16 – February 8), 4 points in back to back games (February 17 & February 18) and 8 points in 10 games (March 13 – April 2).

None of this is a knock on the young forward or putting a ceiling on his ability to produce, it’s just the nature of the 40-50 point player. They are consistently inconsistent. Yet it does create a context for his hot start. He even put a respectable 3 points in 5 postseason games last season, but they all came in a single game. In the four games in which he did not score, he had a combined plus/minus rating of minus-6. That’s not all on J.T. Miller.  The team was outclassed by the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. He did contribute to that failure, though. Further, his career playoff production through 28 matches, is just one goal, and 12 assists for 13 points. It can be very damaging in a cap world to pay a player based on a small sample size. Even if we had a time machine and could go back, knowing what we know now about his season start, it still wouldn’t justify a long-term deal rather than a bridge contract.

As I said, Phil wasn’t looking at 12 points in 11 games (now 13 in 13) and assuming that Miller was now a point per game player. Instead, he was looking at the modest point per game gains that Miller had made each season and supposed that he would continue on that path. And look, he’s probably pretty accurate in that assumption. The mistake Phil makes is in how he glosses over the salary cap situation the Rangers found themselves in when it came time to hammer out RFA deals for not just Miller, but also Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. He doubled down on that by bringing up Derek Stepan’s similar situation that occurred a couple of years ago but again neglected the salary cap space the Rangers had available at the time.

This brings us to our second vacuum. It would almost always be a good idea to lock up young players for long-term deals when they prove they can be…let’s say 40-point players at the moment, with 50-60 point upside. If you sign a J.T. Miller or a Kevin Hayes to a 5-6 year deal in the mid $4M AAV range, even if they stop progressing you can probably convince another team that they need a change of scenery. And at the $1M per 10 points average that UFA’s tend to get in their contracts, you’re not far off. The issue is you’re paying that UFA price for some of their RFA years at the same time, so your cap situation plays a vital role in whether these types of bridge deals are good for the team or not.

Essentially, Phil’s argument is that you should overpay in the short-term to then underpay for a couple/few UFA years. Sometimes that’s smart, when you have the cap room or if you’re not really competitive now, but could be when those cheaper UFA years hit. It’s what the Rangers did with Ryan McDonagh when they signed him to a six-year, $4.7M AAV contract. But when you’re right up against the cap and you’re in win-now mode, you simply can’t do that. You need to kick the can because you need flexibility with your roster and that cap space you save over the course of a season, like the couple of million the Rangers had in available cap space to start the season, compounds by the time you reach the trade deadline. If nothing changes, the Rangers will be able to add $12.4M in salary according to CapFriendly to bolster their playoff run if it becomes advantageous to do so. We don’t know what teams may fall off and be willing to move expiring UFAs in April. What we do know is that the Rangers one potential area of weakness is among their top-4 defensemen. Brent Burns ($5.76M AAV) and Kevin Shattenkirk ($5.2M) are among the expiring defensive contracts this season. As it stands, the Rangers could afford the cap hit of both, although finding the assets to move for them would be a different discussion.

Deadline cap space aside, the Rangers, at the time J.T. Miller was re-signed, were up against the cap ceiling. They still hadn’t re-signed Chris Kreider ($4.625M AAV) or Kevin Hayes (2.6M AAV) both of whom were scheduled for arbitration hearings. They had also yet to sign UFA forwards Jimmy Vesey ($925K AAV) and Brandon Pirri ($1.1M AAV). Nor had they traded Derek Brassard ($5M AAV) for Mika Zibanejad ($2.625M AAV). The difference between Brassard’s contract and Zibanejad’s is $2.375M. That makes up just about every dollar the Rangers had to start the season under the Salary Cap. There was no way to know that trade or some other one to free up cap space would become available. There wasn’t a way to know the exact dollar amounts Kreider and Hayes would sign for. There was also no way of knowing who would earn a spot on the final roster. What we do know is that if the Rangers had committed another $2M or so to J.T. Miller at the time they re-signed him, they would have had to make roster decisions to start the season based on how much cap space they had available and not on who best fit in order to field a successful team. That cap flexibility along with the Zibanejad trade are the reason the Rangers can roll four lines that can all score. It’s also the reason that when the trade deadline arrives, they may be able to add valuable pieces for yet another legitimate attempt at a Stanley Cup winning run.

