By Chris Boyle
The 2015-16 New York Rangers were a team driven by individual greatness.
They continually outperformed their possession and shot metrics. Spectacular goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist masked some of their deficiencies, but in the end, they were eliminated in the first round by the Penguins.
The loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions provided the Rangers a blueprint of what they needed to fix in order to better chances in the 2016-17 campaign.
The ability to dominate play using speed and relentless puck pursuit gives a team the opportunity to control the tempo of play. The Rangers have exploited this through their early-season pairing of Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
The Blueshirts have a 2-2-0 record, but that doesn’t tell the full story about how well they’ve played. They have made strong strides at controlling the play early in the season. The Rangers finished last season with a -18 expected goal differential. They controlled they play for only 48 percent of the game, meaning they were reliant on career shooting years from Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, as well as remaining reliant on the continued brilliance of Lundqvist.
This season has seen an 180-degree turn in the Blueshirts’ performance. While the process and the results don’t match, they are now continually driving the play.
Through four games, their chances created should have resulted in +7.47 goals. The one surprise in the early going has been the play of Lundqvist. The 34-year-old has been a +.012 above expected results during the last five seasons He is tracking at -.019 through the first four games. If the Rangers can continue to drive the play in this manner, it is almost assured that Lundqvist will return to the goaltender that saw him perform at a Hart Trophy level last season.
For a team a year ago who struggled to produce five players above 50 percent in even strength expected goal differential, the early season sample is promising. The only Rangers tracking below 50 percent through four games are Dan Girardi, Derek Stepan and rookie Jimmy Vesey.
Through the opening two weeks, the Zibanejad trade looks like a stroke of genius. The Zibanejad/Kreider combination leads all forward combinations with almost six expected goals created. That’s a crazy number in such a tiny sample and one that is driven by deception and east/west movement.
If we isolate all the shots recorded by the Rangers with pre-shot movement, we can see how and why this duo is dominating the early season scoring charts.
Similar to my Taylor Hall analysis from a week ago, I sorted all the shots that denied the goaltender the ability to attack the puck in a straight line. If Kreider or Zibanejad 1) produced the shot or were responsible for 2) the pass that led to the shot or 3) the shot that was tipped or 4) the shot that led to the rebound shot, I credited them with being involved.
The two of them are driving the highest percentage shots and accounting for over 50 percent of these opportunities for the Rangers at even strength. They have been involved with 50 percent of the passes that were completed across the slot line, 67 percent of the shots that were tipped and 50 percent of the shots that either created the rebound or completed the rebound.
It’s too early to proclaim that the Rangers have conquered their possession woes from a year ago, but these early indicators are very promising. When your biggest question mark so far has been a goalie who’s considered to be of the best in the NHL, it is likely the most comfortable one can feel with a 2-2 start.