While the Rangers were one of the Penguins’ victims on their road to the Stanley Cup, their loss to Pittsburgh provides an opportunity for the Blueshirts to truly assess how they are currently assembled.
The Rangers’ results last season were very good on the surface. Their goal differential presented a team that was among the upper middle tier of the NHL, populating the same neighborhood as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders such as the Blues and Blackhawks. New York’s .521 goal differential wasn’t far off the champion Penguins’ .546 regular-season mark.
The problem for the Rangers last season was the context in which they achieved their success. Success is derived from controlling the play, something New York struggled with at times during the season. In spite of this, they were able to drive play with spectacular offensive performances and the linchpin to their success, Henrik Lundqvist.
The issue with the reliance on riding talent to this extent is that teams can expose themselves to streaky play. In the regular season, with the right amount of talent, this can be overcome. The Rangers performed well, despite their lackluster possession numbers, and finished in the upper half of the Eastern Conference. The problem arises in the playoffs, when a cold shooting streak or bad goaltending luck can see a club eliminated from the chase for the Cup.
This is why controlling the on-ice real estate is so important.
If we look at the Rangers this season, we can see that they overcame sub-par possession play with incredible goaltending and above average shooting. The top line in blue represents the Rangers goaltending. During the 2015-16 season, they were 25 goals above what would be expected from an average goaltending performance. The red line represents the Rangers’ offense, which was 10 goals better than the expected average based on their shot locations and pre-shot movement.
During the season, players like Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard consistently finished at rates way above their career expectation. This helped fuel a Rangers offense that was able to bridge the possession gap by scoring at a greater rate than their opportunities generated. The Rangers’ biggest issue continued to be their golden crutch, Lundqvist.
Having a player like Lundqvist is a luxury few teams possess, but his Hall of Fame talent can become detrimental to assessing team and individual player talent. The NHL is still in the process of converting from result- to process-driven evaluation, and when a player can manipulate results to the extremes like a Lundqvist can, a team can get a false sense of where their true talent lies.
If we remove Lundqvist’s 17-goal difference alone (goaltending was responsible for 25 goals above average), the Rangers drop to a .500 goal differential and very will miss out on the playoffs. Missing the playoffs results in re-evaluation. The Canadiens learned this lesson when Carey Price missed the season and they dropped 28 points in the standings.
It is why I use weighted shots when I evaluate players. It allows me to see who is generating the highest value chances when they are on the ice, and which goaltenders are exposed or insulated the most.
Stanley Cup champions no longer require elite goaltending to win and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the best teams are built around average keepers. Without the ability to patch up team inefficiencies, these teams are forced to control the play and possess the puck. If they are struggling in an area, there isn’t an elite goaltender to manipulate the results and create noise in their evaluation. This makes it easier to identify when things are in need of upgrading.
Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run provides a beautiful example of a team who was forced to confront their warts and it resulted in the midseason firing of head coach Mike Johnston. Johnston had the personnel in Pittsburgh, but couldn’t maximize its potential. Outstanding goaltending can mask coaching inefficiency (see Michel Therrien in Montreal) and having a player like Lundqvist may have saved Johnston’s job in Pittsburgh. This would have robbed Penguins fans of one of the most dominant Stanley Cup runs of the last decade.
The Penguins dominate play territorially through their speed and relentless puck pursuit. This combination of speed and skill allows them to control the tempo, and even when they suffer a shooting slump or hot goaltending, it isn’t enough to derail their Cup pursuit because of their territorial domination.
The Penguins tilted the ice against every opponent throughout their Stanley Cup Playoff run. They dominated the shot clock, created more opportunities off turnovers, with their zone entries, around the home plate area, and also dominated shots with pre-shot movement. Over the 24-game span, the Penguins had 142 shots where they forced a goaltender into situations where he lacked the time to gather information, while limiting their opposition to only 95 shots of this nature. The only regular who didn’t have a positive expected goal differential was Tom Kuhnhackl. It was absolute domination.
The most impressive aspect of their domination was that they didn’t rely on absurd shooting or spectacular goaltending to do so.
Pittsburgh actually produced less offense than their opportunities suggested and their goaltending was only required to be adequate. The offense underperformed their opportunities by eight goals and Matt Murray perfectly filled the Chris Osgood role, the average goalie whose success was always linked to the team he played for. As long as he didn’t meltdown four out of seven games, and a clone of Patrick Roy/Dominik Hasek wasn’t patrolling the other crease, the Penguins were going to win the series.
The Penguins committed to speed and didn’t fall trap to the myth of the stay-at-home immobile defenders. They chose mobility and speed over size and this caused all types of issues for the opposition forecheck, who struggled to force turnovers because of the ability of their defenders to allude pressure and begin transition. These defenders were also quicker to loose pucks, and their mobility was able to angle attacking forwards and were supported by speed on the back check.
They had answers for teams with quick strike attacks and befuddled the Joe Thornton line, which had been leaning on defenses with great success for the first three rounds.
Pittsburgh just provided the perfect analytical blueprint for teams to follow with their commitment to speed and puck pursuit. This is important when we look at the Rangers. The Rangers have the speed and skill up front to mimic the Penguins’ aggressive attacking style. Where they have trouble competing with the Penguins is with speed and mobility on the back end, and why it appears essential that they try their best to re-sign Keith Yandle this offseason.
The Penguins just provided the NHL a glimpse of the future. Did the Rangers take note?