The Wheels Are Starting to Fall Off the Rangers’ Bus

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Dave Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

10/13/2016 – 11/30/2016

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

12/1/2016 – 1/17/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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