Searching for a right winger for Zibanejad

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 17: Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers (L) celebrates his second period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights and is joined by Kaapo Kakko #24 (R) at Madison Square Garden on December 17, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 17: Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers (L) celebrates his second period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights and is joined by Kaapo Kakko #24 (R) at Madison Square Garden on December 17, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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This season has been a chemistry lesson for Coach Gerard Gallant and the New York Rangers.  He has been trying to find chemistry for his forward lines, a search that isn’t over yet.  With Chris Kreider a fixture with Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome attached at the hip to Artemi Panarin, the hunt has been for a consistent right winger for both lines.

We’ll look at the Zibanejad line, the line that has the most experimentation over the last few games due to an injury to Kaapo Kakko and we will focus on results from five on five play, an area that the Rangers have had issues with.  We’ll be looking at advanced analytics, courtesy of naturalstattrick.com.

Kaapo Kakko

Kakko has played the most with Zibanejad and Kreider, 252 minutes of ice time.  It’s a combination that has worked as the trio has had more shot attempts  (225-212),  shots on goal (135-11) and scoring chances (115-107) than the opposition.   That gives the trio a Corsi rating of 51.49%.

At 5v5, when the trio is on the ice they have outscored the opposition 9-6.

The most significant number is the high danger scoring chances generated by the line, 63-45,  a 58% advantage that has led to six high danger goals scored versus four for the opposition. With Kakko’s board work, Zibanejad’s playmaking and Kreider’s net front presence, they have been dangerous.

Alexis Lafrenière

Alexis Lafrenièrehas found himself on the left wing recently, with Kreider switching to the off wing. Lafrenière has also played the right wing on the line, though he isn’t as comfortable playing the off wing.

This season, the trio has played 60 minutes together They have played the opposition even on shot attempts, resulting in a 50% Corsi rating.   The line has outshot the opposition 29-24 and has scored twice while being scored upon once.

In terms of scoring chances, they are mostly playing even with the other teams.  They have a slight lead in scoring chances (27-26)  and high danger scoring chances (9-7).  They have scored two goals  versus one for the opposition with both coming on high danger chances.

Julien Gauthier

Julien Gauthier has played the least with Zibanejad and Kreider, a little over 23 minutes this season. When together, the line creates as many opportunities as it gives up, with a 51% Corsi rating based on a slight 20-19 shot attempt advantage.  Scoring chances are dead even, though they have generated six high danger chances compared to three for their opponents. Despite that, they have not scored a goal as a line and have surrendered one.

Barclay Goodrow

Barclay Goodrow has skated with Zibanejad and Kreider the second most after Kakko, though he appears to have found a home for now on the line with Strome and Panarin.  In the 90 minutes together with Zibanejad and Kreider they line found themselves on the negative side of possession stats.  Their Corsi rating was the worst of any trio at 39.38% based on a 63-97 shot attempt disadvantage.

The line was outshot 45-36 and gave up many more scoring chances 52-35 including more high danger chances 24-17.  Interestingly, the line outscored the opposition 6-5 when on the ice together.

Based on analytics, you can see why Goodrow has been on the Strome line as opposed to the Zibanejad line.

Pavel Buchnevich

For nostalgia and the sake of comparison, we looked at the analytics for the KBZ line last season, the year that Pavel Buchnevich broke out as an offensive star.  The results are surprising.  As a trio, they were on the ice together for 319 minutes and they were south of a 50% Corsi rating, allowing 285 shot attempts while they had 257 for a rating of 47.5%.  That resulted in a 154-138 shots on goal disadvantage.

However, at 5v5 as a line they outscored the opposition14-8.   They did allow more high danger scoring chances 51-47 and resulting goals 7-5.

Conclusions

The key number to look at is the expected goals for percentage (xGF%).  Using shot quality, this determines if the Rangers are expected to score more than the opposition when a specific line is on the ice. For a top line like Zibanejad’s, it’s a number that should be well above 50%.

Then you can compare the expected goals percentage (xGF%) to the percentage of goals actually scored (GF%).  A higher goals scored percentage will tell you if the line is exceeding expectations.

Here’s how the various wingers add up.  With Kakko, the line was expected to score 55% of the goals, but actually scored 60%.  With Lafrenière the expectation was a 59% advantage while the GF% was 67%.   Gauthier’s numbers are skewed because they have not scored at all as a line while they were expected to have a 48% share.  With Goodrow on the wing, the line had a 43% share expected but they achieved a 54% share of goals scored probably courtesy of Chris Kreider’s great season.

How well did Pavel Buchnevich do last season?  When that line was on the ice together, based on shot quality statistics, the expectation was they they would score 49% of the goals. Instead, they scored 64% of the goals and that’s why they were a success.

So what does it all mean?  The Rangers are an analytics fan’s nightmare.  As a “pass happy” team, it’s inevitable that their Corsi For percentages are confounding.  As a team, at 5v5 their xGF% is an awful 44.76%, better than only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres.  They are overachieving with a GF% of 49.7%, but that is still just 16th overall in the NHL.  Yet,  the team’s record places them among the elite teams in the NHL, despite their recent challenges.  It’s no mystery that they are succeeding on the play of their special teams and Igor Shesterkin.

What the numbers do say is that the Rangers are served equally well when Kaapo Kakko or Alexis Lafrenière play with Zibanejad and Kreider. Those two are the best option for that line and moving forward, it may be a good idea to see if Lafrenière can keep up with the good numbers.  That may mean a move to right wing for Chris Kreider and if he is comfortable with that and it doesn’t affect his fabulous scoring, it could be the best option.

That would allow Gallant to restore Kakko to the line with Strome and Panarin where he did just fine earlier in the season.  Then they could move Goodrow down to the third line and that would make the Rangers a deeper team, more than just a two line team.

There’s no doubt that Chris Drury is looking for help on the wing.  It would serve the team well to determine if there is a home grown solution for the top two lines.  If so, it could mean that Drury will end up looking for more depth scoring on the bottom six than trading young assets for a top six rental.

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