If (Shooting) Percentages Don't Balance Out, Rangers May Crash, Burn

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

Fresh off their fourth victory in a row, the New York Rangers are rolling. The early hole they dug themselves into that nearly cost Alain Vigneault his job is one they’ve finally begun to climb out of. Monday night’s victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets officially turned the Blueshirts into a .500 hockey team (7-7-2) for the first time this season. Thanks to a relatively weak Eastern Conference at this point of the year, they’re also just one point out of a Wild Card spot.

Sure, a white-hot power play is largely to thank for the success of these last four games that have righted the Rangers’ season, but that’s nothing to apologize for. Successful teams often ride waves throughout the season, be it productive special teams, an especially productive player (wave to the crowd, 2016-17 Michael Grabner), or otherwise. For as long as this wave continues to roll, the Rangers should be content riding it, picking up as many wins along the way as they can. If the Rangers are going to build on this success, however, they should be prepared to address some of the underlying reasons that will come up when it comes to an end – and it will end.

The Rangers are 13th in the league in goals per game (3.3) and their power play percentage is currently 6th overall (24.2%). That’s a great position to hold in both categories, but it’s important to recognize that both are also being heavily influenced by the play of Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, as well as Jimmy Vesey and Rick Nash, who are on disparate ends of the team’s individual shooting percentage (S%) spectrum respectively.

Zibanejad’s 15.7 S% is the third-highest among all Rangers skaters this season. It’s part of the reason he also leads the team in points (17 in 16 games) and goals (8). Of those eight goals, five have come on the man advantage—a team-leading stat—where he and Kevin Shattenkirk have become a formidable duo. Just ahead of Zibanejad sits his linemate, Pavel Buchnevich (16.2 S%), who himself has gone on a tear over this four-game stretch registering two goals and four points. Together, along with Chris Kreider, the three make up for New York’s most lethal line, accounting for more than 35% of the goals scored by Rangers this season (19 of 52).

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But Zibanejad and Buchnevich’s individual shooting percentages are running high. Higher than average, that is. In the case of Zibanejad, a career 10.9% shooter, it’s running extremely high. While Buchnevich, by comparison, shot at 14.5% last year in limited usage.

Where Buchnevich and Zibanejad are leading the charge, Nash and Vesey are the team caboose. Vesey’s 6.1 S% is second worst among the Rangers’ regular skaters (those who’ve played in at least ten games) and is second only to the least likely candidate to have the team’s worst conversion rate in Rick Nash, who is firing at a miserable, career-worst 5.4%.

Since he was acquired from Columbus in 2012, Nash’s 130 goals are the most of any Ranger. The next closest is Chris Kreider with 94. But Nash has gone ice cold this season, performing significantly worse than he did two years ago when he shot at 8.2% for the year and finished the 2015-16 campaign—his worst goal-scoring year since his rookie season—with just 15 goals. But perhaps things are starting to look up. He did have a goal and an assist in the win against the Florida Panthers on November 4th and has two goals in his last five games. The law of averages does suggest he’s unlikely to remain this low given his career average of 12.7%, so the sooner he regresses to the mean the better.

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Vesey is no different. He, too, should see an improvement as the year progresses thanks to the same law of averages. Despite competing in only his second NHL season, he shot 13.8% last year. It’s simply unrealistic to assume he’ll play out the duration of this year at half that rate.

For now, there’s no room to criticize the Rangers’ performance these last four games given how dramatic the hole they were climbing out of was, but if they expect to progress into a viable playoff contender, sustaining a consistent level of production is required. As Zibanejad and Buchnevich come down, having Nash and Vesey rise in counterbalance should limit any offensive misfires as the Rangers continue to jockey for playoff position as the year advances.

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