Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Are the Rangers Really an Elite Team?

Are you dreaming of Torts dancing on the ice at MSG with another Stanley Cup?  You might be if you believe what you are now reading in the press, typified by Barry Melrose and ESPN, who have proclaimed that the Rangers are a championship caliber team.  Blogs started the year critical of the Rangers, questioning the wisdom of the acquisition of Brad Richards, and suggesting more of the same mediocrity was coming.  Now, they praise Richards and the team. (See for example: Why The New York Rangers Are In First Place In The Eastern Conference)

Even Puck Daddy raves about the Rangers, and now claims to have never picked the Rangers' lower than third (failing to mention, of course, that the prediction was in third in the Atlantic, not the conference).  See: Puck Daddy - How the NY Rangers became the beasts of the East.

If you are dreaming, it's time to wake up.  The press and the blogs were wrong to be overly critical at the start of the year, and they are wrong to consider the Rangers an elite team now.  The Rangers are a good, hard working team.  They have several skilled players, a good system that matches their skill level, an elite goalie and an honest work ethic.  But, they are flawed and the flaws will be exploited by elite teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs unless addressed.

The first flaw is a lack of balanced scoring. The first line has 26 even strength goals: Gaborik G22 PP5 EN1; Stephan G8 PP2; Anisimov G7 PP2 SHG1 The second line only has 13 even strength goals: Richards G12 PP3 EN1; Callahan G13 PP6 SHG 1 EN1; Hagelin G6 The third line has a pathetic 5 even strength goals: Dubinsky G2; Mitchell G2 EN1; Boyle G2; Christensen G1 PPG1

The second flaw is scoring off of the left wing – on the power play or at even strength.  The top two right wingers, Gaborik and Callahan have 35 goals.  The top four left wingers have 13: Dubinsky, Fedotenko, Wolski and Hagelin.

The third flaw is the power play.  At 15.9 percent efficiency, the team ranks a solid 20th.   The power play was a horrible 12.9% after 17 games.  It has been a respectable 19% over the past 17 games. It is on the right path, but not where it needs to be.  For example, 27th on the road 7-62, 11.3%, will not win playoff away games.

Boston, San Jose, Detroit, and Vancouver are each highly likely to be able to shut down a one-line opponent. Chicago and St. Louis would likely be able to as well.  And, even if you have two scoring lines, since scoring in the playoffs at even strength is difficult, the lack of a good power play would likely be fatal anyway.  It is easy to take liberties against a Rangers' forward when you do not fear being burned on the power play.

The Rangers' problems are routed in the play of Dubinsky and the injury to Wolski.  Dubinsky was paid $16.8 million for four years at left wing because he led the Rangers with 24 goals and 30 assists last year.  Wojtek Wolski is getting $4 million ($3.8 cap hit) because he projected to be a 20 goal scorer off left wing – and a threat on the power play.   If either Dubinsky or Wolski were producing on the second line at a 20 goal a year clip, that line would be dominant.  And, the ripple effect would be significant too.  Hagelin, who has chemistry with Mitchell, would remain a real threat, giving us a real third line.  Then, even elite teams would have real issues matching up against the Rangers.

If Dubinsky and Wolski, who are paid to perform as top six forwards (4th and 5th in salary of all Rangers forwards), start to perform, the Rangers get healthy on defense and remain healthy overall, then the Rangers might actually belong among the elite teams.  If not, then that is why the GM makes the big bucks – and it is time to put the $8 million in cap space to better use.  (Ryan Smyth would look really good on the second line and on the PP.  Edmonton would be really smart to get a young defender, like Valentenko, which they need, and a third round pick for him. R.J. Umberger would look really good too - even if the cost were Dubinsky, Valentenko, Zuccarello and a third rounder.) This Rangers team is close to being Cup worthy, but not there yet.

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  • Steve N. said...

    Really great stuff. One thing I think people over-value is the power play... it's important, for sure, but you can win the Stanley Cup without it. 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners were in the bottom half overall NHL PP %... When New Jersey won in 2003, they were dead last...

    Important? Yes. Necessary? No.

  • Reacher said...

    The team will stay humble, because they know they can't win on talent. They have to use the hockey equivalent of ground and pound to win games.

  • jb said...

    Isn't it interesting that all the flaws you highlighted were a factor in last night's loss. Nice break down.