When the New York Rangers went on a torrid 16-3-2 run to start this regular season, the prevailing thought was that that pace could not last. Sure, this was a good team, but they were getting away with some defensive lapses, mainly thanks to strong goaltending and a high shooting percentage.
A regression was to be expected, but what’s happened to the Rangers has been a complete nose-dive, leaving them and their fans wondering what will happen from this point.
Regression to the Mean
The Rangers’ early-season luck (for lack of a better word) can be largely illustrated by their PDO numbers (team shooting percentage plus save percentage). Early on, those numbers were off the charts, well over the average number of 100, meaning that in addition to their stellar goaltending, they saw an unrealistic number of their shots going in for goals.
Fast-forward 14 games, and the Rangers now sit with a much less impressive record of 19-12-4, having gone a woeful 3-9-2 over those past 14. They once led the league by a wide margin in fewest goals allowed per game. Now they sit right in the middle at 15th in the NHL, allowing 2.54 goals per game.
They still lead the league in PDO at 102.8, but that number has also come down to be a bit more realistic. The fact that they still lead the league speaks to just how many breaks they were getting early in the season.
Of course, what cannot be discounted is that high PDO is not purely based on luck. Good goaltending, which the Rangers have with Henrik Lundqvist, is a skill. So is good shooting, and a team system that is predicated on attacking the offensive zone with speed and capitalizing off turnovers with rush chances will generally boost shooting percentages.
That said, no team can go through an entire 82-game season with an astronomical PDO of around 107, which is what New York had in mid-November. Add to that the fact that the Blueshirts were yielding about as many high-quality, wide-open scoring chances as they have been over the past two weeks, and those numbers become even more unsustainable over a larger sample size.
However, the Rangers have not only seen less fortune; they have experienced a complete 180. They are not as good as their 16-3-2 start indicated, nor are they as bad as their latest 3-9-2 stretch would indicate. But their defensive zone coverage problems and possession issues have been evident all year, and they need some kind of jolt to help them snap out of it.
What Should the Rangers Do?
Right now, the reduction in the Rangers’ luck has created a lack of confidence, which has spiraled out of control into the disastrous results we’ve seen in recent weeks. It has gotten them completely away from their system, although they were never executing it with consistency at any point this season.
We know the Rangers’ system under head coach Alain Vigneault is effective; just look at the success they had in their first two seasons under his watch. They also have largely the same team they had last year, with the biggest absences being Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis.
In situations like these, when a team is in need of a spark or change, the head coach is oftentimes the first person to go. For the Rangers though, firing Vigneault is not the answer, and would be an extremely short-sighted move. While it is fair to question some of his lineup decisions and how has he responded to the team’s adversity as of late, it is way too early to even think about getting a new coach.
Since the Blueshirts’ problems are so systemic and widespread, it is unfair to pin the blame on one or two players. However, moving one or two certain players might be the type of jolt the Rangers need, more so from an intangible standpoint.
It’s no secret that Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, once two of the team’s most reliable defensemen, have severely regressed and been largely ineffective this season. Of course, Girardi has missed the past several games with a banged-up knee, so it’s not his fault the Rangers have continued to hemorrhage goals. And while Staal has struggled through this stretch, so too has the rest of the team.
A big move, however, involving Girardi and/or Staal, could give the Rangers a spark now and also help them down the road. Girardi has an annual salary cap hit of $5.5 million for the next five years (including this one), while Staal is locked up at $5.7 million for the next six years.
At ages 31 and 28 respectively, Girardi and Staal would likely still be seen as valuable pieces to a number of clubs that could stand to beef up their blue line. While each player would have to waive a no-movement clause to be traded, the Rangers should at least explore the possibility of moving one or both. If possible, they should look to get inexpensive assets in return, to help them free up salary cap space.
That salary cap space will be needed to re-sign forwards Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, both of whom hit restricted free agent status at the end of the season. While each player has also struggled this season, they are both too young and too talented to give up on unless a substantial piece can be acquired in return.
Then there is defenseman Keith Yandle, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Yandle leads the entire team in assists, providing a unique skill set from the back end that would be much more difficult to replace than defensive-minded defensemen like Girardi and Staal. If the Rangers fail to move Girardi or Staal, they will likely have to let Yandle walk as a free agent, which would hurt them perhaps more than they realize.
The Rangers will need more than one or two roster moves to fix their problems; they will need to execute their system better as an entire team. But a roster move that involves the trading of Girardi or Staal could be a catalyst in helping them play with a renewed sense of urgency and attention to detail, and it would also help them in the long run as they look to remain a contender beyond this year.