Adam Above Replacement — How Analytics Prove Clendening Needs More Games

While making his rounds on a number of hockey podcasts this week in the wake of the surprising firing of now ex-head coach Gerard Gallant by the Florida Panthers, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek—one-half of the wonderful Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast that you should absolutely be listening to if you aren’t already—whimsically suggested that those arguing in favor of hockey analytics start substituting the word “analytics” for “facts”.

For example, when responding to the popular “I don’t care for/believe in analytics” rebuke from traditional/conservative-thinking hockey people, simply swap “analytics” for “facts”. Their rebuke can be directly countered by the question “so, you don’t believe in facts?”.

It’s facetious (and mildly insulting) by design, but surprisingly enough all you’d need to do is spend a fair amount of time listening to Canadian media coverage or cruise around hockey Twitter on any given game night to cross paths with a proverbial army of people who think and speak in this manner.

In many ways, the firing of Gallant has reignited the false dichotomy that there are only two schools of thought to analyzing hockey—analytics or eyeballs. There aren’t. The two are not diametrically opposed. They’re actually two sides to the same coin, but to this point, as former Canadiens analytics consultant Matt Pfeffer said after Montréal walked away from his services back in June of 2016:

Analytics hasn’t really reached maturity in the NHL yet,” Pfeffer said. “Teams get a lot of different solutions and offers from people and companies and they just don’t know what’s what and they tend to lean conservative in those instances.”

That lack of maturity extends well beyond individual NHL teams through to individual fans, which is why the Panthers’ decision is now annoyingly acting as a referendum on the value of analytics in the NHL. Here we go again.

To circle back, Marek isn’t wrong. His suggestion was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and is more sharp humor than a realistic proposal, but hockey analytics are facts. That’s all they are. When you read that Player X had a Corsi-for percentage of 51.1, or Player Y owns a 46.9 Fenwick-for percentage, or that Team Z is playing with a 103.9 PDO, all you are actually reading are facts. It’s all statistical data that is recorded and reported on in the same way traditional metrics are. To what degree you (or an NHL team) allow those numbers to influence and shape your opinions on the game or on specific players is a secondary, often contentious matter, but the facts themselves never stop being facts regardless of personal beliefs. They’re objective, verifiable scientific observations that exist independent of whether you believe in them or not. As famed astrophysicist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson often quips, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”. So is/are analytics. They, too, are science, which is why this tiring black-or-white thinking is so frustrating.

As a quick aside, I’m well aware of how intimidating analytics can be, especially for first-timers or anyone who is genuinely not comfortable with math. That’s coming from someone who is genuinely not comfortable with math and who was wholly intimidated by them, too. It just takes a little time and effort to understand, however, in the same ways you’d learn any new technology. I don’t want to take up a huge chunk of this article explaining how these statistics are determined, but I also don’t want to alienate anyone who doesn’t actually understand them, either. My suggestion, if you’re one of these readers, is to take a few minutes to check out Sam Page’s primer piece he wrote for SI back in 2014, as it does a wonderful job of explaining the basics. Then come back here and read the rest of this. It’ll be happily waiting for you.

I believe in analytics. I think much value can be gleaned from understanding and accounting for things like Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO when judging player and team on-ice performance. I think that when these things are accounted for properly, in conjunction with traditional metrics and the eyeball test, they can be wonderfully predictive. I also believe that the Rangers don’t value them nearly enough. That’s not to say they don’t value them at all, but a greater emphasis should be placed on them if the front office has any interest in acting in accordance with the undeniable trends shared by recent Stanley Cup winners. Trends like not often being on the negative side of shot attempts margins, prioritizing mobile, puck-moving defensemen over poor-skating brutes, and embracing offensively-oriented depth forwards over far less productive grinders whose best attributes (like hitting or fighting) come while playing without the puck. The Rangers have embraced the latter this season, but neither of the former very well. Both can be aptly illustrated by the usage this season of 24-year old Niagara-native, Adam Clendening.