It is probably too early to look at next seasons’ cap allotments, but I do want to mention it. Next year Zibanejad, Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Oscar Linberg, Josh Jooris and Adam Clendening are all RFAs who will need new contracts. Having Miller locked up next season at $2.75M rather than $4.5M will help there as well.

Miller is a good hockey player even if he’s unproven at the moment. In an ideal world, having him locked up for 5 or 6 years at a good cost would likely benefit the Rangers. Yet at the cost he would have likely come in at, the Rangers would have handcuffed themselves to a less effective roster than the one they have today, with little ability to improve it at the deadline should their level of play continue and should they aspire for a long spring.

Why the Rangers Were Wrong to Bridge J.T. Miller

Quick, without looking, can you tell me who is leading the New York Rangers in scoring as of today? I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, or even Jimmy Vesey despite his phenomenal early play. Believe it or not, the answer is J.T. Miller. The 23-year old fifth-year forward is sitting pretty at the top of the Rangers’ points column with twelve points in eleven games, horrendous mustache and all. And he’s doing this despite playing just 15:40 TOI/G, which is good for eighth among all Rangers forwards this season. Miller has outright dominated games this year and is a major contributing factor to the Rangers league-leading offense. They’re first in goals per game with 4.09 and first in goals-for at 5-on-5 with 30. So, how is it Miller is doing this in spite of the lack of “top-six” ice time, from the Rangers “third” line with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner? Partly because the Rangers have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL (thanks to players like him), and partly because of redefined depth roles in the era he is playing in. Long gone are the days when teams skated two “top-six” lines of scoring forwards, a third, predominantly “checking” line, and a fourth-line filled with barely passable “hockey players” whose talents resided primarily in their fists. Today’s NHL teams, like the Rangers, are dressed top-to-bottom with mostly interchangeable two-way players. This makes the Rangers’ “third” line only third in their line-up in a clinical sense. Colloquially they’re simply an extension of that interchangeable depth.

Fixing things that aren’t broken isn’t just a waste of time, it’s often counter-productive. While there’s certainly an argument to be made that increasing Miller’s ice time or even promoting him due to his surging play would be warranted, it’s not one you’ll see me make here. As far as I’m concerned, until further notice that trio should be left to do what they’re doing, which is playing with authority. The Rangers have out-scored their opponents (Lightning, Blues, and Oilers) in the last three games by a combined score of 16-4. The Grabner-Hayes-Miller line has contributed 18 points in those games alone. Miller himself has six points in that span. Believe it. Your eyes aren’t lying to you. The simple fact is every time that line is on the ice, something good is happening, and the data supports it. Hayes might quietly be the most important player on that line, but it’s Miller who is reaping the rewards that have carried him to the top of the points standings.

