31 in 31 NHL Season Review: New York Rangers
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
New York Rangers
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the New York Rangers, who acknowledged they are going to look to rebuild and began doing so by trading captain Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash at the trade deadline, along with the buyout of Dan Girardi last summer. I think this is a smart move for the organization but this offseason will be critical to set the tone for how they are going to approach the rebuild.
Season Bright Spots
The biggest bright spot has to be the team has acknowledged they have a flawed core and are looking to rebuild. I have a philosophy when it comes to team building and up until now, I think the Rangers have previously came up short in adhering to it. I think once teams come as close to a Stanley Cup as they possibly can but still fall short, they need to adjust their core. After coming up just short in the 2013-2014 season, it should have been apparent a team with the same core likely wasn’t going to get it done. The Rangers kept largely the same core, came up shorter, then still kept a very similar core, and really repeated that until now. Had they acknowledged their flaw earlier, the return they received for many players could have been even greater. Now that they have realized their need to rebuild, I am going to count that as a positive.
The Rangers appear to have some promising young defensemen in their organization. I like Brady Skjei a lot. This year he played all 82 games, while posting a positive relative Corsi For Percentage. The only two defensemen to perform better in relative Corsi For Percentage, were also young players; those two players were Tony DeAngelo and John Gilmour. It looks like the Rangers have three promising young blueliners who could start regularly contributing as early as next season. Neal Pionk also made some noise for his point streak at the end of the season but his possession numbers are much less promising.
I’m honestly struggling to find other bright spots. Ranger fans have to be happy with Mika Zibinijad. He was the team’s best forward when looking at possession numbers and is on a very team friendly contract, with a cap hit of just $5.35M for the next four years. If he were on the open market, he would easily have a cap hit of at least $7M, maybe even above $8M. Having that type of cap savings, provides the Rangers with some flexibility going forward or maybe makes eating Dan Girardi’s contract more palpable.
To put things frankly, the Rangers were lucky (or unlucky depending on how you feel about racing to the bottom) to finish as high as they did. The Rangers were the worst possession team at 5v5 by more than a full percentage point. They were propped up by a PDO of nearly 1, having a league average shooting percentage and league average goaltending at 5v5. If you want to look at their underlying numbers in an optimistic way, you can be comforted by the fact that they were not propelled by luck. In reality, nearly everyone on the team could be discussed here.
When I’m looking at the numbers for the Rangers’ forwards, I am left to wonder if their forward group is one of the weakest in the league. They at best have five forwards, Zibanejad, Kreider, Buchnevich, Namestnikov, and Zuccarello, who I look as borderline first-line, quality second-line players. I don’t think Buchnevich has lived up to the hype that accompanied him as he was coming into the league.
Kevin Shattenkirk’s play also had to disappoint Ranger fans this season. After being the big fish in free agency, he missed half of the season and was basically an average player in the games he played. He did manage to finish with a positive relative Corsi For Percentage (.47%), though barely, and it was propelled by good shot suppression. For a defenseman who is thought of as someone who drives offense, that is certainly not an encouraging sign.
The Rangers are going to be one of the most fun teams to watch this offseason. They have three first-round picks, two of which will be late in the round though. They also are currently projected to have $24.5M in cap space and they need top end talent. I don’t think handing out big money deals with term would be a smart approach. The team is likely one of the favorites to land Ilya Kovalchuk, who might instantly become the team’s best forward. The wise move would be to only give him a year or two length, even if it would require the team to pay a little more. The front office has done a great job clearing undesirable long-term contracts off the books and can’t afford to just spin the wheels.
The other name who is going to be connected to the Rangers is John Tavares. Like Kovalchuk, he would certainly add the top end talent the team needs, but signing Tavares would likely eat up half of their cap space for next season. Potentially pair that with Kovalchuk and the team is likely left with $6M to $8M in cap space. Even though they need top talent, they can’t completely sacrifice their depth either, unless they are comfortable enough with some of their young, cost-controlled players filling those roles.
I think if the Rangers approach this offseason correctly, meaning they don’t throw tons of money around in free agency, they can really set themselves up to be a future powerhouse. They need to look at the broader picture when it comes to how they approach this offseason. They play in a division with Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Washington, teams who are in a win-now window, and New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Carolina, who are teams on the rise. The Rangers would be wise to wait for one or two of the win-now teams’ windows to close before they look to be aggressive.
This means a couple things. First, they should definitely not trade any of their first-round picks for veteran players. Next, do the Rangers have a conversation with Lundqvist about potentially moving on? It might behoove both parties to seriously consider this. I also think the Rangers should just keep Marc Staal and Brendan Smith on the roster (or buried in the minors) unless they can find a willing party to make a trade with. Any trade should not involve the Rangers giving up assets to move the salaries, retaining salary cap would be fine on one of them though.
One avenue that I would look to explore is to package some of their first-round picks to get higher in the draft to get top end talent. I’ve written it many times already that it takes two to tango and I don’t see many teams at the top moving down, as they too have needs for top talent. The Oilers could be the exception here, as they could really benefit from adding more depth, even if those players aren’t quite as talented. Or the Oilers could look to acquire two first-rounders to trade for players they think will make an immediate impact.
I think the Rangers are set up much better for the future than a lot of the other teams that finished around them or below in the standings. They need to stay the course though and not get blinded by the glitzy names in free agency. That is going to be tough for a team playing just blocks away from Broadway. The majority of the signings the Rangers should focus on is their restricted players. They also could probably benefit from adding another goaltender who can be relied on. I don’t really think Lundqvist will be moved but having someone else that can provide him with more rest through the season has to be a top priority. I doubt Washington would move Grubauer inside the division, but he would be my ideal target were I in charge of the Rangers.
The Rangers have a chance to make this summer really fun and interesting for their fans, but I think a quiet offseason is what should make fans excited.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Edmonton Oilers. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.