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Despite his young age, Clendening is already something of a journeyman in the NHL. The Rangers, who signed him to a one-year/$600,000 contract on July 1st, are his sixth team in three seasons since he was originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round, 36th overall, in 2011. The Blackhawks traded him to the Vancouver Canucks in January of 2015 for Swedish defenseman Gustav Forsling. Six months later the Canucks would deal him to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of the Nick Bonino/Brandon Sutter trade. After playing just nine games, the Penguins would flip him again to the Anaheim Ducks in a larger trade for Carl Hagelin. The Ducks, who he never actually played for, shortly placed him on waivers where he was claimed by the Edmonton Oilers who he played 20 games for last season. That lead to this past summer where he entered free agency for the first time in his career and decided to spend some time on Broadway.

Clendening’s rocky path in the NHL thus far has limited him to just 56 games total in which he’s scored a total of 12 points. On the surface, if you accounted for nothing else, it would be easy to see why teams haven’t been impressed with him enough to keep him around for more than a cup of coffee before jettisoning him off to the next stop on his Mike Sillinger-like path. But there is more beneath the surface once analytics are factored into the equation. It’s here where a keen and proactive front office (not to mention head coach) could plausibly reap untapped rewards should they put Clendening in a position to capitalize on what that data seems to indicate could be there.

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Among all Rangers defensemen this season, according to, Clendening leads the pack by a wide margin in numerous analytics categories including Corsi-for percentage (63.43), Corsi-for/60 (62.24), Fenwick-for percentage (63.04), Fenwick-for/60 (42.47), Goals-for percentage (83.33), and Goals-for/60 (3.66). In fact, though only playing in seven games thus far, he leads all defenseman in the league with a 63.43 CF% and is second league-wide with a 63.04 FF%. While both this season’s games played and his career games played are, by definition, a small sample size, the indication within that sample is promising. The kid has offensive game. Surely there are limitations to what he can provide at the NHL level, but as the data indicates, the potential for offense is not among them. The reason that offense hasn’t translated to more easily accepted production yet is probably due to the fact he has not been given a consistent length of time to prove it can. Instead, he’s been injected into the line-up after long stretches of not playing, only to be pulled back out after a single game. As if that type of treatment is fair and sufficient in giving a player in his position an opportunity to produce and impress his coach.

The Rangers offense may be league-leading, but that offense is mostly riding a very high PDO. They lead the league with a 103.81 PDO rate with Chicago (103.06), Washington (102.73), and Minnesota (102.40) each following suit respectively. Joe Fortunato of BlueshirtBanter spoke on much of this recently:

Here’s the Rangers rolling PDO average inclusive of all of last year and this year.

There is an argument to be made that the Rangers with this offense will always shoot hot because of their speed/odd man rushes, coupled with Henrik Lunqvist’s elite status that literally spells “higher than average PDO.” The timing of this year’s jump, however, says a lot.

The PDO jumping in November as the Rangers’ possession was beginning to dwindle makes sense, since that was when the Rangers started losing possession but still winning games.

The danger behind not understanding the importance of this is that PDO rates that far above 100 tend to come back to earth, and when they do—when the scoring “dries up”—if the roster composition isn’t reliable, those same teams can suddenly run into trouble winning games. Sound familiar? It should. The month of November has begun to reveal that trend in a similar manner it did last season.

Like last season, the Rangers aren’t a bad team, but they are a flawed on. This is an incredibly important distinction to keep in mind when talking about the league’s Cup contending clubs. One of their biggest flaws—one that’s been systematically exploited in recent games—is their propensity to bleed shots and shot attempts against. For example, in the last five games, dating back to the 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh on November 23rd, they’ve been collectively outshot 158 to 119 and their 5-on-5 CF% average over that span is a horrific 37.2%. If that’s too small of a sample size, also understand that through the first quarter of the NHL season they also own the fourth-worst team CF% (46.33), ahead of the 20th place Detroit Red Wings (46.16), the 27th place New York Islanders (46.07), and the 30th place Arizona Coyotes (45.29). That is bad company to keep and things don’t fare any better in the FF% column. There they own the fifth-worst percentage (48.06) ahead of the Buffalo Sabres (48.11), the Islanders (48.07), the Red Wings (46.16), and the Coyotes (45.29). Again, bad company to keep.

