By Chris Boyle
Yet, only the Washington Capitals have managed to produce more regular-season points during this period. The results are polar opposites from what the analytics community has come to expect. It’s why the Rangers continue to confuse fans and media alike.
But if you dive deep into video and shot metrics, you will learn why the Blueshirts continue to succeed against conventional analytical wisdom.
The Rangers are ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of possession rates this season, but it doesn’t mean that the playoff results will be similarly underwhelming. Their underlying shot metrics show a much stronger team than the one that was extremely reliant on capitalizing on their offensive opportunities and leaning heavily on Henrik Lundqvist last season.
If we compare and contrast the Rangers’ opportunities against the team they were last season, we get a significant contrast. One that shows a team that has significantly improved its on-ice performance overall, as well as at even strength.
The 2015-16 Rangers seemed a team that had the hallmarks destined for a playoff exit. The 2016-17 Rangers have similar underlying surface numbers, but they’re driving play and controlling the on-ice real estate in a more sustainable way.
A Look at the Goalies/Defense
A closer inspection at the defensive numbers show that there are still areas of concern the team may need to address before the trade deadline.
The Rangers’ goaltending has been slightly above average, but it has been Raanta carrying the tandem statistically. The team’s overall goal differential has improved, but it hasn’t yet occurred on the defensive side of the puck. The Rangers are conceding 82 percent of their shots with clear sight, below the league average of 85 percent. They have been giving up more slot-line passes, but those have been closely offset by the number of tipped shots they concede. Even location data shows only a slight differential.
The Rangers’ 2016-17 success lies entirely in their ability to consistently drive high-quality offensive chances. The team’s offensive base is built around speed and attacking through the neutral zone with speed. The Rangers have delivered 33 percent of their shots through controlled zone entries, up from 30 percent last season. This allows them to attack the line with speed and open up the ice to create continuous spacing nightmares for defenders and goaltenders alike.
When we contrast their offensive shot distribution versus last season, it becomes evident how they have maintained their offensive production this season even with injuries to Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad.
The Rangers have significantly decreased their clear-sighted opportunities and replaced them with more slot-line passes, goal-line tips and rebound chances. They’re getting scoring chances to the opposition goal, reducing low-danger shots for high-danger ones. The Rangers have figured out a new formula and when they combine their elite distribution numbers with their consistent ability to finish at above average rates, you get consistent overall success without consistent puck possession.
This style leads to inconsistent performances from game-to-game. The Blueshirts will control the neutral zone offensively, but will struggle at times on defense. Although the Rangers are usually on the positive side of the differential, the amount of high-quality chances occurring every game opens up the possibility of wide variance in finishing ability. They’re capable of losing 4-1 to the Sabres one night and beating the Flyers 5-2 the next one.
The Rangers are a statistical possession outlier for a reason and will likely remain a dangerous playoff team because of their offensive brilliance.