The defensive issues that the New York Rangers faced throughout the regular season have reappeared in the second round of the playoffs. With most of the inconsistency coming from the second pairing of Marc Staal and Nick Holden, it begs the question, why are they seeing ice time in important situations?
While there have been many goals against in the playoffs are a result of mistakes by a variety of players on the New York Rangers roster, and while where Staal and Holden have had moments where they have been effective, they by no means have shown any consistency.
In order for the Rangers to have a shot at a coming back from the 2-0 hole they have dug for themselves in the series against the Ottawa Senators, they will need to make adjustments.
Skjei and Smith as a Defensive Pairing
Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith have been dominant in the postseason thus far and deserve more time on ice.
New York Rangers
Smith has two primary assists in the eight playoffs games the Rangers have played this postseason has a Corsi-for percentage of 52.0% and leads the team with a plus-7 rating.
On-ice save percentage (oiSV%) is generally used to represent a defenseman’s ability to control the types of pucks that get through to the net. The higher the save percentage, the easier the save for the goaltender.
Lundqvist’s save percentage when Smith is on the ice 98.2, the highest of any defenseman on the Rangers roster.
These statistics clearly show that Smith has an ability to make an impact on both ends of the ice. He has a good ability to use his stick when the puck is high in the defensive zone, he is physical in the corners but also moves his feet to break up plays.
Since Skjei made his first appearance for the Rangers in the playoffs last year, he has proven that though he is young, he is a reliable defenseman. Skjei plays a good two-way game, can be physical but stay in position, has an ability to back-check as well as take pucks away as they enter the zone. He also is strong offensively and is best when he can step up in situations off the rush.
Having a reliable partner on the ice next to him has allowed Skjei to take advantage of this ability. He has four goals in the Rangers’ eight playoff games, scoring two in Saturday’s Game Two loss. In addition, he has a plus-5 rating (second to only Smith) a 52.4 CF% and pucks are saved 93.8%.
Staal and Holden as a D Pairing
Both Marc Staal and Nick Holden have struggled with their positioning this season. Each is physical in the zone, which is usually positive so long as players do not overplay pucks — which they both do, not in all cases, but many cases.
In an attempt to recover from overplaying pucks, these defensemen then go into last-resort-mode and dive in an attempt to block pucks. Moving their feet would be much more productive. Sometimes they get lucky and are able to get in front. However, more often they are bailed out by Henrik Lundqvist. The rest of the time these mistakes result in goals.
Staal has no goals or assists in any games for the Rangers in the postseason. He is minus-3 in his eight games this postseason and his CF% sits at dismal 45.9. Holden’s stats are similar to that of his linemate. He has one assist in the postseason, is minus-4 and has a CF% of 48.0.
Staal oiSV% through the postseason is a 91.1, Holden’s is worse at 88.4.
Holden had one assist in the series against Montreal, but is minus-4 through eight games and has a CF% of just 48.0.
Why Skjei and Smith Deserve more ice time
Staal and Holden were on the ice in important moments that did not go the Rangers way. They were on the ice for two of the four goals that Canadiens scored in the first round overtime loss on April 14.
This heartbreaking loss occurred after Staal and Holden were on the ice after an icing sent the Rangers back to the defensive end with 17 seconds left in the third period with the Rangers up by one. The Rangers lost the draw, Holden his stick, Staal his positioning, and the Rangers their lead.
Holden was also responsible for what was called “the worst defensive play of the entire 2016-17 season” on the play below:
While mistakes have been made by all defenseman on the roster — not all of the blame can ever fall on just one pairing — it seems that more chaos occurs when Staal and Holden are on the ice than does with any other pairing.
Because of this, Alain Vigneault should be seeing his third line pairing as an option to help take some of the pressure off of his top line of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi — especially the pressure on McDonagh.
Smith and Skjei have the best numbers defensively and numbers matter. Vigneault needs to give them a chance to serve a larger role than they are currently.
So far in this series against Ottawa, McDonagh and Girardi have appeared to be Alain Vigneault’s solution in important situations. While they are the most experienced (and I would have argued best if the last two games hadn’t happened), the reality is that almost every goal scored in Game Two allowed with this top pair were on the ice.
It is time for Vigneault to place more trust in his third line players. Skjei may be young and Smith may be new, but their numbers speak to what they are capable of.
They are strong and physical but consistent, play a positional game, have enough skill to make plays with their stick and move their feet and can step up on the rush.
Allowing these players an opportunity to step up will only benefit the New York Rangers moving forward. This will help even beyond this postseason.
Down 2-0 in the series, they need to make a change. Giving these players a chance could be a great solution.
At this point what more do they have to lose?