The defense is especially to blame here. Only Clendening currently sits above the 50% threshold in CF% this season, with Ryan McDonagh a distant second at 47.22, and only Clendening and McDonagh are on the positive side of the margin in FF%, too. It’s a bit of a gong show that could really stand to be addressed either through coaching or the front office. But, playing Clendening more now could help to improve those figures while a better long-term solution is determined.

I’m not suggesting that Clendening should become a regular player tomorrow. I understand he was brought in as a depth player, but a depth player with his kind of potential should be given more opportunity, not less, to contribute. He should be given permission to play in more than 28% of games this season, especially in spot relief of veterans like Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi, both of whom struggle mightily with individual possession performance.

Clendening is in seventh defenseman hell right now when he can arguably offer the team more offensive production and improved possession numbers overall, albeit in a managed role. While he is a far more effective NHL player, the role Keith Yandle played with the Rangers last season where much of his ice time was intentionally designed around getting more starts in the offensive zone and fewer in the defensive zone is the same type of role Clendening could fill this season. In fact, in the few games Clendening has played this season, this is already something the coaching staff has employed. His even strength offensive zone start percentage (oZS%) is 68.4%. That means he begins 68.4% of his shifts on the ice in the offensive zone, where his talents are better suited for success.

The only way any of this can happen, however, is if he’s actually given an opportunity to play more than one game a month. The only way he can fulfill the promise he brings is to play in more games where one mistake isn’t deemed one too many, immediately costing him the chance to build on his efforts game-to-game.

Growing older by the day, spending this amount of time in the press box is the last place he belongs. All the while as the Rangers continue to ignore science in favor of superstition and hockey’s versions of alchemy through unmeasurable categories like “grit”, “toughness”, and “leadership”. They may each have some inherent value, but that value is not quantifiable, and as such, it should take a backseat to values that are.

Quick Hits - November 30, 2016

Welcome to Quick Hits, our new column that covers some of the recent happenings, statistics and anecdotes from recent games. At the bottom of this feature you’ll find a table with all the Rangers’ players stats over the last ten games, which you can jump right down to if you want. OK, let’s do this thing.

Vesey Finally Scores Again
After a red-hot start where Jimmy Vesey scored six goals in his first ten games, he had just a single goal in the next 13 including eight consecutive games without a tally. He got that monkey off his back last night against Carolina. Vesey is currently third in rookie goal scoring with eight on the season and sixth in points among first-year players with 14.

Welcome Back Derick Brassard
The former Rangers forward made his first trip back to Madison Square Garden following his trade to Ottawa for center Mika Zibanejad. He was greeted to cheers from fans as the Rangers showed a video tribute covering the four seasons he spent in New York. Brassard’s Senators stifled the Rangers, handing them a 2-0 loss on Sunday night.

Zibanejad’s Gruesome Injury
We all knew while watching the replays that it wasn’t going to be good news. Zibanejad was backchecking hard in the Rangers’ first overtime game of the season, trying to recover ground against Riley Smith who was breaking down the left wing. He made a strong defensive play, but it would be his last for the next six to eight weeks. As he pushed Smith behind the net to prevent a scoring chance, Zibanejad lost an edge and slid feet first at high speed into the end boards, breaking his fibula. It’s a shame, considering he had just overcome a scoring drought and had put up five points (2g, 3a) over his last five games.

Matt Puempel Catches a Break
After failing to stick with the Ottawa Senators, Matt Puempel was claimed off waivers by the New York Rangers in the wake of the loss of Zibanejad. In his first game with the Blueshirts, he scored a goal to thank his new team. He hasn’t put up any points in the two games since then, but he’ll provide a decent depth option until the Rangers get healthy again. Drafted 24th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Puempel had only produced four goals and two assists in 52 games across three seasons in Ottawa prior to joining the Rangers. He’s had success in the AHL though, including 30 points (17g, 13a) in 34 games last season.

Buchnevich’s Weak Back
The Rangers rookie finds himself out two to three weeks as he needs rehab to “reinforce the core” according to Head coach Alain Vigneault. This follows a number of games the Russian forward has missed throughout his first season on Broadway due to recurring back issues. Vigneault joked that “Russian training” was the cause of the issue.


Stats from 11/12/16 to 11/30/16 (Last 10 games)

The Rangers went 6-3-1 over the last 10 games.

They outscored their opposition by a combined 30 goals for to 24 goals against.

They were outshot 272 to 326.

Their power play tallied 4 times on 22 opportunities (18.2%) and they gave up 3 goals on 24 times short-handed (87.5%).

They won 283 of 583 faceoffs (48.5%)

Rangers Must See Hamilton on Broadway

To answer the question posed by The Hockey News’ Lyle Richardson, yes, the Rangers should pursue Dougie Hamilton. They should pursue any option that would improve their defense. Specifically, right-handed puck-movers to strengthen a relatively weak right side where 23 games into the season they have returned their $5.5M analytics drain named Dan Girardi to the top pairing next to franchise blueliner Ryan McDonagh. It’s a role he has no business playing in any longer, as PuckDaddy’s Ryan Lambert has emphatically proven, but it’s a frustrating familiarity that AV and the Rangers’ coaching staff are all too comfortable returning to.

The fact Hamilton is being mentioned to the Rangers, in particular, shouldn’t surprise you. They’ve been linked to other high-profile puck-movers like Blues’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as Jacob Trouba, who I wrote about back on November 8th. All three players are right-handed, right-side defenseman who move the puck well (to varying degrees). The Rangers’ interest in any of them is all based on the same principle. Their respective skill sets are ones the Rangers defensive group could really benefit from. Their right-side, composed of Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, and Kevin Klein, has been so weak this season they’ve actually transitioned first-year breakout rookie Brady Skjei to his off-side less than a month into the season just to compensate for the imbalance. In his case, it’s paid off thus far, thankfully, but the need for an impact partner to play alongside McDonagh remains. Only Holden has shown an adequate level of competence there, but it’s probably not good enough for the long road through Hell that is otherwise known as the NHL playoffs. Enter the next contestant on the Is the Price Right?—Dougie Hamilton.

For a little context, Kevin Allen of USA Today penned an article back on November 25th suggesting that the Flames and Rangers would be suitable partners in a hypothetical scenario centered around sending the Toronto-native to New York City in a sizable trade deal to address weaknesses for both clubs. That’s where this all started, really. Allen’s logic is fairly straightforward:

Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton fits their need for a right-shot defenseman who is mobile and can generate offense. The Flames, desperately in need of scoring help, would probably ask for J.T. Miller because he is also 23 years old and can play center or wing.

Before you object, probably with anger, know that Allen did, too. He noted that Miller’s value has never been higher. He has 19 points in 23 games, tying him for the team lead in points with fellow linemate Kevin Hayes. While I’ve already argued it was foolish of the Rangers not to buck a bridge deal by offering him a long-term contract in exchange for a more favorable AAV, his two-year deal, worth just $2.75M per season, is very attractive in this kind of trade talk. So, too, is his age. He’ll turn 24 next March. The fact he plays all three forward positions is icing on the cake.

The 23-year old Hamilton, on the other hand, has inexplicably seen his value as a commodity regress somewhat since signing a six-year/$34.5M extension with the Flames worth $5.75M in AAV just five days after they acquired him in June of 2015. While he has 55 points in 106 games played with the Flames since the trade (good for 0.52 P/GP), the Flames as a team have the fifth-lowest goals-for per game in the NHL this season at just 2.29, despite being one of the teams closest to the salary cap ceiling. Sure, they miss Johnny Gaudreau who’s 78 points were fifth-best in the entire league last season, but ultimately they are a club with a very high payroll and little to show for it. They’ve failed to make the playoffs since 2013-14, two years before the trade that brought Hamilton to Calgary, and despite his production, it doesn’t appear they’re on the track to make them this season either. They’re 10-13-2 on the year, and though they’re only two points out of the last Western Conference wildcard spot, they are also 11th in the Conference.

