New York Rangers: Discussing the state of Rangers hockey

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 28: An overview of the fully renovated Madison Square Garden during a game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens on October 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 28: An overview of the fully renovated Madison Square Garden during a game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens on October 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Bringing in fellow analysts to break down all things Rangers hockey.

Welcome to Blue Line Station! If you are new here, we’re happy to see you here. If you’re a regular reader, you’re in for a treat. Recently I reached out to Kevin DeLury of TheNYRBlog, Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter, and Dave Shapiro of Blue Seat Blogs to discuss all things New York Rangers hockey. You can find my work here at Blue Line Station and on Twitter at Brandonco4.

There are plenty of fantastic follows across Rangers twitter, but these are the head honchos of the best sites. You can find their podcasts here, and here.

Now that we’ve completed the introductions, let’s get into the discussions. I sent five questions to each participant to provide us all with a sense of where the experts in the blogosphere feel the Rangers are. Let’s take a look!

Question #1: How do you feel about the state of Rangers hockey today? Are you confident with the team’s present? The future?

Brandon Cohen: 

Complicated! The defense is a completely different animal than last year’s. New York potentially moved from a bottom five defense in the league to a top five defense, depending on how Nick Holden and Marc Staal are handled. I am not concerned about the backup goalie situation at all, and the additional prospects (including Filip “God” Chytil) helps for the future.

That being said, the center situation is concerning. It’s a major question mark for the present and future. Right now I am confident, but I need to see one more center brought in to be thrilled. Perhaps a player like Derek Stepan? I’m so sorry.

While the center situation causes concern, there’s plenty of time left. Let’s see how it plays out.

Joe Fortunato:

A whole hell of a lot better than I felt a week before free agency. Buying out Dan Girardi was critical toward fixing both the team’s financial issues and improving the defense with addition by subtraction.

Brendan Smith being re-signed helped shore up the top-four, and Kevin Shattenkirk joining the team is exactly what the doctor ordered. I would argue the Rangers have the best one-two punch on their top pair with Ryan McDonagh and Shattenkirk, and their top four is up there as well.

Are there question marks? Sure. Losing Derek Stepan without a real center plan isn’t amazing, and we still don’t know that the bottom run of the Rangers defense is going to look like, but I think the Rangers are in a much better place today than they were. This, of course, assumes Mika Zibanejad is signed.

Kevin DeLury: 

As someone who remembers the agony of the late 90s into early 2000s, I’m very encouraged with the current state of the Rangers. Sure, the salary cap basically forced Sather and the rest of Blueshirts management to prioritize developing from within, but qualifying for the playoffs 11 of the last 12 years is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, there have been mistakes along the way (Girardi/Staal contracts) but what organization doesn’t have some warts.

Just two years ago, the Rangers looked like an old, tired team while being bounced in just five games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. Now, they have one of the more exciting, young rosters in the NHL. Further fortifying my confidence in the direction of the team is the complete overhaul of the defense this summer which has gone from a weakness to a strength.

My one concern with the current squad is the lack of depth up the middle. Moving Stepan left a crater sized hole at the pivot position which has yet to be filled. There’s still time and options for Gorton, but until the center position is addressed, the Rangers are nothing more than a bubble team this season.

For the first time since taking over as starting goaltender back in 2005, I don’t feel the Rangers window will close shut once Henrik Lundqvist retires. Between the current philosophy, my confidence in Gorton as well as a Russian kid named Igor Shestyorkin, the organization is well positioned to handle such a devastating blow.

Now we just have to hope Alain Vigneault doesn’t screw it up.

Dave Shapiro: 

The hole at center notwithstanding, I feel fairly good about the Rangers this year. They have the potential to be a sleeper pick out of the East, assuming Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay get all the hype.

If they add a center, I think they can realistically come out of the East this year. The future is interesting, if only because the forwards are a bit of a question mark, with Zuccarello and Kreider as the elder statesmen.

But with Andersson and Chytil, the latter of which I’m really jazzed about, in the fold, I feel strangely confident.

Related Story: Rangers upcoming season hanging on one transaction

Question #2: Henrik Lundqvist is 35 and posted the worst individual statistics of his career last season. How much longer do you see him being a top notch goalie for the Rangers? Do you think the window closes when he’s toast?

Brandon Cohen: 

 I am not overly concerned. This season will serve as a major indication of how much Lundqvist has left in the tank. Last season Lundqvist was stuck playing behind a series of sub-par at best defensemen, setting him up for failure.

While he looked lost at times, that may have been due to attempting to overcompensate for the defense in front of him. This year, Lundqvist will not have a weak defense in front of him. If his numbers continue to drop, regression should be on our minds. If Lundqvist returns to form, we know what caused the problems last season.

I do not believe the window closes when he is toast, but I do believe the Rangers must cut ties when the time is right. Playing an over the hill Lundqvist as a favor to him would be disastrous, especially with the young talent in the organization. Hopefully this is a discussion for many years from now, though.

Joe Fortunato:

 I’m not putting a ton of stock into last year’s issues, to be honest. Playing in front of a crap defense has its drawbacks, and Alain Vigneault didn’t help with the way he utilized Antti Raanta in the middle of the year. When it counted in the playoffs, Lundqvist was exactly what you needed from him.

Eventually (it could be this year, or next year, or the year after that) we will see Lundqvist fall into a hole. It’s impossible not to flare out in the NHL (time is undefeated) but Lundqvist has the misfortune of falling into his own shadow.

The expectations he’s created for himself are so high that anything short of perfection will be looked at as failure. The good news? Historically you don’t need elite goaltending to win a Stanley Cup.

The other good news? The Rangers probably have the deepest goalie pool in the NHL, and there stage is set to crown a new king in three or four years. The window doesn’t close when Lundqvist’s does — so long as Gorton keeps playing it straight.

Kevin DeLury:

With proper rest, Lundqvist should be able to maintain his status as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL for the remainder of his contract.

While The King is coming off the worst statistical year of his career, I feel it was less about his age than it was the result of his season being disrupted by a number of stops and starts due to injury and Antti Raanta’s strong play. Unfortunately, Lundqvist was never able to find a rhythm or consistency.

The Frolunda native has proven over the years that he thrives under an intense workload, but has become a bit injury prone the last few seasons, so it will be incumbent upon Vigneault to find the perfect balance going forward.

Which is why Ondrej Pavelec will be so crucial this season. If he can provide the same performance both Cam Talbot and Raanta offered in the past, it should give the Rangers head coach the confidence to sit his starting netminder to avoid burnout during the stretch run and hopefully the postseason.

Dave Shapiro: 

I want to see what Hank does with an actual defense in front of him this year before I judge. I don’t think he’s done. Even if he slips from elite, he’s still a great goalie. When he’s ready to call it quits, Shestyorkin is there.

Related Story: How the Rangers should acquire their missing piece

Question #3: Let’s talk fancy stats. How vital are they in your analysis? How much of the picture do you believe they tell? What do you think about the polarizing nature of them?

Brandon Cohen: 

Fancy stats are important, but cannot tell the whole story. For example, the Rangers saw plenty of players post below average possession statistics last season. In fact, Kevin Hayes appeared to be one of the worst players in the league based on possession numbers alone.

I do not believe the Rangers possess a team of poor possession players, nor do I believe Hayes is even a below average player. Those numbers stemmed from a defense unable to move the puck. Watch Ryan McDonagh’s numbers rise dramatically, as well as the entire offense.

One more example. Brandon Pirri was a player I expected to be efficient despite Florida/Anaheim fans telling me to look past the numbers. The analytics community still supports him. What I can say is he’s the player that solidified in my mind that some players you simply need to see to get a full read of. He was awful for the Rangers. Once opposing teams figured out he was a shoot-only player, he was irrelevant. Stats won’t always tell a truth such as that one.

However, fancy stats are also valuable. The more information the better. It’s about putting the statistics into context rather than accepting them as the only information that matters. Once you use exclusively advanced statistics, you’re doing it wrong.

Joe Fortunato: 

I think fancy stats play a critical role in both player and team evaluation. I am of the mind that statistics have value when they’re used as a way to confirm theories you’ve created when you watch the game.

No one uses corsi on its own anymore, but there’s a value of that stat along with many others. I think the people who use a single statistic as the only form of measurement are just as mis-informed as those who don’t use it at all.

Analytics color in the picture hockey sketches for you.

Kevin DeLury:

This is my favorite quote about Corsi: “Teams don’t dominate because they generate more shot attempts. They have more shot attempts because they are dominating.” Far too often in the #fancystats debate it’s overlooked that Corsi and other possession metrics are nothing more than measurements not tactics. If a team and its individual players are playing the right way (i.e. forechecking, successful zone entries/exits, going hard to the net, winning puck battles), it’s very likely they’re going to dominate puck possession.

And if the possession stats surprisingly state otherwise, there are a number of supplemental metrics including PDO, quality of competition, zone starts and quality of linemates that should be able to provide a logical explanation. Not to mention the corresponding video work that must be done.

While hockey analytics are far from being perfect, they are currently the best indicator an organization can use to predict the future performance of their own team and players as well as trade targets and free agents. I don’t use fancy stats too often in my analysis, but whenever I’m looking at possible free agent or trade targets for the Rangers, I always check their underlying stats to see if there’s any indicators to support or deny my initial reaction to a player.

