November 28 2016 11:00AM
At this point, Rangers vs. Flyers the day after Thanksgiving has become a part of the holiday tradition (or just another hockey game if you’re Canadian). And if you watched, you saw the Rangers eke out a win in front of an exceptional performance by Henrik Lundqvist.
You may have also noticed that the Rangers didn’t play particularly well, not having the puck much but capitalizing on their scoring chances when they did. This has been the story of the Rangers for some time now, with the team miraculously pulling out wins despite poor process – the Rangers currently have a league-high 12.15% shooting percentage.
All of this leads to a very valid question: what’s going on with the New York
It’s important to add some context and systems analysis in
order to best understand the Rangers under Alain Vigneault. Since he took over
as coach the Rangers have played a style of hockey that emphasizes forcing
turnovers at the blueline, creating odd-man rushes, and aggressive
forechecking. As a result the Rangers have the highest shooting percentage in
the NHL for the combined seasons of 2013-14 to present day at 8.41. Add to the mix that the Rangers have had
Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best if not the best netminders over the past
decade between the pipes, and you can see why the Rangers typically lead theleague in PDO (for that same time period since 2013-14 their PDO also tops the
NHL at 101.5, so you get the idea). All of this is to say that the Rangers high
shooting percentage and save percentage are both naturally elevated.
The New York Rangers.— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) November 28, 2016
This has become extreme - low shot share, bloated GF%, lots of luck. pic.twitter.com/S9ZjMNW0BG
This season however we’ve seen a dramatic example of this, with the Rangers prolific offense leading the league with 56 goals for at even strength so far this season for an average of 3.17 per 60 minutes of even strength hockey. Coming into the season fans knew that the team’s forward depth would be a strength, with Jeff Gorton making several savvy acquisitions to compensate for the teams decidedly dismal defense. Still, this can’t be normal right? And more importantly, is it sustainable?
Let’s start with what’s obvious – the Rangers have some of the best forward depth in the league, with four balanced lines each capable of scoring. A lot of this has to do with some fresh faces such as Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad, but we’ve also seen some outstanding play from Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Chris Kreider. As a result on any given night someone on each line is liable to be having a particularly good game, and even without superlative performances from any particular player the mere threat of four capable lines is enough to put teams on their toes.
To illustrate what four balanced lines has done for the Rangers consider the following: the line of Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, and Jimmy Vesey has shot 12.5% this year, and that’s not even the line with the highest shooting percentage. That honor would go to the line of Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner, and J.T. Miller, whose shooting percentage so far this season is a whopping 20% (Brandon Pirri, Pavel Buchnevich, and Jesper Fast also have a 20% Sh% together but have played about half as many minutes). Alain Vigneault has been juggling his lines a bit this season as a result of injuries, but the point stands, as individual units, each line is way over performing, even by the Rangers’ typically high shooting percentage standard.
All of this naturally points to the idea that the Rangers hot streak is going to cool off at some point, even if their shooting percentage does remain somewhat high. To that end the evidence is obvious, with their CF% being fourth worst in the league. Anyone with eyes can see why – the Rangers are good in transition, but getting to that transition game has proven difficult for them.
Even with rookie Brady Skjei and captain Ryan McDonagh somewhat filling the void left by the departure of elite puck-mover Keith Yandle, the Rangers struggle in their own end. Their slow, aging defensemen Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Kevin Klein (who helped paper over defensive defects last season, but is having a bad season this time around) simply can’t cut off other teams’ passes or limit shots against, sometimes leading to play like we saw the day before Turkey Day against the Pittsburgh Penguins (I’m thinking specifically of the shift that lead to the Penguins 5th goal, where the visitors looked almost like the old Soviet National team skating circles around the Rangers in their own end).
The counterpoint to this notion is the idea that the Rangers don’t need to have the puck all the time, because their otherworldly goaltender will handle whatever shots get through and all their defense has to do is limit truly dangerous chances and get the puck to the offense so they can generate their own. On that front the Rangers seem to be doing a pretty good job, with their SCF% being the seventh best in the league at 53.55%, and their SCF60 standing second only to the newly reinvigorated Toronto Maple Leafs at 10.81%. Those readers who have been watching NHLNumbers over the past several weeks will know however that scoring chances is not exactly perfect in terms of evaluating the danger of chances generated by a team, with xFSh% being a slightly more exact measure. The Rangers top the league there too, with their 7.06% xFSh% leading the top five of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets.
So what we’ve got is statistical affirmation of what’s otherwise apparent: the Rangers forward corps is among the deepest and most balanced in the league, their goalie remains on another planet, and their defense is in serious need of improvement. They could certainly do to have the puck more if they’re serious about being a contender, with recent results telling us that the teams with the best CF% throughout the regular season typically go the farthest in the playoffs. Their shooting percentage, even to the extent that it’s naturally elevated by the rush-based offense Alain Vigneault likes to play, is bound to come down.
What’s curious however is that they are truly getting some of the best scoring chances in the league, with their four balanced lines providing a relentless attack that most teams simply can’t deal with when it gets going. What remains to be seen is whether that alone is enough to carry them to postseason glory, because while they’re certainly a bubble team as currently construed, history tells us that the teams with the best CF% typically go all the way.