With a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast), the New York Rangers can safely look forward to their first trip to the NHL’s round of 16 since 2017. And in fact, this season is shaping up to be one of the franchise’s most exciting in recent memory. New York’s .670 points percentage is on pace to be its second-best in any season since the 2005 lockout (trailing only the 2014-15 season, when the team came within a win of making its second Stanley Cup Final appearance in a row), and the Rangers’ current 1544 Elo rating ranks among their 20 best seasons ever through 53 games:
And yet, despite all of this, there are a surprising number of major question marks surrounding New York’s potential as a Stanley Cup contender. From their reliance on outlier star performances to the sustainability of how they’ve been playing the game itself, the Rangers are a far more perplexing team than the rest of their peers atop the NHL rankings.
To the former concern, it may seem odd to worry about any team having too much star power. But few teams this season have been as top-heavy as the Rangers, in terms of a small number of stars driving most of their success. According to Modified Point Shares per 82 team games, New York’s five best players — defenseman Adam Fox; forwards Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin; and goalie Igor Shesterkin — have collectively produced 57 percent of the team’s total value, the fourth-highest share by any top five in the league. That group has also generated the third-most combined value of any team’s top five (trailing only the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames). And while teams like Colorado and Calgary have received plenty of contributions from outside their headline stars, New York has gotten the league’s 14th-fewest MPS per 82 from players beyond its top five — and very few of the teams ranked below the Rangers in that regard are headed for the playoffs.
So the Rangers are unique among top teams in how much they rely on a small core of players to produce victories. In itself, though, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Even during the playoffs, when checking gets tighter and the conventional wisdom may suggest a team that can shut down just a few opposing stars has an advantage, there isn’t any evidence that a top-heavy team like New York is automatically set up for disappointment.
Going as far back as the 2006 playoffs, I looked at the relationship between a team’s top-heaviness and its postseason wins, while also controlling for its overall quality (according to both total MPS per 82 and pre-playoff Elo ratings). Whether judging by the share of MPS produced by a team’s top players or those top players’ total production, there isn’t any measurable effect whereby a team with its value tied up in a small group of stars does worse in the playoffs than a team with its contributions spread out more across the roster.
The actual concern for the Rangers may simply involve who those stars are. Although Fox, Zibanejad and Panarin have a prior track record for the kinds of seasons they’re enjoying this year, the same can’t quite be said for Kreider and Shesterkin.
The 30-year-old Kreider has been a really good player for a long time, but this season is on an entirely different level from the rest of his career. With 34 goals, he currently ranks third in the NHL — already topping his previous career high by six goals, with 29 games (or 35 percent of the schedule) still left to play. If he keeps up this 53-goal pace, he would become the first player aged 30 or older with a previous 25-goal season to also improve on his previous career high by 25 goals:
|Player||Season||Age||Prev. Career High||Season Goals||Diff.|
(Keen-eyed readers will recognize that Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert were each members of the Rangers in 1971-72, when all three shattered their previous career norms while playing on the “Goal-A-Game Line” together. So there is at least some precedent for what Kreider is doing under the bright Madison Square Garden lights.)
The way Kreider scores also makes him an outlier relative to his peers. As The New York Times noted in a recent profile, Kreider works hard to own the patch of ice directly in front of the opposing goalie, usually tipping in another teammate’s shot with his back to the net or dredging up loose pucks and stray rebounds to score. In that sense, Kreider is a “garbage man” goal-scorer the likes of which the league doesn’t see much anymore. According to data from the highly recommended Evolving-Hockey.com, the average Kreider goal this season has traveled just 13.6 feet, which is easily the shortest distance of any player with at least 25 goals (as of Feb. 28):
|Chris Kreider||NYR||34||13.6 ft.|
We don’t know whether Kreider’s career-best pace (and with it, his unusual style of scoring) will carry over to the rest of the season and the playoffs. But we do know that, despite Kreider’s prolific lamp-lighting, the Rangers have a subpar offense. According to goals per game, they have netted 0.14 fewer goals each night than an average team, relying mainly on defense and goaltending to keep them in games. And that’s where Shesterkin comes into the picture: The 26-year-old netminder has been nothing short of incredible so far this season, with a league-leading .941 save percentage and 34.6 goals saved relative to an average goaltender. Shesterkin is not only looking like the overwhelming favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, but he is also drawing MVP consideration for his stellar play.
Still, Shesterkin is having nearly as much of a breakout as Kreider is, relative to his previous career. In just his third NHL season, his second as a No. 1 goalie and his first starting more than 31 games, Shesterkin’s save percentage is perhaps untenably gaudy; only three qualified seasons in history have ever seen a goalie produce a mark of .940 or better over a full schedule. And if Shesterkin comes down even a little off his MVP-caliber pace, the Rangers could be in real trouble because of how much their playing style asks the goaltender to be great in order for the team to win.
If we dig beyond the Rangers’ strong record and even past their good-if-not-elite goal differential (+0.40 per game, 10th-best in the league), we find a club without the usual hallmarks of sustainable success. At 5-on-5 with the score close this season, New York ranks fourth-to-last in the share of unblocked shot attempts it has generated in its games and second-to-last in the share of all shot attempts created. It also ranks second-to-last in its share of scoring chances created, fifth-to-last in its share of “high-danger” chances created and seventh-to-last in its share of expected goals created. By any of hockey’s most commonly used possession-based metrics, the Rangers are not just out of place among this season’s top contenders, but they actually look like one of the worst teams in the league.
How concerning should that be for New York as it vies for its first Cup since 1994? It’s certainly not a good thing … but it’s also just one piece of the statistical puzzle that makes for a championship contender.
Again going back to the 2006 playoffs, a team’s share of unblocked shot attempts is every bit as strong a predictor of postseason success (as measured by playoff wins) as a team’s points percentage. But goal differential is clearly a stronger factor than either points or possession — and that’s a metric the Rangers do look better in. A team can arrive at a good goal differential in many different ways: While some clubs, like the Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild, built their success on stellar offense with average (at best) defense and goaltending, others such as the Rangers and Boston Bruins have flipped that strategy around, winning with defense and mediocre scoring.
New York’s version of that formula, reliant as it is on a few high-performing stars and a near-total disregard for possessing the puck, might just be the most extreme we’ll see from any contender this season. Yet it would be foolish to write off the Rangers simply because of those attributes. Still, the rest of their regular season and playoffs will be a fascinating experiment in the sustainability of several unconventional approaches — both in how top-heavy to build a roster and how that roster should play.
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