Latest posts by Phil Kocher (see all)
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66 goals. That was the combined regular season scoring of the Rangers’ standout third line of J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Michael Grabner this year. It made up for more than a quarter of the 253 goals the Rangers scored this season. When a quarter of your team’s goals come from your third line, believe me, you’re deep as can be as a hockey club. That’s the kind of production more than half the league would figuratively kill to have.
To cap the year, Miller was second in team scoring with 56 points in 82 games, Grabner was second in goals scored with 27, and Hayes’ career-high 49 points were fifth-highest among Rangers skaters. To say the trio had a successful regular season would be to undersell their influence. They had a supreme season and even dominated league scoring in the first half of the season prior to the Christmas break.
As a caveat to what comes next, teams and individual players tend to gradually decline in production as the season goes on. The physical taxation of an 82-game regular season is grueling, and it justifiably takes a toll on production rates. Good teams and good players are not exempt from this, but the best among them tend to mitigate that decline like riding a parachute to earth after jumping out of a plane, rather than riding an anvil. Insert ACME gif here.
But something has been particularly off with this trio since the start of the New Year. Miller, who had 28 points (ten goals, 18 assists) in those 43 games, scored just three of them over the Rangers’ final 20 games. Hayes and Grabner (6-15-21 and 13-7-20 over the last 43 respectively) also went ice cold down the stretch, both failing to score in the final 12 games of the season. Hayes had just two tallies in the team’s last 20, and Grabner had just one in that same stretch.
It’s true that the Rangers have effectively known their path to the playoffs since January. This made much of the second half of their season relatively meaningless or not very motivating. However, the lack of scoring, particularly by this collection of players who were so hot to begin the season, has been incredibly frustrating to watch as a fan.
This is the point in the story where the NHL playoffs would offer them a fresh start. A new perspective fueled by no longer needing to skate in inconsequential contests through March and April. They knew their opponent, and they knew their goal. The playoffs should be all the motivation needed to turn it back on and find a similar groove they found early at the onset of the season. In some ways, for others on the team, this is exactly what happened. Particularly for Ryan McDonagh (leading scorer among defense), Henrik Lundqvist (.948 SV%, 1.75 GA/A), and Mika Zibanejad (leading scorer among forwards). Even Rick Nash and Jesper Fast have found sparks that have seen them play integral roles through the first round victory over the Canadiens.
But lost in the shuffle, still, are all three men. Miller and Hayes, who are now playing on a line with Mats Zuccarello, have just two points through seven games, including last night’s game one loss to the Senators to open the second round. Each has just one assist. Meanwhile, Grabner, now on the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Fast, has two goals thus far in the playoffs but has been absent on the scoresheet since the first two games of the Montréal series despite having many glorious opportunities.
Worse yet, Miller has just one goal in 35 total playoff games played, scored back in 2014-15. Hayes has just two in 29 total games. Grabner has four in 24 games but also experienced lengthy postseason absences over the years given the quality of teams he’s played for prior to joining the Rangers this past season.
Now, some of this can be chalked up to good ole fashioned bad luck. Grabner is tied for fourth in shots in the playoffs with 14, and Miller and Hayes are tied for sixth with 11 a piece. But a closer look at five-on-five shot attempts helps to illustrate the struggles the three men are having with generating any meaningful offense. Grabner’s minus-8 shot attempts differential isn’t very appealing. Neither are Miller’s minus-11 or Hayes’ minus-33, which is second worst among all Rangers forwards this postseason. What this tells us is that they’re generally struggling to find room on the ice that they found earlier this season. Instead, they are giving up too great a number of shot attempts against, leaving the defense and goaltending, in particular, to bail them out.
But it can’t all be bad luck. Some luck you make. In the case of all three players, they just don’t seem to be making much for themselves. Grabner, for example, had no less than three quality scoring chances against the Senators in game one. He failed to capitalize on any of them, including a breakaway attempt in the first period. He also fell short on a tap-in attempt that Craig Anderson made a sprawling effort to save in the second period. Lindberg found him streaking on an odd-man rush with less than four minutes to play, but he couldn’t solve Anderson’s right pad.
Everyone goes cold for a stretch here or there, but in the case of Miller and Hayes, especially, this is stretching over a span of games bordering on ludicrous given how far back into the regular season it reaches.
By hook or by crook, something needs to happen to break all three players out of this funk, Hayes, and Miller most importantly. They’re too important to the Rangers’ ability to roll four threatening lines to continue to lay eggs on the scoresheet night after night. The answer could be as simple as shuffling the lines to get them playing next to players who are finding success, though that understandably runs the risk of backfiring by breaking up successful lines to try and fix an unsuccessful one. In other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul. I’m not opposed to potentially benching one of them for a game, either. That seemed to motivate Hayes the last time it happened.
But the best solution is the bluntest one – play better. The playoffs are renowned for goals scored off incredible work ethic (see Fast, Jesper). A stronger effort on the forecheck, especially from Miller, would probably help in opening up room on the ice to find more opportunities to light the lamp. Hayes, being considerably slower, would likely benefit from an increase in physical play from Miller.
Game one is in the books, and the Rangers are looking to split the series’ first two contests just as they did with Montréal (albeit in reverse). Something needs to change to help them accomplish that because Henrik Lundqvist can’t do it all himself. Come Saturday afternoon, here’s to hoping smelling salts, an extra cup of coffee or good ole fashioned line juggling make for better fortunes for Miller, Hayes, and Grabner.