If the New York Rangers' record is any indication of how the team's season is going, then new general manager Chris Drury's effort to transition the organization from rebuilders to Stanley Cup contenders is going exceptionally well. The Blueshirts are 23-9-4 and rank fifth in the NHL by point percentage, and the vibes around the team are as positive as they've been since the rebuild began in 2018. Head coach Gerard Gallant has instilled a playing style that has, at minimum, given the team a semblance of identity and the players an understanding of how to work together cohesively.
However, the underlying numbers and how the team looks on some nights cast a healthy serving of doubt. Per Evolving Hockey, the Rangers rank 23rd by expected goals percentage at even strength. Money Puck gives seven Eastern Conference teams better odds of making the Stanley Cup Final. And it's not just statistics, as Gallant himself has bemoaned the way the team has played even in some of its wins.
The conflicting information has made it difficult to assess whether the Rangers are a legitimately strong team primed for a deep playoff run or a paper tiger that's going to drop off soon and become exposed in a best-of-seven series. Armed with a surplus of cap space and trade assets as well as clear holes in the lineup begging for upgrades, the Rangers are positioned to make moves of some kind before the March 21 trade deadline.
Very Special Teams
If the Rangers are getting buried at even strength, how are they winning? A major component is how they're doing in all other situations. Both their power play and penalty kill rank among the league's best:
Special teams can be streaky, but the roster is designed to thrive in these situations. The top power-play unit is well-designed, with Adam Fox an elite quarterback, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin high-end triggermen, and Ryan Strome a capable playmaker from the half wall. But the biggest factor is Chris Kreider, who has surpassed Dallas' Joe Pavelski as the best net-front presence in the NHL. Kreider's power-play scoring speaks for itself this year, but he's also phenomenal at moving into the goaltender's vision for screen opportunities. That doesn't show up on his personal stat sheet, but it does on everyone else's.
On the penalty kill, Gallant has accomplished what prior head coach David Quinn could not: finding the right personnel. Forwards Barclay Goodrow and Kevin Rooney, for all their faults at even strength, have been a massive presence on the penalty kill. So have defensemen Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba. And although their penalty kill may be overperforming their expected goals numbers, that can largely be explained by the presence of goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who has 5.68 goals saved above expected while short-handed.
Despite their even-strength struggles, once all situations are accounted for, the Rangers rank 13th in the league by expected goals percentage.
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It's true that the Rangers have been outplayed in a number of games this season only for Shesterkin to steal victories for them. Per Evolving Hockey, he ranks second among all goaltenders by goals saved above expected, and that's despite missing a decent number of games because of COVID-19 and an injury.
But Shesterkin's presence in the lineup is not a fluke. The Rangers drafted and developed him. They jettisoned Henrik Lundqvist to make room for him, and they're now paying him a hefty salary. This is not a run-of-the-mill goaltender who is getting hot making lucky saves.
The organization is going to want the rest of the team to tighten up and ease his workload, but getting great goaltending should not be something the team should have to apologize for. The Rangers would have a hard time winning without Shesterkin, but they do have him, and his presence counts when analyzing why they have a high ceiling. If he continues to play this way, he should be in the mix for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
Breaking Down the Record Further
Of the Rangers' 36 games so far this season, 20 have been against teams currently not in playoff position. To their credit, they have done what good teams do and absolutely demolished all weak competition, compiling a 16-2-2 record in those games.
But that means they've earned most of their points against bad teams. They have just seven wins in 18 games against teams in playoff position by points percentage.
They also haven't been tested within the Metropolitan Division. The Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are contenders, yet the Rangers have only played one game against the three, a 5-1 loss to Washington in the opening game of the season. Games against these teams are not only a litmus test for where they stand but also have implications for where they will land in the standings. Until they play those teams, it will be impossible to know how they stack up.
Are Their Winning Ways Sustainable?
The way the Rangers are winning games is not the most traditionally convincing way to do so. They're often overmatched at five-on-five and are riding special teams and goaltending. In most cases, that is not a sustainable model for success. In the Rangers' case, however, there is reason to believe this isn't a flash in the pan. They're getting elite goaltending because their goaltending is elite. Their power play is a well-oiled machine with bona fide superstars complemented by other players who are perfect for their roles. Their penalty kill is headlined again by the goaltender but also well-designed tactically, funneling possession to the outside and led by personnel who are well-established as proficient shot-suppressors.
Special teams can run hot or cold and any goaltender is one awkward groin stretch away from season-ending surgery, but there is little reason to believe the Rangers won't continue to thrive in these areas.
Does that make them a clear contender that should prepare to go all-in for a Cup run this season? Not so fast. For one, whether because players are more disciplined or because refs swallow their whistles, there are fewer penalties in the playoffs. Therefore, even strength has a significantly greater impact on who wins a series. That's a major disadvantage for the Rangers as they're currently constructed.
More significant is that the best teams tend to be maxed out in almost every area. The Rangers may have great special teams and goaltending, but so do the Lightning and Maple Leafs. What those teams also have is strong five-on-five abilities. The Rangers' strengths would be negated and their flaws exposed against those types of teams. The Rangers are a good team, but it's hard to see them matching up against the top handful unless they improve their play at even strength.
What Is the Trade Deadline Plan?
As a matter of pure asset management, Drury's optimal play might be to do nothing. If this isn't a team that is realistically going to make a Cup run, they should hold on to their ammunition and save it for future seasons.
However, that strategy would be indefensible. This is not a computer simulation, and managing personalities is a key part of the equation. The Rangers took their lumps to rebuild, but at some point, a culture of complacency for the sake of asset hoarding will have a toxic effect on the organization. Veterans such as Kreider, Panarin and Zibanejad have waited for years to play a playoff game at Madison Square Garden. Youngsters such as Fox, Lindgren and Filip Chytil have experienced nothing but losing in their NHL careers.
The Rangers have to be trade deadline buyers—not only to improve the lineup and give the team better odds of winning in the playoffs but also as a symbolic showing of belief and reward for the players' successes this season.
That doesn't mean major moves must be made. A mid-round pick for a third-line forward and an added depth defenseman would give the team a boost. Or, if the Rangers are going to make a big splash, it makes more sense to do so for a player who could be around for multiple seasons such as Arizona's Jakob Chychrun or Vancouver's J.T. Miller. Selling the farm for a rental such as Tomas Hertl is a move a serious contender should make, but the Rangers don't appear to be that just yet.
Of course, the season is still young, as the Rangers have 24 games scheduled prior to the deadline. There's no need to rush to a judgment one way or another just yet. The Rangers don't look the part of a clear contender right now, but they don't need to. They're banking points in the standings and buying themselves time to figure things out. Nine weeks is more than enough time to make the necessary improvements at even strength and convince everyone they are true contenders for the Stanley Cup.