So why were the Rangers so wrong to sign him to a bridge contract instead of a long-term deal? Because he’d shown enough in his body of work as a professional heading into last summer to not kick the can down the road again. But kick they did anyway and the consequences will assuredly result in a less favorable AAV than they might have been able to negotiate had they trusted the data—particularly the advanced data—that was telling them the kind of player Miller would become. His first two seasons in the NHL were partial ones in which he played a combined 56 games at the NHL level. They were seasons in which he was shuffled between the Rangers and the Hartford Wolfpack but ones in which he still managed to average 0.15 points-per-game (P/GP) in 2012-13 and 0.20 in 2013-14 while with the Rangers. From 2014-15, when he established himself as a regular NHL player, to 2015-16, his P/GP averages have continued to increase incrementally from 0.40 to 0.52 in each season. Over that same 2014-2016 stretch in which he played the majority of his NHL games, according to Corsica.hockey, he had an aggregate 50.02 CF (Corsi-for) percentage and 50.43 FF (Fenwick-for) percentage. His P/60 (points per 60 minutes) of 2.01 trailed just behind Chris Kreider (2.12) – a then fourth-year player who the Rangers apparently did trust enough to sign to a long-term extension. Even Miller’s time in the AHL (101 games split between 2012-13 and 2014-15) showed him to be a prolific point-producer at that level as well. He was better than a point-per-game in his final two years there and has a league total of 81 points in 101 games played.

Perhaps fueled by salary cap fears given the dollars they expected to dedicate between Kreider, Miller, Hayes, and McIlrath—all of whom elected arbitration—the Rangers re-signed Miller to a two-year bridge deal worth $2.625M per season in early July. In the Rangers defense, at the time they were a team who needed to be frugal with their available cap room. According to Larry Brooks of the NY Post, the day Miller signed his deal the Rangers were left with approximately $9.95M in available salary cap space with which to re-sign the remaining RFAs. That $9.95M was also expected to be tapped into to sign Jimmy Vesey when he became a UFA on August 16th and was also used much later in August to sign Brandon Pirri. Miller’s signing also occurred four days before the Derick Brassard trade to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad on July 18th that opened up around $2.4M more than they had the day Miller signed. However, Miller’s arbitration date had been set for August 2nd, which gave the Rangers plenty of runway. Runway they chose not to take advantage of.

That $2.625M number looks great today given Miller’s level of play and current point production, but it’s also one that will cost them when looking at the bigger picture if and when they are willing to sign him long-term. He has just one year of RFA eligibility left, which means anything more than a one-year deal once this contract expires requires the Rangers to begin buying UFA-eligible years – years that don’t come cheaply. This is a fact that an unnerving percentage of fans tend to forget and begrudgingly re-learn every summer beginning around July 1st.

One would think the Rangers would have learned their lesson given how recently they went through this exact same process with Derek Stepan. He was a player they could have or rather should have signed to a long-term extension earlier in his career when both he and defenseman Ryan McDonagh were up for renewals (and looking for identical contracts), but who the Rangers also opted to go the bridge route with instead. McDonagh, like Kreider, they appeared to trust. Stepan, like Miller, they apparently didn’t. Stepan did eventually sign a long-term 6-year/$39M deal with the Rangers (at the same contract position Miller will be in when this deal is up), but the road to doing so was paved with problems and his deal now more closely resembles one signed by an Unrestricted Free Agent rather than one that’s more strategically designed to trade off a team-friendly AAV for early guaranteed money and years.

It’s really not possible to project what the Rangers roster will look like by the time this becomes a front-burner issue for them, especially with the Las Vegas expansion draft looming next summer. Perhaps enough cap room can or will be cleared between now and then so that none of this matters. Perhaps the Rangers won’t mind signing Miller to a deal with an AAV that’s certain to begin at $5M per season. But perhaps, too, had they had a little more faith in the now-blossoming scoring forward, they wouldn’t need to.

Photo by Justin Yamada

Primed to Nash

I’ve always struggled to watch as a professional athlete who at one time was considered one of his sport’s top talents fade into obscurity. What’s worse is watching that same caliber of player nosedive like a plane that has lost its wings. Enter Rick Nash.

