One of the things that have helped carry the 2015-16 New York Rangers is their offense. They have been able to exploit their speed in transition and attack the slot line creating high percentage plays. At even strength through 49 games, the only team better than the Rangers has been the Dallas Stars, who have outscored the Rangers 103-102.
The Rangers have some nice complementary pieces which allows their offense to function at a high level. Tracking high-end events (slot line passes, same side slot line passes, slot line crosses, rebounds, deflections) allows me to study how the Rangers score and who on their offense separates into these categories.
Fans have a tendency to place brand name players together and expect immediate production. The Penguins acquisition of Phil Kessel had fans immediately placing him alongside Sidney Crosby with the expectation of 50-plus goals with little to no interest in whether their games complement each other. Both players are at their best when they control the tempo and have the puck, and these don’t necessarily complement playing alongside one another.
Driving play is essential to winning hockey games, but not all players drive the play forward in the same manner. Some players distribute the puck and excel at manipulating passing lanes. Some players are able to control the offensive zone by their ability to cycle and get to the front of the net for rebounds tips and screening the goalies. And some players are extremely gifted at driving the play forward with individual skill and greatness.
I separated the Rangers offense into four categories to see who and where their offensive production was coming from. I removed all shots that were preceded by a pass, deflection or a rebound to determine the players whose greatest asset was individual play with the puck.
Rick Nash was the most dominant Ranger with the puck at even strength, this is obvious to the naked eye and the data backed this up strongly. At even strength per 60 minutes, Nash creates almost 2/3 of a goal by himself.
He accomplishes this with his ability to move through the neutral zone with speed, gain the offensive zone with control and force defenders to play him safe because of his ability to drive wide should the defenders gap become too aggressive and abuse the middle should their gap sag. This ability to cross the slot line individually is what makes Nash an elite player and the Rangers don’t have another player who has this ability to exploit the defense for these types of opportunities.
Another way the Rangers have been successful this season is their ability to make quick passes that deny goaltenders the ability to gather information and maintain clear sight of the puck. I tracked the expected goal totals from all shots that were created by a direct pass and applied the total to the offensive player who made the pass. The Ranger at even strength who had the greatest total was Mats Zuccarello.
The only two players who approach Zuccarello’s ability to manipulate the slot line for high-end opportunities are J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. Unlike Nash, who looks to attack the opposition net at all time (we can see this in his lack of production on setup feeds), Zuccarello likes to use his speed to probe the defense and look for openings for teammates.
Once again, speed is a contributing factor in creating these opportunities. Defenders struggle to close him out because of his maneuverability at top speed and his quick decision-making. Plays like the one above, when combined with Nash’s ability to create his own offense, led to Nash’s career high goal totals last year and we can see this season that he hasn’t been the beneficiary of as many of these types of opportunities.
One of the reasons I liked the early season pairing of Hayes and Oscar Lindberg is the way their games complemented each other.
Hayes is more of a distributor and Lindberg’s strength is locating open space. Lindberg has also been the beneficiary of a player like Miller, who is also very good at distributing the puck. We can also see why Derrick Brassard is on pace for his best goal-scoring season of his career as Zuccarello has continually found him with slot line feeds.
The last aspect that I looked into was slot presence: Creating offense through going to the toughest areas on the ice. In front of the net is the most vigorously defended area of the ice, and gaining real estate is not that easy.
Viktor Stalberg has been the most productive Ranger at capitalizing in the slot. He continually uses his 6-foot-3 frame to layer in front of the opposition goaltender. This position allows him to use his reach to tip pucks and alter their plane or move into position to pounce on second chance opportunities provided by the goaltender.
This type of information can provide insight into why certain line combinations succeed and fail. The top unit of Nash, Zuccarello and Brassard have a nice overlap of strengths that complement each other. Lindberg, when paired with an offensive facilitator like Hayes or Miller, works toward his offensive strength and has been a big reason he is on pace for 20 goals.
The Rangers have a lot of offensive talent and it continues to make up for their possession struggles, it is the defensive side of the puck that needs to improve.