Expectations define fan analysis. When you have the success the Rangers have had over the last three seasons, the goal is Stanley Cup or bust. So, a 98-point pace at the All-Star break is not what the fan base is willing to accept, even though it is actually a two point improvement on their Stanley Cup Final regular season.
Inconsistency has plagued this Rangers team. An incredible start to begin the season matched the pre-season expectations, but a lot of the Rangers success was percentage driven. Unsustainable shooting and MVP goaltending pushed the Rangers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, even though their possession game and underlying play were more of a mid-tier Eastern Conference playoff team. When the percentages evened out like they tend to do, the Rangers moved into their current spot in the standings.
The Rangers expected goal percentage for the season’s first 49 games offered an interesting look into their inconsistent results. The Rangers, while not a possession powerhouse, had been able to hover around the 50% mark in goal creation until a six-game stretch in late November. While the loss to the Edmonton Oilers garnered most of the attention, the Rangers correction had already begun to occur.
Your whole schedule defines who you are, but it is encouraging to note that for 43 of the Rangers 49 games, they were able to play their opponents to a standstill and allow talent to determine the outcome. A successful model when you have a goaltender that is the pedigree of ‘The King.’
This is how the Rangers are built. They are built for speed on one side of the puck. While the Rangers cause all types of havoc for teams with creative zone entries and gaining the offensive zone with speed, they have a tendency to struggle with foot speed on the defensive side of the puck. This offensive speed and creativity allow the Rangers to manipulate space to take advantage of the slot line, but they sometimes struggle to protect Henrik Lundqvist from the same dangers when forced to defend their zone for sustained stretches.
This occurred during their failed Cup run last season and they were forced to lean on goaltending to survive. As the playoffs moved on, they struggled to outplay the Capitals and then the Lightning. The question of whether the Rangers window had closed was reliant on how the Rangers young core could develop and shift the responsibility away from core players entering their post-prime seasons.
There have been bright spots among the Rangers younger core and strong play by JT Miller, Oscar Lindberg, Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider, but they need the younger core to make a bigger leap in the second half.
If we look at their on-ice differentials (these are expected goal totals for each player while they are on the ice and not individual shooting totals) while they remain positive, these numbers aren’t adjusted for strength of competition. Dylan McIlrath, while impressive, has had the advantage of riding shotgun with Keith Yandle as he continues to crush his third pairing exploitation minutes. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal don’t have this luxury.
Lindberg, while a different type of player than the departed Carl Hagelin, has replaced that production nicely and Miller has made a nice adjustment and improved on his totals from last season. He has also shown some ability to drive the play when given more responsibility. Hayes was one of the players who struggled to drive play during the six-game stretch and hasn’t made the scoring leap yet, required to bridge the aging core.
When we look at their actual performance vs. their expected goal totals, we can see how the Rangers have relied on percentages for success. The above numbers represent the amount of goals scored based on a player’s individual shooting position and pre-shot movement. The average is based on what an average players success rate would be in the same environment.
While players like Rick Nash are above average shooters and will likely always remain in the positive, it still gives us a good idea of who has been lucky and is scoring at an unsustainable pace. Mats Zuccarello stands out as somebody who is scoring at an unsustainable pace as he has outperformed his shooting positions by almost nine goals through the first half of the season. We can also see why Kreider has taken so much heat as his on-ice production is in the positive, but his actual shooting production has been well below his expected outcomes.
The Rangers are a highly-skilled team who have the ability to cheat percentages and should maintain their playoff standing, the issue is the concerns I had from October haven’t been fully addressed.
The first half has highlighted spectacular individual performances, but also deficiencies holding back the Rangers from ultimate success. The expectation remains the Cup and the window remains open just a sliver. The Rangers need to pry it open by breaking their dependency on Lundqvist and addressing their depth issues from internal improvement through their youth or through trade.