Nash has arguably disappointed in some regard during his entire tenure as a Ranger. Despite scoring 21 goals in 44 games during his first (lockout-shortened) season he all but vanished leading up to, and during the playoffs. Shooting just 2.4% in 12 games did him no favors, nor did shooting 3.6% in 25 the next postseason. Marginal offensive production and weak play in the attacking zone during the 2014-15 playoffs completely derailed his 42-goal comeback season, one in which he was as dominant and dangerous as any skater in the league through the first three months of the year. And of course, there was last years’ 15-goal campaign. He was bad. Really, really, bad. Despite being adept in his own end, by all player accounts a good teammate, and a competent penalty killer, there was no justification for his lack of production once you factored in his price tag ($7.8 million, for anyone unsure). This summer had to have been a low point for him, a man who four years ago demanded a trade to a team that would give him an opportunity to win the cup and further progress his career.

32 Reasons the Rangers Championship Window May Not Close

It’s a young man’s league. That’s the message that has been sent loud and clear to fans, media and players alike. Rather than waiting to lock up experienced players only after they’ve crept up on or reached Unrestricted Free Agency often at age 27 and beyond, teams are offering players in their early 20’s longer term, high-value contracts knowing that they are likely to have their best production during that span. If they don’t or they falter, there will always be another team willing to take a chance on a young player who showed the kind of promise it takes to land one of those deals.  At times, two such players get traded for each other. Tyler Myers signed a seven year, $5.5M AAV contract with the Buffalo Sabres when he was just 22-years-old, but was then traded to the Winnipeg Jets for Evander Kane, himself in the middle of a six-year, $5.25M AAV deal he signed at age 21.

If this is the new normal, and it certainly appears to be, then what of the players who have been grand-fathered into long-term, high dollar contracts in their late twenties and early thirties? More importantly, what is a team to do with these once high-end players, now paid to continue to produce at a high level as they begin their descent? Recently, the solutions have been to buy out these players, to trade them while retaining up to half of their contracted salary or to package draft picks and prospects along with them to a rebuilding team that could afford it.

The Rangers are taking a different track with two of their high priced, 32-year-old veterans. Rather than eating half of Rick Nash’s remaining $7.8M contract in a trade or buying out the four years left on Dan Girardi’s $5.4M deal, creating an unnecessary cap burden for future years, they’ve simply slotted the two older players into roles they are now fit for, contracts be damned.  At least for now.

Nash has found a resurgence so far this season playing third-line minutes. He has five goals and eight points through ten games on the season while averaging just over 16:00 per game. He’s found chemistry with one of the young players on the team, Jimmy Vesey, who’s controlled cap hit and stellar start to the season helps to offset Nash’s bloated salary. By playing Nash down the lineup, Vesey gets to benefit from his experience and skill set, while Nash is no longer looked at to carry the bulk of the offensive load and face other team’s top defensive pairs.

The Rangers’ defense was supposed to be this team’s undoing. The forward core was largely kept together and the players who left were replaced with better alternatives.  Lundqvist, even as he too is aging, was expected to have a couple more top seasons left in the tank.  On the back end, though, Girardi and Marc Staal were coming off their worst seasons with the team. Meanwhile, Keith Yandle’s and to a lesser extent Dan Boyle’s departure created some deep holes to fill. Many hoped Girardi would somehow be dealt or relegated to the seventh spot, only playing when injuries required it. Instead, Girardi has had his minutes and assignments reduced. He, too, is averaging around 16:00 TOI/G and he’s playing less in a top pairing role. That’s when a funny thing happened. He’s now playing better than he has in years. He’s steady in his own zone, while bringing a physical edge that is often missing from the Rangers defense. He’s not getting beaten to the outside or abandoning the front of the net. He’s even contributed offensively, scoring as many goals (2) in seven games as he scored all of the last year.

Make no mistake, neither Nash or Girardi are worth their price tag. They might still regress after strong starts. If the Rangers didn’t have younger players making far less than they’re worth filling more important roles in the lineup, these two contracts would be killing the team and be among the major reasons the Rangers window for a championship would be closed. Instead, a couple of 32-year-olds, slotted properly in the lineup, despite their poor contract values, are part of the reasons this version of the New York Rangers may still yet win the Stanley Cup.