With pre-season darlings like the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars stumbling right out of the gate, there’s an argument to be made that the New York Rangers have stepped into the void and taken the mantle as the league’s preeminent NHL TV team. They’ve at least made it difficult for us not to take notice of them, and are turning the heads of fans and the teams they’ve been blowing past on a nightly basis.
The exciting brand of fast-paced hockey the Rangers have been playing is something of a revelation in the early going, particularly when you consider what they looked like when the Pittsburgh Penguins skated laps around them in the first round of the playoffs. While the results are similar to the hot start they got off to in the win-loss column last season, the manner in which they’ve been doing it has been noticeably different. Unlike 2015-16, there appear to be more tangible driving forces behind their success than Henrik Lundqvist and a bag of magic PDO beans.
A large part of what’s made them special is their ability and willingness to roll four lines, all of which can skate like the wind and are constantly a threat to put the puck in the net. Despite how attainable that luxury could be for every team in the league, spreading the wealth like that has proven to be a mental roadblock. It’s admittedly something that’s fairly new for the Rangers themselves, who have just recently kicked their unhealthy Tanner Glass addiction.
The Rangers had a sneaky-good summer and are now being rewarded for the assortment of low-risk, high-upside transactions they made in lieu of one big splashy move. Michael Grabner has seamlessly fit into the team’s middle six, perfectly exemplifying the team’s identity. Adam Clendening and Brandon Pirri were players any team could’ve had for cheap, but most balked at because of minor perceived flaws.
And while being good is nice, sometimes it’s also nice to be lucky: once again they made up for a lack of draft picks by being able to get college free agent Jimmy Vesey. Him and Pavel Buchnevich (who came over from Russia after being stashed there to develop) have been massive net positives, adding to an immensely deep and talented forward group.
Without any noticeable holes to speak of up front, the Rangers have been generating goals at five-on-five at a rate that rivals the most prolific offensive teams of the past decade (via Corsica):
|TEAM||SEASON||SCORING CHANCES/60||GOALS/60||EXPECTED GOALS/60|
It’s obvious that some of their goal scoring can be attributed to an unsustainably high shooting percentage. They’re not going to keep scoring more than four goals per game because they’re not going to keep converting on more than 14 per cent of their shots (in all situations). For some perspective, that 2009-10 Washington Capitals team (which shot 11.6 per cent as a unit) is the only team since 2007 to convert on more than 11 per cent of their opportunities over the course of a full season. It’s a similar story at five-on-five, where the Rangers are shooting 12.3 per cent as a team and those Capitals are the only team to shoot better than 10 per cent in that timeframe.
With that said, it’s interesting New York comes out looking much better in expected goals than you’d think they would based on their raw shot differential. One potential explanation for this is that their counterattacking, fast-paced style of play lends itself to juicing those numbers simply by producing a higher number of chances than normal. For the time being, only this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the 2010-11 incarnation of the Rangers have been able to produce chances more efficiently than this year’s Rangers.
Being able to maintain anything that resembles this frenzied pace will go a long way towards determining their success this season and is worth monitoring. For the time being, their uncanny ability to create chances by flying into the zone and going 0-to-100 in transitioning from one zone to the other has been a difficult problem for other teams to solve.
Before a recent game against St. Louis, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock described the Rangers perfectly as a ‘touch-and-go team’ and alluded to the fact they want to push the pace and attack as quickly as possible. While Hitchcock nailed the description, he didn’t seem to have many answers for how to slow them down as the Rangers ran his team out of the building.
The frustration with the Rangers in years past (especially last season) stemmed from the sad reality that they were squandering Lundqvist’s last great years by failing to provide him with enough support. From a big picture team-building level, they’re not alone.
Having a great goaltender like Lundqvist (or Carey Price in Montreal) can be both a blessing and a curse, because he makes it easy to think that everything is fine even when it’s not. His ability to prop up everything around him and make it look better than it really is can be an illusion and provide a false sense of security. Once a few pucks get past him, all of a sudden it exposes the fact that you have nothing else to fall back on as a team.
The blue line still remains suspect, with too much involvement of Nick Holden and Dan Girardi for my liking. But at least the addition of Clendening and emergence of Brady Skjei have provided some intriguing nuance to a defence corps that’s otherwise devoid of much ability.
I still have my reservations about New York’s ability to hold up unless they’re able to add another above average piece to help shoulder the load and let everyone else fall into a more suitable role. A good start would probably be never taking Clendening out of the lineup. Whatever weaknesses he may have are being heavily outweighed by everything he does well, considering the team is controlling a league-best 66.1 per cent of the shot attempts whenever he’s on the ice.
For the time being, the overwhelmingly deep, skilled, and fast group they’ve assembled up front has been able to cover for any defensive shortcomings. Much like the blueprint last year’s Pittsburgh Penguins laid out, the best way to avoid exposing a vulnerable blue line is to just keep attacking. The Rangers have done a remarkable job with quick breakouts that have kept the opposition on its heels, and roped them into playing the type of game that best suits the Rangers. And whenever that hasn’t worked, Lundqvist has still been around to clean up the mess and serve as a high-level safety valve.
If they continue to play like this word will spread about the Rangers like wildfire. Coaches around the league will start formulating adjustments to get them out of rhythm and slow them down. That’s when the fun game of chess begins. Whether those teams can be successful in their adjustments, and how the Rangers combat those changes themselves, will ultimately determine their staying power.
The early returns have been much more promising than we had any right to expect heading into the season, and at the very least they’ve put themselves in a position to once again make some noise while playing a uniquely entertaining brand of hockey in the process.