I’m baffled, however, by some of the arguments—including both Richardson’s and Allen’s takes—that suggest Hamilton needs to go in part due to expectations he’s failed to meet. Anyone making that argument isn’t properly accounting for the impact he has on the game from a production or analytics perspective. He owns a 53.8 CF% and a 52.8 FF% this season and has produced well despite the Flames’ lack of success as a team. As noted above, his 0.52 P/GP pace is actually an improvement on the 0.47 P/GP pace he had over three years with the Bruins. It’s his success, not his failure to meet expectations, that actually justifies his name surfacing in the NHL rumor mill. Add the fact he’s a right-handed point-producing defenseman in a league bereft of right-handed point-producing defensemen and it helps to better explain why the Flames could possibly look to move him. He’s one of the most valuable assets they have to offer if they’re looking to fill significant holes elsewhere in their line-up, like their left wing depth where they are currently missing the high-flying Gaudreau. Miller, of course, has played much of his time in New York at left wing and has found the majority of his success this season there with Kevin Hayes at center and Michael Grabner on the right wing.

In a vacuum like the one originally suggested by Allen—Hamilton for Miller straight up—the Rangers are unlikely to agree, even as the pressure to address a deficient right side of their defensive group mounts. But Allen isn’t wrong to suggest there’s a reason for these teams talk on this matter. Just the opposite, in fact, because this kind of trade scenario would address exactly what both clubs want and need. The Rangers need a mobile, puck-moving, right-handed, right side defender meets well head-on with the Flames’ need for a young goal-scoring forward on a cost-controlled contract. It’s the salary cap, in this case, more so than the one-for-one value, that’s most restrictive here.

According to CapFriendly, the Flames currently project $0 in available cap room now or at the trade deadline and are currently benefiting from over $3.49M in long-term injured reserve relief. This is due to a combination of carrying a 23-man roster, injuries, big-money contracts, and potential performances bonuses, so a Hamilton deal would likely represent more than just trading to address a need elsewhere in their lineup. It would also help to alleviate the cap pressure they’re feeling right now while being pressed so tightly to its ceiling.

The Miller-for-Hamilton deal, on paper, is probably fair. After all, as author George R.R. Martin once quipped, “a fair bargain leaves both sides unhappy.” But it’s a cap impossibility at the moment. Again, according to CapFriendly, the Rangers have just under $2.8M in available cap room right now, though that number is being inflated by the extra players the Rangers are currently carrying with Zibanejad and Buchnevich both injured. That number will change once either or both return to the lineup because they have 24 players, including those on IR, on the active roster right now. In order to meet the 23-man roster limit, once healthy again, they would need to move a body or two to be compliant, so more cap room could theoretically open depending on who is traded or assigned to Hartford by then. It’s a complex but highly maneuverable situation that, in my estimation, means the Rangers actually have around $4M in flexible cap space. But that’s cap space that, should they pull off a deal of this size this early in the year, would eat into their available room at the trade deadline this February. While acquiring Hamilton for Miller plugs a hole from a strength, it would also handcuff the team from making many or any depth moves at the deadline. Not to mention, with Buchnevich and Zibanejad both currently injured, the forward depth isn’t at full strength, so they wouldn’t be dealing from their strongest position today.

But make no bones about it — Hamilton is absolutely worth pursuing. The prospect of pairing such a smooth-skating, point-producing defender like Hamilton with Ryan McDonagh is especially exciting. Neither Girardi, Klein, nor Holden can hold a candle to Hamilton’s combination of speed, skating, and offensive production. A McDonagh-Hamilton first-pairing would finally give the Rangers a legitimate top-2 defensive partnership that could handle even the toughest assignments in the league, all while adding to their league-leading offensive output. I’m a firm believer in the theory that the neglect McDonagh has been treated with regarding the quality of his partners over the last few seasons has seriously limited the Rangers ability to compete deeper into the playoffs. Fixing that by acquiring someone of Hamilton’s talents while future legend Henrik Lundqvist still has viability would be a massive improvement.

It’ll be interesting to see if this Allen-lead take grows legs or not. TSN’s Bob McKenzie has confirmed the Flames are “definitely listening” to offers being made in exchange for Hamilton, but has also been sure not to mince words, noting “that’s not the same as wanting to trade him.” Regardless, the Rangers should absolutely show interest so long as Flame’s General Manager Brad Treliving is willing to listen. Hamilton would be a boon to their defense core and the Broadway box office musical analogies and references that would dominate the post-trade headlines (and pre-trade headlines like this one) is just too good of an opportunity to pass on.

♫ “…And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?

