The Rangers have been an immensely frustrating team to watch from afar this season. If it feels like there’s been a divide between the way they’ve performed and the way they should be performing based on the talent their roster boasts, it’s probably because there is one. At least in theory, anyways.
While they’ve been collectively sputtering as a group for much of the year, it took some time for those underlying issues to finally manifest themselves in the results. Those blemishes were being masked by a spike in percentages which was propping them up, until it suddenly wasn’t anymore:
There isn’t a single team out there that would be able to keep its head above water while being simultaneously submarined by league-worst goaltending. Particularly in the case of this specific team, which we’ve come to expect a higher baseline output from in net based on how remarkably consistent Henrik Lundqvist has been for them for years now.
Ultimately no one is immune to these sorts of swings over the course of an 82-game schedule. The truth, as is generally the case, lies somewhere in the middle. The more alarming part for the Rangers in the macro sense should be how overtly dependant they’ve become on their goaltender to consistently clean up all of those mistakes that happen in front of him. By having placed so many of their eggs in the one basket they’ve left themselves especially vulnerable to this type of volatility (regardless of how handsome that basket may be).
The room for error shrinks when you’re a floundering five-on-five team without much else to fall back on, which they’ve been this season for really the first time in recent memory. Their ability to control the territorial battle both in terms of shot attempts and scoring chances has dried up when compared to the previous teams Alain Vigneault has overseen in years past.
It’s been something of a perplexing development for a squad that surely came into the year once again fancying themselves a contender, with no reason not to after having participated in the Conference Finals in each of the past two postseasons (and three of the last four). There have been a couple of notable additions and subtractions on the personnel front along the way, but for the most part the engine that’s kept them running has remained intact.
The brunt of the blame for that dip in play has curiously been apportioned to young forwards like Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg. Both guys have found themselves sitting in the press box on occasion with buzzwords like “effort”, “heart” and “accountability” (or maybe a lack thereof more precisely) being cited as the reasons why. For a coach or GM, singling players of that ilk out is an easier angle to peddle publicly, if only because it’s sure to rock the boat less than the alternative would.
Unfortunately it’s never that simple. There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of what ails them stems from the back-end, which as currently constructed is a group littered with aging players that are barely shadows of what they once used to be. With the Rangers being a team whose bread and butter in the past has been a lethal counter-attack, the root of those problems have only been magnified.
What’s been particularly glaring upon viewing has been their general inability to transition from defense to offense through the neutral zone in anything resembling an efficient manner. The Rangers’ own zone has become the place where breakout passes go to die this season.
As Dan Girardi and Marc Staal helplessly flail around in their defensive zone before eventually flubbing an otherwise routine pass to a waiting forward, it’s tough to reconcile that with how sparingly Keith Yandle has been used throughout. Particularly since he happens to possess the one skill, in great abundance at that, that this team so desperately craves. Here’s one example:
Those just happen to be two quick instances I came across in passing, though I’m sure there are many, many more out there for those that wish to go back and look for themselves. In both cases, Yandle essentially turns what initially may’ve looked like fruitless situations where he was sent back retrieving the puck deep in his own zone into scoring chances for his team in the blink of an eye.
It certainly helps that he was blessed with the innate talent of being able to do things with the puck which few others out there can. But equally as important is the mindset he possesses. Instead of panicking and wiring the puck off the boards and out harmlessly, he composes himself before utilizing his physical tools in the form of smooth skating and slick passing to complete the play.
Despite the fact that it’s 2016 now and the manner in which we process and evaluate the game is slowly but surely catching up to how rapidly the product has been changing, players like Keith Yandle are still saddled with the stigma of being just “offensive defensemen”. As if that’s some sort of derisive, singular characteristic that restricts the usefulness of a player playing that position.
What it really signals is that there’s still a chasm that needs to eventually be covered when it comes to establishing a fundamental agreement for what constitutes sound defensive play these days. The prototypical defensive anchors of yesteryear that used to come in the form of big, lumbering crease-clearers have since made way for crafty puck-movers that rely on guile, positioning, and playing with pace as much as anything else.
While those types of players certainly aren’t going to physically overpower opposing forwards like they used to, they don’t need to anymore as the demands of the position have changed. It’s been a transformation born out of necessity, with stragglers being passed by and exposed by attackers whose eyes light up once they see someone they know they can skate circles around facing them.
One of the common refrains used as an argument against the effectiveness of Yandle-types is that they’re liabilities in their own zone, far too prone to making big mistakes. For the sake of this discussion let’s look past the obvious omission bias issues that arise when focusing in on the one obvious gaffe a creative player that takes chances tends to occasionally make (all while blissfully overlooking the higher number of smaller magnitude, but in the long run equally damning miscues a more conservative player makes on a regular basis).
If a player really is the liability they’re perceived to be, you’d figure that as enough games worth of data accumulated we’d see some signs of that in their underlying numbers. Given enough time all of those shortcomings in their own zone would eventually bear themselves out in both the direction the territorial play and raw goal totals are slanted. Either that, or it’s ultimately not as big of an issue as it’s made out to be because the player is doing a bunch of other more subtle things to counteract those flaws.
In Yandle’s case we have well over 600 games worth to look at now, and sure enough, his team is once again faring significantly better in shot attempts, scoring chances and goals scored when he’s on the ice relative to when he’s not. The difference in percentage of shot attempts the Rangers control when Yandle is out there compared to when he’s on the bench (~+7%) is not just the best on his own team, but it’s also the 7th best mark in the league amongst all defensemen. He’s been doing this exact same thing for quite a while now.
For whatever reason all of that has seemingly fallen on deaf ears in New York. Yandle is the fifth-most commonly used Rangers blueliner at five-on-five, and their seventh-most frequently used player with the man-advantage. Even though he’s a blatantly obvious in-house solution for many of the issues that have plagued their team this season, he’s currently on pace to play less than he has at any point since he was a rookie.
I guess the way the entire situation has been mishandled shouldn’t be all that surprising when it involves the same organization that willingly opted to let ace two-way standout Anton Stralman walk by handing his older, significantly less effective teammate Dan Girardi a six-year, $33 million extension.
While that initial misstep was inexcusable in and of itself, compounding it by continuing to feed that sunk cost heavy minutes despite mounting evidence that he can’t handle it in even a passable fashion is almost just as egregious. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, now history will likely repeat itself with Yandle (admittedly under slightly different circumstances, given the type of money he’s expected to fetch on the open market this summer).
If Yandle had been as vital a contributor to Alexander Ovechkin’s 498th career goal as Girardi was, he’d either be raked over the coals or fired directly into the sun. To be fair to Girardi, he himself rarely ever makes a mistake that glaring. He much prefers the death by a thousand cuts approach, using the blunt object that is repeatedly being hemmed in his own zone to bludgeon his team into submission over the long haul.
Based on how they’re utilizing their chess pieces on the blue line this season, so do the New York Rangers apparently.