Rick Nash (Getty Images)
The New York Rangers rode a solid possession game and good goaltending to a Stanley Cup final appearance last season. Though they look poised to go deep in the post-season this year, they’re winning games in an entirely different fashion.
Last season, the New York Rangers came three victories from winning the Stanley Cup and you would be hard pressed to find those betting against the Blueshirts to get back to the final this season. Analytically speaking, however, the two teams are much different.
While last season’s Rangers were one of the 10 most dominant possession teams in the league, this season’s squad has shown, while they’re not the advanced stat darlings they were last season, they can more than make up for it with a high-power offense and the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot.
And it’s with Talbot and Lundqvist that the Rangers’ current run has been built, as New York has been getting the best goaltending the league has seen this season outside of Montreal’s Carey Price. Talbot is playing better than anyone – including Talbot himself – could have expected, and the Rangers are flourishing because of it. However, they’re also scoring at an incredible rate 5-on-5.
Last season, the Rangers scored 2.16 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, a respectable rate and higher than eventual Cup champion Los Angeles by 0.13. This season, however, New York has scored 2.66 goals per 60 minutes, the second most in the entire league. While the increase in scoring is welcome, especially because it means Rick Nash is playing like the star he was earlier in his career with the Blue Jackets, it’s unlikely the Rangers can sustain it. Not because they don’t have the talent, but because a number that high, and an increase of that much, shows the Rangers have gotten a fair share of puck luck, which can be measured by their PDO.
In the 2013-14 regular season, New York had a 5-on-5 PDO, combined shooting and save percentage, of 99.7, which means the Rangers were playing, and scoring, at a sustainable rate. This season, they have the league’s highest PDO at 102.2 – ahead of even Montreal, which has a 0.50 save percentage lead on the rest of the league at 5-on-5.
The increased scoring and PDO are, obviously, tied together because when you’re scoring, your shooting percentage is going to go up. So, while the numbers may be unsustainable, they’re not altogether concerning, especially because New York’s save percentage is largely unchanged from last season. What is a bit worrisome, though, is that the Rangers’ strong possession game from last season has slipped a great amount.
The off-season changes to the Rangers’ roster have made a substantial impact on the dip in possession overall. In effect, New York made the following swaps: Anton Stralman for Dan Boyle, Brian Boyle for Kevin Hayes and Benoit Pouliot for some combination of Tanner Glass, Jesper Fast and, since the trade deadline, James Sheppard.
It’s hard to knock Dan Boyle, Hayes, Fast or Sheppard. And GM Glen Sather’s moves to free up salary cap space were necessary. But Stralman and Brian Boyle – both lost to Tampa Bay as unrestricted free agents – were key defensive pieces of the Rangers last season. Stralman made nearly every player he lined up with better and Boyle rarely, if ever, saw starts in the offensive zone and was still able to post a nearly 50 percent possession rate.
As for Pouliot, while he got a healthy dose of offensive zone starts last season, attempting to replace him with Glass, Fast and others is difficult when Pouliot had been a tremendous possession player regardless of where he started his shifts.
Here’s how the roster changes have affected the Rangers at 5-on-5, all per 60 minutes: they get 3.4 fewer shot attempts for, allow two more against and their shot attempts percentage has dropped by 2.5 percent (to 49.9). While it may seem insignificant, a 2.5 increase in their shot attempts percentage would bump them from 19th in the NHL to ninth and put them ahead of the bulk of the Eastern Conference, right alongside division rivals Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders.
From an analytical perspective, the Rangers’ triumph over the Eastern Conference in 2013-14 could have been seen coming. Only one playoff team, the Boston Bruins, had a better shot attempts percentage. There has been a consistent correlation between puck possession and winning in the post-season – just ask the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, two of the dominant teams in the league that have combined to win the last three Stanley Cups.
There’s no telling what incredible goaltending and an on-fire offense can do in the playoffs, but one thing is for sure: for better or worse, these aren’t the same Rangers that made the final last season. Maybe the increased scoring will get them the extra wins or maybe the option of Talbot is enough to push Lundqvist’s game to an even higher level. Fact is, if New York is going to make a serious push for the Stanley Cup this season, it will be in an entirely different fashion.