Young Forward Depth is Rangers Biggest Advantage

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

With just one day left before the Rangers begin their opening round series against the Canadiens, much of the pre-series talk has rightfully gravitated around the goaltending matchup of Henrik Lundqvist versus Carey Price. I say “rightfully” because both men are arguably their respective teams’ linchpins, through which any long-term success must be measured against. This isn’t up for debate. Like the majority of teams who play deep into May and June, superior goaltending is often a foundation for their continued success. I even wrote about them myself in my series primer, denoting the matchup as one of the three keys of the series.

Read more: Rangers, Canadiens – A Playoffs Primer

Whether or not one netminder truly has a leg up on the other is certainly up for debate, but even in the case that both men cancel each other out, a deciding factor in the series is likely going to be secondary scoring – specifically with regard to the construction of both clubs’ third lines.

To Greater Depths

The Canadiens are expected to begin the series with Andrew Shaw centering Dwight King and Artturi Lehkonen on their third line, and Steve Ott centering Alex Galchenyuk—the third overall pick in the 2012 Draft—and Andreas Martinsen on their fourth line.

The Rangers will likely counter with a reunited third line of Kevin Hayes centering J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner and a fourth line centered by Oscar Lindberg with some combination of Pavel Buchnevich, Tanner Glass, and/or Jesper Fast on his flanks.

The fourth lines are probably something of a wash. I fully expect Glass to play, likely over Buchnevich, as part of a backward-thinking strategy to fight grit with grit (instead of with even more talent). I also don’t expect Galchenyuk to spend the entire series shackled to Ott and Martinsen, eventually getting promoted if the Canadiens have a difficult time beating Lundqvist.

It is on the third line where the Rangers have a distinct advantage. Miller, Hayes, and Grabner.

The trio dominated games for the Rangers earlier this season, and stand to become a line-matching nightmare for Claude Julien’s Canadiens.

J.T. Miller finished the regular season with 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) in 82 games, second only to team leader Mats Zuccarello (59 points). Michael Grabner, despite scoring just one point in his final 12 games and just four points in his final 22, still closed the season with 27 goals, one shy of the team lead held by Chris Kreider (28). And Kevin Hayes, the third-year pro, also returned to form posting a career-high 49 points and matching the 17 goals he scored in his breakout rookie season. Together, the trio combines for a regular season scoring total of 66 goals and 158 points.

The importance of this line total is best measured head-to-head against the Habs’ third line of King, Shaw, and Lehkonen.

Shaw and Lehkonen have been with the Canadiens all season, playing in 73 and 68 games respectively, while King was acquired from Los Angeles at the deadline. He’s played in just 17 regular season contests for them this season, but I’ll happily include his production with the Kings in the interest of not skewing the numbers unnecessarily.

The leading scorer among the group, Andrew Shaw, concluded his season with just 12 goals and 29 points, good for 8th among all Canadiens skaters. Lehkonen found the back of the net with more regularity (18 goals), but still capped his year with just one point fewer than Shaw (28) through a 73-game effort. And King’s split production between L.A. and Montréal earned him a total of nine goals and 16 points in 80 games played. That’s a combined production of 39 goals and 73 points.

Do the math. From a straight scoring head-to-head, the Rangers third line more than doubles the scoring output of the Canadiens, thanks in large part to the wildly successful seasons of Miller and Hayes (who combined outperform the Habs’ entire King, Shaw, Lehkonen trio in total scoring without factoring in Grabner).

Assuming Julien and Alain Vigneault are able to keep their respective top-six scoring lines relatively neutralized by countering force with force, the Rangers depth beyond their biggest guns gives them a distinct and demonstrable advantage that the Canadiens are going to have a very tough time trying to contain.

Analytics Be Damned

Despite capping their regular season as the fourth highest scoring team in the NHL this season (3.09 GF/GP), the Rangers are not an especially good possession squad. They were 27th in total shot attempts this season, and the worst in shot attempts among all 16 teams who qualified for the playoffs. They were also 25th in team CF% (47.95) and 23rd in FF% (48.78) league-wide. From the surface, this is likely seen as a glaring weakness and a point of attack for the Canadiens, but it can be explained away by pointing to the Rangers counter-punching style of play that sees them regularly accept shots against in exchange for an increased volume of odd-man rush attempts. In other words, they routinely trade scoring attempts against for more dangerous counter attacks that often come with an odd-man advantage, which improves their chances of beating opposing goaltenders, even at five-on-five.

How else would a team with analytics this poor still own the seventh-highest 5-on-5 goals for in the league? From an analytics perspective, we see this borne out looking at the Rangers SCF% (Scoring Chances For Percentage) where they rank 16th (50.56) this season.

The Canadiens, by comparison, are one of the best possession teams in the league. They gave up the third-fewest total shot attempts of any club this season and were 3rd in team CF% (52.54) and FF% (52.42). Yet, as I wrote about in my primer, they have only two players who concluded the season with 20 or more goals (Pacioretty and Byron) and were shutout in six games since the New Year, including two after Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien.

So, yes, in conclusion, this series will largely rest on the backs of the goaltenders. However, as we counter-balance each respective strength between the two clubs, the vastly superior offensive production of players like Miller and Hayes should give the Rangers all the edge they need to pull off a first-round upset in a series few are giving them a chance in winning.

How far this philosophy and team construction can take them remains to be seen and will no doubt be tested by the scoring depth strength of future opponents, but when push comes to shove, they’ve got a puncher’s chance against the Habs. I’d even go so far as to call it a counter puncher’s chance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *