The New York Rangers played very well in a 4-1 home-ice victory over the surging Ottawa Senators on Sunday night, but their play as of late has otherwise been very mediocre, and it had finally started catching up with them in a string of recent losses.
The Rangers have been a poor possession team so far this year, and a lot of that has to do with roster deployment. While there are numerous areas where head coach Alain Vigneault and his staff deserve to be questioned regarding line combinations, defense pairings, healthy scratches, and ice time, perhaps the most puzzling case is with the usage of offensively-gifted defenseman Keith Yandle.
Yandle Playing Well for Rangers…But Does Vigneault See It?
I recently wrote that Yandle is putting together a solid season for the Blueshirts, producing offensively with 13 assists (and one goal) through the club’s first 28 games. He is also one of the team’s only positive possession players, along with Dylan McIlrath, who has played in just a handful of games so far but is getting more action with the injury to Kevin Klein.
Yandle and McIlrath thus make a good pair, so at least Vigneault and assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, who handles the defensemen, have something going with partnering those two together. Being a positive possession player on a team that has otherwise been atrocious in that category is not something to be overlooked in the slightest.
Yet that seems to be exactly what Vigneault and his staff are doing by not giving Yandle more minutes. After the team’s lethargic 2-1 home loss to Colorado, Vigneault actually briefly acknowledged advanced metrics, but baffled many Rangers fans and observers with what he said.
AV: “If you analyze the way some guys are analyzing games right now w/stats, you’ll probably see other than FO, most stats are on our side.”
— Sean Hartnett (@HartnettHockey) December 4, 2015
Maybe Vigneault was only talking about the last couple of games, where the Rangers’ possession numbers were better than they had been. Or maybe there are some completely different metrics the organization is using. But their game has been very concerning for most of this season, and you don’t even need advanced stats to tell you that. This is a case where the eye test gets the job done as well. So maybe that’s why Yandle is not getting top-defenseman-level ice time — because the Rangers’ staff actually believes the team is doing well as currently constructed. I wonder if they have seen these stats:
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Vigneault is an excellent coach and has done a marvelous job with the Rangers. Statements like this are worrisome, though. Hopefully there is a reasonable explanation for his thoughts on the Rangers’ play, and the team will continue to make adjustments and get better as the season goes on.
Yandle Should Get More Minutes
Getting back to Yandle — despite being arguably New York’s most effective blue-liners this season (the currently sidelined Klein deserves a mention here as well), he is only fifth on the team among defensemen in total ice time per game, at 18:59. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Marc Staal are all ahead of him.
Girardi and Staal have been particularly ineffective this season, as evidenced by their woeful possession stats (Staal has about a 45% 5-on-5 Corsi, while Girardi is even worse at around 40%). One of the contributing factors to these numbers is poor play in the defensive zone, where Staal and Girardi have often been relying too much on tossing the puck up the boards for a hopeful clear rather than making a quick, short pass to start a controlled breakout.
Staal had one such play that ended up biting the Rangers, as it resulted in the game-deciding goal late in the third period of a game they lost in Boston on Black Friday, 4-3.
Yandle, meanwhile, is above 50% in 5-on-5 Corsi, and has played a smart, effective defensive game while continuing to put put points on the offensive end.
He is also a power play specialist; one can argue that that is the principal reason the Rangers acquired him at the trade deadline last season. Yet Vigneault does not deploy him on the first power play unit with the team’s top scorers (Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan). Yandle finds himself on the second unit instead.
This is one of the most gifted power play defensemen in the entire NHL, and not only is he not playing the majority of the team’s power play minutes; he is not even on their top unit!
The Rangers gave up a huge package to get Yandle, the main pieces of which were blue chip prospect Anthony Duclair and a first round draft pick. For them to do that and then not optimize Yandle’s talents is not just perplexing — it’s inexcusable.
The team seems to want to have both a left-handed shot and a right-handed shot on the power play points. However, they really ought to experiment more with having Yandle and McDonagh — both left-handed shots — out there together. Maybe they read my mind before I wrote this article, because that is what they did for part of their first power play against Ottawa on Sunday night. And lo and behold, look what happened!
Yandle makes a good play in taking the puck down the boards just enough to open space back up at the point, and delivers a perfect pass back there to McDonagh, who takes advantage of the additional room and wastes no time in blasting it home. Hopefully this power play pairing is something the Rangers will start using a bit more. It is just one way the team can finally begin to use Yandle properly.
Yandle is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and it would be foolish of the Rangers to let him walk. However, they seem to place more value on Girardi and Staal, neither of whom is as effective a player as Yandle. While the brief deployment of Yandle and McDonagh on the power play is not a huge change, hopefully it’s a sign of things to come regarding the optimization of Yandle’s talents. Then, hopefully the Rangers will make every effort to re-sign Yandle at season’s end.