New York Rangers Cup Window is Still Wide Open
The New York Rangers are no strangers to deep Stanley Cup Playoff runs; after two agonizing defeats in the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, and a game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Many are arguing that, due to the aging Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers are starting to see their window for a Stanley Cup closing; in fact, I believe the opposite is true.
The window for a Cup win is wide open.
Henrik Lundqvist is aging, there is no doubt about that. However, he has not shown many signs of it. Despite only playing in 46 games, he still managed to put up a 30 win season, having a .922 SV% (.933% at even strength) and a 2.25 GAA. He is putting up numbers right on his career average (which is a Hall of Fame career), and all signs point to that continuing for at least the next few years.
As evidenced in this chart given by war-on-ice.com, we can see that Hank is still ranked among the top goalies in the league. He is sandwiched in between Braden Holtby, Devin Dubnyk, Pekka Rinne and Ondrej Pavelec; that is some good company. There are some outliers, like Schneider, Anderson, Price and Mason; those are examples of very good goalies who face an inordinate amount of shots (as referenced due to the colors of their circles. Hank is in the upper echelon of goalies, and will be for the foreseeable future.
The weakest link on the Rangers going forward is their blue line; it is okay, but it is not elite. The biggest problem with the defensive corps is how they are aligned.
The graph above, again taken from war-on-ice.com, exemplify the issues with the blue line. All but two, Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle (Matt Hunwick should be disregarded because he played only a part of the season because he was the 7th defenseman on the team) have negative corsi numbers (corsi, by definition, means how many shots did the player have on goal, minus how many blocked shots by his teammates, and how many shots the opponent had while on the ice. It is about possession, and the ability to generate shots for his team, and how many chances he gives up); and good defensemen like Ryan McDonagh are paired up with players who completely kill possession like Dan Girardi, and their production get hurt as a result. Conversely, the forwards are almost all very good at driving possession and generating shots on goal; the only top line player with a negative corsi rating is Derek Stepan, and that I will contribute to an off year recovering from injuries. Dominic Moore is a very good center who is put in very poor positions; he is asked to take defensive faceoffs, and is paired with the puzzling starter Tanner Glass, who is far and away the worst player on the team, and consistently allows shots to be generated against him.
One of the biggest problems the blue line has is long-time Ranger Dan Girardi, and his usage.
As you can see, he has no business getting the first line minutes he does, and by doing so, he drags the entire defensive corps down with him. He consistently gives bottom line pairing production, but is given a top line pairing role; mostly due to his albatross of a contract. The fact that his production is so low hinders partner Ryan McDonagh greatly. Honestly, if he was a 6th or 7th defenseman I would have no qualms with him on the roster; he, unfortunately, is used very incorrectly. Luckily for the Rangers and the defensive corps, they have Henrik Lundqvist behind them.
Bad contracts like Dan Girardi are a nightmare, especially in the strict salary cap world that is the National Hockey League. Do to being stuck in contracts like Girardi, and to a lesser extent Marc Staal (who is just below him in corsi but still is a more productive member of the defense than Girardi is) and Kevin Klein, the Rangers are in a tight spot in terms of money; however they are starting to get out of it.
The Rangers signed forward Mats Zuccarello to a very good contract during the season.
According to this graph (taken from joshkhalfin.blogspot.com/2015/09/psam-version-3.html), his production is better than his contract in every single aspect; this is an excellent bargain for the Rangers and they need to continue this model in order to achieve their goal of being competitive.
Derek Stepan was also signed to a 6 year contract in the offseason.
While this is not the incredible bargain Zuccarello’s contract is, it is still a very good one, and a pattern the Rangers need to follow; locking up their incredibly talented and younger players earlier and cheaper than they can later. I do believe they will continue this model, especially with the promotion of Jeff Gorton to General Manager.
Gorton has made multiple smart moves; signing 7th defenseman Raphael Diaz, and depth forwards Jayson Menga and Matt Lindblad. He also signed Dylan McIlrath, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg all to cheap contracts where they greatly exceed their contractual expectations. He also took a flier on Jarret Stoll, who may be able to make an impact as a 4th liner/13th forward.
One of the biggest moves of the offseason, which was made during Sather’s last days as GM (but undoubtedly hand Gorton’s fingerprints all over it), on Draft Day, was the acquisition of Emerson Etem (and draft picks) for Carl Hagelin (and draft picks). This was a surprising trade for Rangers fans, but one that made sense in the long run. His contract was up, and while he is a solid 3rd liner and penalty killer, that is a role that is replaceable. In Etem they get a possible offensive star; he is really skillful and the sky is the limit, all he needs is consistent ice time, and in New York I can envision a Top 9 role for him. They also traded backup goalie turned part time starter (due to Lundqvist’s neck injury) Cam Talbot to Edmonton for multiple draft picks.
These are trades that are forced to be made in the salary cap era, and are examples that the Rangers are learning how things work in it. They are relying on J.T Miller, Emerson Etem and Jesper Fast, either one or all three, to take a step forward and take Hagelin’s role. Jesper Fast can kill penalties, and Miller and Etem have a lot of offensive potential. The salary cap world forces you to trade away players you can’t afford in order to keep your top stars; let’s face it, paying a 3rd line penalty killer $4m per year for four years is not prudent, in any sense of the word. In terms of Talbot, you cannot pay a backup goalie over $1m, no matter how good he is. Every cent counts when there is a salary cap, and some tough decisions will have to be made.
The Rangers also have some solid depth in their organization. Forward Pavel Buchnevich, who should be ready by next year, has all of the makings of a star by the way he’s playing is Russia. Oscar Lindberg signed a 2 year contract this year and looks like he will make the Rangers opening day roster. Defenseman Brady Skjei looks like he can be a valuable member of the blueline as early as this year, if they sort out the logjam back there. Newly drafted players Ryan Gropp and Brad Morrison were impressive in Traverse City for the Rangers. Fellow draftee Robin Kovacs seems to be bursting with potential, and all three of these players are a few years away. Adam Tambellini put up solid numbers in Traverse City after absolutely dominating for the Calgary Hitmen last year to the tune of 47 goals and 39 assists in 71 games in the WHL. Ryan Graves also looks like he has the potential to be a solid defenseman in the future as well, after becoming more and more offensive as well as defensive as he has matured. They are also crowded at goaltender in terms of prospects, with solid prospects like Brandon Halverson, Adam Huska, Igor Shesterkin, Mackenzie Skapski and Mangus Hellberg. While goalies are typically fickle creatures, the chances of at least one of these five very talented goalies making it and making it big in the NHL is high; it helps they have Benoit Allaire on their side.
On top of that, 11 of their important players are under the age of 30; that does not sound like a team that has a closing window. In fact, it seems like a team that has been coming together as a unit, and has tasted victory but lost out on it in bitter and hard to swallow ways, and are hungry for a Stanley Cup victory. And with a healthy, and still top tier, Henrik Lundqvist, a core of under 30 year old stars and a growing prospect pool, we can see one in the near future.
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