Alexander Dougie Jonathan Hamilton” ♫

Rangers Roulette: A Closer Look at Vegas Expansion

Bill Foley’s $500 million NHL expansion project has taken its first steps toward legitimacy. The Vegas—no Las—Golden Knights debuted their franchise logo and identity during an NHL Network-broadcasted event on November 22nd. It didn’t exactly go off without a hitch given the embarrassing technical difficulty they suffered in failing to properly play their countdown video in a timely manner, but curious NHL and would-be Vegas fans alike finally got their first look at what the 2017 NHL season will bring. When the puck drops on opening night for the 2017-18 season, the NHL will be operating with its 31st franchise—the first major sports league to operate out of Las Vegas in history.

With the team’s primary logo, alternate logo, and wordmarks released, only two major announcements remain. On that docket are the yet-to-be-released team uniforms, of course, but even more important than those will be the results of the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft that will take place between June 18th and 20th, 2017 that will ultimately reveal the full expansion roster for the team’s inaugural season. Every one of Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee’s selections are set to be announced in unison on June 21st and the Rangers are one of a number of teams primed to pay a heavy price when that list is announced.

For anyone still unaware of how this whole thing will go down, Pat Iverson has a wonderful breakdown of the entire process here. There’s no need for me to rehash it in its entirety, but the four most important factors are as follows:

1. Every team has two options by which they can protect players they wish to keep. Option 1 is to select seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie. Option 2 is to select eight skaters total (forward or defenseman), and one goaltender.

2. Every team will lose one player to expansion.

3. Players with a No-Movement Clause (NMC) in their contract must be protected, regardless of whether a team would want to expose them or not. Teams can ask them to waive their NMC, but the player(s) must agree to waive it in order to be eligible for exposure. If they refuse, see the start of this bullet again.

4. First-and-second-year players are exempt from exposure and do not count against a team’s protection list.

For the Rangers, right off the hop, this means players like breakout defenseman Brady Skjei, as well as young forwards Pavel Buchnevich, and Jimmy Vesey will be safe. They don’t meet the games-played/experience threshold and thus do not require protection. Yay!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi all own full NMC’s and require mandatory protection. So, too, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston first reported, does Rick Nash. Boo!

This leaves the Rangers staring down a significant question — who do they protect, and as a result whom do they risk losing? When push comes to shove, they will lose someone, and that player will be, by the NHL’s design and the Rangers’ own hand, someone of significance. Long gone are the expansion eras of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild where clubs gave up nothing of substance leaving those first-year teams destined for the bottom of the NHL standings. This Vegas team is expected to compete out of the gate, and the rules are meticulously crafted to ensure that. That may be great news for Vegas, but it’s bad news for the Rangers. Their incredible team depth is sure to make them a first-choice source for McPhee to begin building his club. Below is a short list of the most at-risk players I think the Rangers will ultimately gamble losing to Sin City’s tap.

G Antti Raanta, 27, $1.0M AAV

We already know that Lundqvist, Staal, Girardi, and Nash will need to be protected. This grouping means that right away backup goaltender Antti Raanta won’t be. The 27-year old Finn is currently 5-1 on the season with a .931 SV% and a 2.20 GAA. His two-year aggregate SV% is .923 and his GAA over that time is 2.24. He’s currently in the first year of a two-year contract worth just $1M per season. Like Cam Talbot before him, his workload with the Rangers has allowed future legend Henrik Lundqvist to reduce his games played in an attempt to stay sharp for the playoffs. Given how valuable a reliable backup is in the league, this is already a sizable risk for the Rangers, despite their organizational depth in net. Even if Vegas looks elsewhere, perhaps at someone like Red Wings veteran Jimmy Howard, for their starter selection, Raanta should still be at the top of their shortlist for backup. His combination of experience, acumen, performance, and contract value are impressive and would be hard to pass over.

