By Chris Boyle
The Rangers are off to a hot start again.
Because of the small sample nature of early season data analysis, some in the hockey analytics world have flagged the Rangers for regression from such a hot start. Sky-high PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) and mediocre possession numbers (49.2 percent) suggest that the good times might not last forever. But wait.
“Regression” is an offensive word to a fanbase because it proposes that the Rangers are not as good as they currently seem. After all, the term “fanatical” doesn’t take kindly to insult. If we take a rational look at it, what you disagree with is the suggestion that the Rangers are not on their way to the greatest point output in Rangers history. Or scoring at the rate of the 1996 Pittsburgh Penguins with a 30-year-old Mario Lemieux and 23-year-old Jaromir Jagr.
As a Rangers fan, it is understandable why you might be sensitive to this type of discussion.
Traditional shot metrics may not like the Rangers when we take into account pre-shot movement and location, but the Rangers are effectively driving play and their success becomes something that you can wager on in regards to future sustainability.
While the record is almost identical, the process hasn’t been the same. The greater-than-average shooting is still a part of their success, but they’re driving high percentage plays and no longer counting on Henrik Lundqvist’s greatness.
The Rangers are also dominating the lower line matchups this season. Kevin Hayes managed to produce a positive expected goal differential on the third line last season, but his numbers this season are even better. The trio of Hayes, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner have dominated in exploitation minutes early on.
I separated the Rangers individual lines by isolating each center. With rotating linemates (I’m looking at you, Mats Zuccarello!), it is hard to decipher which lines game-to-game was the first line, so I took the center and most common teammates to determine the success of each individual line.
Derek Stepan is slightly behind his pace from last season, but Zibanejad and Kreider have been magic together early on. The Rangers’ youthful combo of Hayes and Miller have driven play at an absurd rate. The Hayes-Miller duo possesses the ability to create high-quality opportunities and can take advantage of matchups to push the play at an over 60-percent rate.
Offensively, the Hayes line has been able to produce pre-shot movement on 25 percent of their shots, a huge difference over the 15 percent league average and up from 20 percent last season. Hayes’ line produced 33 slot-line pass shots last season. At his current pace, his line will almost double that with 63.
Not only is the Hayes line dominating pre-shot movement, but it is also producing more shots in the highest danger areas on the ice. This has led to more opportunities offensively and a greater number of expected goals for. The Hayes line has also been excelling defensively, limiting their opposition to 88 percent clear-sighted looks for their goaltenders. It is the perfect combination for success and the reason the Rangers are on their early-season roll.
The bottom line is this: The Rangers are primed to regress, but their success isn’t as unsustainable as it was last season. Their youth has stepped up and joined Kreider and Zibanejad in a transitioning era to provide more hope for Lundqvist to finally get that ring.