Could the lowly New York Rangers find themselves fighting the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Metropolitan division's top seed at season's end? Despite the league's worst goal differential, there's a path that takes the Rangers from the league's basement to a strong playoff seed when all 82 games are complete.
Great teams occasionally go on bad stretches, and that's exactly what could be happening here. There are persuasive arguments in favor of big improvements to their goaltending situation, a bounce-back on the Blueshirt blue line and everything coming together up front. If all of this comes to pass, then it's easy to see how there could be a Game 1 at Madison Square Garden next May.
A Disappointing Start
There is certainly good cause for pessimism in New York. They have scored only 15 goals in nine games and have allowed 33, for the worst goal differential in the league (-18).
The league's worst shooting percentage differential is mostly to blame for that. Their .883 save percentage is the league's second worst (to the Edmonton Oilers) and their 5.7 shooting percentage is dead last. Add it together and the Rangers have an unsustainably bad -6.1 percent shooting percentage differential, the next worst being Florida's -3.8 percent (source Extra Skater).
The good news is that there's a lot of luck involved in such skewed shooting percentages. A quick look through historical data as modeled by Hockey Abstract's Team Luck tool, for example, shows that teams with poor shooting percentage differentials always seem to bounce back.
Over a full season the worst shooting percentage differential over the past six years is -3.1 percent, courtesy of last year's Florida Panthers. Over a complete 82-game season the worst is Toronto's -2.5 percent in 2009-10. Even in a worst-case scenario, the New York Rangers can expect a massive improvement in both save and shooting percentages.
Furthermore, that worst-case scenario isn't even likely. To put the Rangers in the same category as last year's Panthers or the 2009-10 Leafs is an idea that would have been laughable a month ago.
It is not unusual at all for a great team to go 3-6 during any particular nine-game stretch. Last year's Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins closed the season 2-7, for example. As for the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, they went on a 1-6 stretch on three separate occasions throughout their Stanley Cup winning season.
Is the comparison to Boston and Los Angeles a stretch? Not at all. Analysts may be sour on the New York Rangers at the moment, but a month ago their status as a top-two team in the Metropolitan division was practically unanimous.
- All 12 ESPN experts had either the Penguins (nine) or the Rangers (three) winning the Metropolitan division (source: ESPN).
- The Hockey News had them finishing second to only the Penguins (source: THN).
- Sean Gentille of Sporting News saw it the same way (source: SN).
- Sean Hartnett of CBS actually had them finishing first in the Metropolitan (source: CBS).
- My colleagues at Hockey Prospectus had them second overall (to the Penguins) (source: ESPN).
- As for me, I had them fourth with 98 points (source: Bleacher Report).
- The Rangers were also very popular among bloggers, and some, like Lucas Carreras of Rant Sports, had them finishing with as many as 111 points (source: Rant Sports).
What could possibly justify a top contender like that suddenly being considered a draft lottery candidate? The injuries to Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin were already known at the time of these projections, and in some cases Derek Stepan's status was uncertain. Is the absence of Rick Nash really enough to pull a division leader to the basement? If so, he's seriously underpaid, even at $7.8 million.
It's more reasonable to conclude that the great strength seen in the New York Rangers a month ago didn't just disappear because the team is off to a slow start. There are solid reasons which each of these experts thought highly of the Rangers, reasons that still exist today, and begin between the pipes.
Goaltending Will Improve
Don't let the slow start fool you, the New York Rangers have the best goaltender in the league. That was the conclusion in my own Hockey Abstract book, which discovered that
...over the past five years, Lundqvist is second only to Tim Thomas in Vezina voting, is first by catch-all statistics like GVT and PS, has the sixth highest save percentage at even strength, enjoys the highest margin of difference between his even strength percentage and those of his back-ups, and his consistency ranks sixth by Quality Start percentage.
Don't forget that Lundqvist got off to a slow start in the 2010-11 season as well and went on to finish fourth in Vezina voting. Last year's Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, started the season with only three wins in his first 12 starts. Never put too much stock into short slumps, especially those that may have been affected by a minor but undisclosed injury. Put faith instead in his long track record of consistently elite goaltending.
Blue Line Will Bounce Back
In Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, the New York Rangers have one of the strongest defensive top three in the NHL, but at the moment they're a combined minus-18 over nine games.
This is not as bad as it looks. First of all, the Rangers have actually attempted more shots than their opponents with Staal on the ice. His minus-9 rating is actually a result of New York scoring on just 3.2 percent of their shots (at even strength) while their opponents are finding twine on 11.9 percent (source: Behind the Net).
As for Girardi, his offensive zone start percentage is just 35.2 percent, fourth lowest among NHL defensemen (source: Behind the Net). Only Jay Rosehill, Yannick Weber and Eric Gryba are lower, the first two of whom are getting bombed even worse than Girardi.
Furthermore, a quick look at Hockey Analysis shows that the line Girardi has been facing most often so far this season is Alexander Ovechkin's. After that? Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. It's hard to post great numbers when you're starting your shifts in the defensive zone and lined up against the Great Eight.
Of course, it's their job to be effective in situations like these. While they've struggled so far this season, McDonagh and Girardi first proved in the 2011-12 season that they can take on the toughest assignment in the NHL and still keep the team above water (source: Hockey Abstract). Bet on that trend to resume.
Forwards Will Adjust
The Vancouver Canucks gradually transformed from a strong team to an elite one under coach Alain Vigneault, and with it the Sedin twins went from being established 80-point players to Art Ross and Hart Trophy winners. The key was a new ice-tilting system that Vigneault introduced part way through the 2009-10 NHL season.
Vigneault's theory was to assign the defensive zone assignments to specifically tailored players, which then allowed his offensively gifted players to focus a greater share of their talent toward generating more scoring.
There's absolutely no reason why that system won't work in New York. The Rangers are just as deep in gritty, defensively responsible forwards as the 2010 Canucks. Players like Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, Taylor Pyatt, Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore all have the potential to play those defensive assignments. Indeed, four of them can be found among the 15 NHL forwards with the lowest offensive zone start percentages so far this season (source: Behind the Net). Vigneault has also been experimenting with Jesper Fast in this role.
What Vigneault needs next are some two-way players to work the Ryan Kesler role. He need not wait any longer than October 29th against the Islanders, when Carl Hagelin is eligible to return from offseason shoulder surgery. Unfortunately, a broken thumb will keep Ryan Callahan, one of the game's best do-it-all forwards, from joining Hagelin for about another three weeks.
That just leaves the scoring line. Obviously the loss of Rick Nash, who suffered a concussion from a nasty Brad Stuart elbow, will partially derail Vigneault's plans. That leaves a gap alongside Brad Richards and Derek Stepan on what could have been one of the league's highest scoring lines. While Vigneault doubtlessly hoped that either speedster Chris Kreider or Mats Zuccarello can fill in, it's more likely that he'll continue to lean on Derick Brassard instead.
One thing that is clear throughout this analysis is that the Rangers have great depth up front, giving him lots of options. Once Vigneault's system is fully in place and players start returning from the injured reserve, the Rangers are going to become one of the more difficult teams to face.
There are good reasons why all the experts picked the Rangers as the top threat to Pittsburgh's dominance of the Metropolitan division. They have the league's best goaltending, the best defensive top three in the NHL and a deep set of talented forwards that are soon to be unleashed by coach Alain Vigneault's proven system.
Great teams do occasionally go on bad stretches. There's no question that their slow start has hurt the Rangers. It may indeed have made a strong playoff seed less probable, but not less possible. Stick to your preseason expectations for at least a while longer.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.