F Michael Grabner, 29, $1.65M AAV

Hang on, hang on—I can’t possibly mean the Rangers leading goal scorer Michael Grabner, can I? The same Michael Grabner who is currently tied for second in the league with 12 goals behind only Sidney Crosby? Unfortunately, yes. Grabner is in the first year of a two-year deal worth just $1.65M per season that he signed with the Rangers this past summer. It’s far and away one of the best bargain contracts in recent NHL history given his early success, high shooting percentage and all. He’s been a revelation, and his presence has positively affected more than just the production of his line. It has also paid dividends on the dramatically improved penalty-kill. Through the first 23 games of the season, the Rangers’ 86.2 Penalty-Kill Percentage (PK%) is fifth in the league. That’s a near 180° turnaround from last season’s 78.2%, 27th place finish. Grabner isn’t the only reason for this, but he’s been one of the bigger ones for certain. No Rangers forward has spent more time on the ice short-handed this year than he has (42:13). 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.

F Jesper Fast, 24, $950K AAV

In a lot of ways, Fast is the perfect bottom-six player for today’s NHL. While he’s not especially productive, he’s a penalty-killing stalwart, second only to Grabner in total short-handed TOI/G this season among forwards, is making less than a million dollars per season, and can be trusted in all situations, including late in games while defending a lead. He can even play up in the lineup in the event of injury and not prove to be a liability if the team isn’t relying on him for too long in that role. Oh, and his rights are still protected this summer as an RFA. It’s easy to say that the AHL is filled with players like him, but it isn’t. It’s filled with players who might be like him but aren’t guaranteed to give the Rangers the same trustworthy, tried-and-true level of play and effort game-to-game. Losing Fast to Vegas could open a door to someone like Boo Nieves, but Fast’s loss would be felt most on the penalty-kill where his success would not be easily reproduced. His foot speed isn’t something that can be taught, and only Nieves might match or rival it from the current crop of forwards in waiting.

F Brandon Pirri, 25, $1.1M AAV

I actually wrote about Pirri back on November 1st when ClearedForContact launched championing the Rangers for recognizing a worthwhile talent who could be had at an incredible bargain rate. Nothing has changed since then.

Most of his games came after the start of the 2013-14 season and among players who have played at least 40 games since then, Pirri ranks 11th in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes with 1.37. His closest peers during this span are Jamie Benn (12th at 1.36), Wayne Simmonds (13th at 1.34), and Max Pacioretty (11th at 1.41). More interestingly, Pirri’s scoring numbers are predominantly registered 5-on-5, not on the power play as one might expect. Still, a larger sample size is needed to completely trust that data. Over the same 2013-2016 stretch, only 15 of his 53 goals (28%) were scored on the man advantage. Compared to that same peer group Pirri really stands out as the untapped goal-scorer he is. 61% of Benn’s goals and 48% of Simmonds’ were scored on the power play. Only Pacioretty has a better even strength percentage, having scored just 23% of his totals on the man advantage over that time.

He’s tied for seventh in team scoring with ten points in 23 games despite playing the vast majority of his minutes on the Rangers’ fourth line, averaging just 12:44 TOI/G — the least among all regular forwards. Only Oscar Lindberg and Josh Jooris, both of whom have played in just nine games, averaged fewer minutes per game. Lindberg has one point—an assist—and Jooris has two points in that span. At just 25-years old, with his contractual status set to return him to RFA eligibility, Vegas should have considerable interest in his offensive talents given the low price they would come at.

The way I see it, the Rangers will ultimately end up protecting Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Henrik Lundqvist. It’s a wonderful list of forwards, a franchise goaltender, and a top-pairing defenseman, plus a couple of must-keep anchors. But it’s who is not listed that might tell the bigger story. Beyond just the four players above, Oscar Lindberg, Josh Jooris, Matt Puempel, and Adam Clendening, who are all RFAs after this season, as well as Kevin Klein and Nick Holden, both of whom have one year left on their contracts, will be eligible for Vegas to pick as well. The good news is they can only lose one of them. The bad news is they have to lose one of them.

Red or black? Odd or even? We don’t know. What we do know is that the roulette ball will clack loudly as the wheel comes to a precarious stop. Where it lands is anyone’s guess, but the selection McPhee makes will surely leave Rangers fans lamenting the days when then 31-year old Mathieu Schneider (who didn’t even stay with the inaugural Blue Jackets) was all they had to give up to the new team on the block. The Rangers pain will be Vegas’ gain.

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, 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.

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.