Similar to most polarizing issues, the lack of listening on both sides is leading to further division. I was initially vehemently against possession metrics, but once I shut my mouth and actually listened to those with credibility (which wasn’t easy because of the smugness that is all too often prevalent within the analytics community) I began to understand the value. If you’re still a denier, it would behoove you to do the same.

Dave Shapiro: 

I wrote a huge primer on this last year (see here.) Without rehashing it all, stats are important. Your eyes lie to you based on your own personal bias. It’s human nature. That said, there’s a lot of value missing in player evaluations, specifically how a player fits into a system.

As we’ve learned with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, systems and skill sets matter. Anyone telling you it’s 100% stats or 100% eye test is doing it wrong, and is someone you should ignore.

Related Story: Examining Jeff Gorton's rebuild on the fly

Question #4: How do you feel about the state of the NHL in general? What’s one rule change you would like to see?

Brandon Cohen: 

There are plenty of rules worth changing, so I will go off the board a bit here with two ideas. 99% of hockey fans agree there must be some change regarding the puck over the ice delay of game rule. Here’s my fix. Compromise and make it a one minute penalty. Turning it into a one minute penalty does not punish the player enough to provide the other team with a full power-play, but does punish them enough to make their team play shorthanded.

Players will not want to handicap their team, but they also will not be punished as severely. Works to serve both purposes.

The other concept is if a fight happens, the opposing team’s coach gets to pick one player on the ice to serve the penalty in addition to the fighter. That means if Tanner Glass fights while Ryan McDonagh is on the ice, Barry Trotz could take Glass and McDonagh off the ice for five minutes.

The rule would not eliminate fighting altogether, but it would make it nearly impossible to justify the act. Yet another compromise.

Joe Fortunato:

I’ve tinkered with the idea of removing offside from the game until a puck has been brought into the offensive zone over the blue line — then clearing the puck requires everyone to leave the zone. Sure, people might say you’ll have cherry pickers, but I doubt it. The NBA has no offside and there aren’t guys standing under the basket waiting for things to happen because you’d be at a disadvantage on the other side of the ice.

It might need more work that just a blanket idea, but that’s a big theory one I have. In terms of hard rules right now? Remove the trapezoid and let the goalies play the puck. Or the puck over the glass rule.

Boy there’s more here than I thought.

Kevin DeLury:

Being an old school hockey fan, I’m not keen on the league getting away from the toughness that is interwoven into the fabric of the NHL. I don’t have an issue with Gary Bettman attempting to focus on skill, but back in the 1980s the league had both and the game was never better or more popular.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get giddy just thinking about the future of hockey led by McDavid, Karlsson and Mathews, but at the same time I find myself frustrated by the lack of Averys and Carcillos currently on NHL rosters.

Those agitators brought personality and unpredictability that is currently lacking in the NHL and I for one think the league is worse off because of it.

Dave Shapiro:

 I hate that stupid puck over the glass penalty. Get rid of it. Instead of a penalty, just make it like an icing. No change, and faceoff in your own zone. One of these days, a Cup is going to be decided on that rule. Beyond that, we all know there’s a lockout coming, so how great can I possibly feel about the NHL?

Related Story: Potential Rangers trades before the season

Question #5: What do you see happening in the upcoming season? Can you give one bold prediction for the remainder of the offseason, or for the regular season?

Brandon Cohen: 

Tough to predict the future without knowing New York’s full roster, but I have them pegged to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Rangers acquire a top six center, that may change.

Bold prediction: Neither Nick Holden nor Marc Staal are in the organization by the Trade Deadline. Oh, and Filip Chytil (The Greg Bird of hockey) wins the Calder, Hart, Norris, and Vezina. (Goes without saying he will win the Conn Smythe)

Joe Fortunato:

 Bold prediction: Pavel Buchnevich notches 60 points.

Kevin DeLury:

This season I forecast that we’ll see a few non-playoff teams from last year such as Tampa, Dallas and Carolina take big steps forward while noted power houses such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington might fall off a bit.

My one bold prediction for the remainder of the offseason is that the Rangers will acquire Duchene in a blockbuster trade that’ll include Miller or Kreider.

While my big prophesy for the regular season is a Norris Trophy for Mr. Dan Girardi.

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Dave Shapiro: 

I don’t know if this is a bold prediction for this offseason, but I think Nick Holden gets traded at some point before the season starts. I also think Marc Staal is gone before next season starts.

As for this season itself, if the Rangers stay healthy, I’m going to be bold and predict a lengthy playoff run through June.