Well, it is upon us. Training camps have kicked off this week. Preseason opens tomorrow night. It's a good week to be an NHL fan, just 18 days away from puck drop. With the start of the new season comes all the good and all the bad with the flipping of the calendar from September to October. Every team's fans but the Oilers and Coyotes have to be feeling good about their chances (cheap shot). Optimism is abound. It's a good time to be a fan.
This post will be dedicated to the New York Rangers, the team I know most about in the hockey world; in an attempt to take an analytical approach to previewing what the 15/16 might hold in store for the Rangers.
Let's kick it off with some subjectivity...
The Rangers have backed themselves into a wall. They are right up against the cap. They have just under $26 million tied up in their defense coming into the season. A defense that on paper looks great, but struggles metric-wise under the microscope. Add in $8.5m for the best goalie in the world (money well spent here), and $7.8m tied up in a goal scorer who can't find the scoresheet consistently in the playoffs, the trouble rears it's head.
Enter the cap world NHL.
You need young players, more specifically, you need cost-controlled players to enter your lineup and perform. The performance of cost-controlled players has the opportunity to make or break the Rangers this season. Banking on the likes of JT Miller, Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast, and Kevin Hayes to take a hold of important roles on this team and run with it. One of those four players will be Derek Stepan's RW this season. Two of the other three (or all three) may round out the third line. These are important minutes, and the Rangers are going to need performances. There is no alternative.
Kevin Hayes exploded onto the hockey world as the Rangers third center last season, and was one of the most productive centers at 5v5 on a per 60 basis. The Rangers are so cap-crunched, that they may need to move him to wing, and re-visit the JT Miller center experiment. Or, possibly use Jarret Stoll in a 3C role. Stoll has recorded more than 25 points just once in the past four seasons [twice if you pace him to 82 games during the lockout-shortened 12/13 season].
Simply put, the Rangers are banking on some unknowns this season. This is a brief rundown of that.
Now, for some objectivity.
Above is a player usage chart for the Rangers forwards with somewhat ample data to place them correctly on the graph. Omitted is Oscar Lindberg, who may very well be a surprise 3C on the opening night roster - as he now requires waivers to be passed back to Hartford.
Recall that player usage charts are relative zone starts on the x-axis, competition on the Y-axis. The size of the bubbles in this usage chart display time on ice per game. All data is 5v5, and for the past two seasons combined.
This usage chart, with both years containing AV coached Rangers, has taken, well, a very AV shape. You have the clear-cut top-line, Kreider - Stepan - Nash, who are asked to play a hugely offensive role against top-tier competition. You have your "Sedin minutes line" with Brassard, Zuccarello, and a rotating winger. An apparent bunch of third-liners, seeing run-of-the-mill competition and zone starts. And finally, your defensively reliable fourth liners.
Judging by two year's of usage, we can try to arrange some Rangers lines while doing our best to keep players in their natural position.
Kreider - Stepan - Nash
Stalberg - Brassard - Zuccarello
Etem - Hayes - Miller
Stoll - Moore - Fast
These will not be the Rangers lines on October 7th. Stalberg is not a 2LW. Is Jesper Fast still a fourth liner? Will Tanner Glass actually be the 13F? Would AV break up Nash - Brassard - Zuccarello?
The most glaring change in this lineup is taking Nash off of Brassard's wing. Something I don't generally agree with, and now it's time to see if the metrics back up or disprove my hesitation.
Last season, Nash was one of the top goal scorers at even strength in the NHL. During 5v5 play, Nash led the NHL in goals per 60 among all forwards who played at least 200 minutes; his 29 goals leading the league. Skating predominantly with Brassard and Zuccarello, Nash went on to record 40 or more goals for the 3rd time in his career.
The season before, Nash played predominantly with Stepan. While the offensive output wasn't as high, the level of play definitely did not dip.
Interestingly enough, Nash's GF% actually plummets (relatively) when he's playing with Brassard.
If Nash's level of play doesn't really dip when he's with Stepan and Kreider, the Stepan line gets tougher minutes than the Brassard line, AND the Rangers are going to have to plug a young forward into the top-6 wing anyway, wouldn't it make sense to put them on a line seeing more offensively oriented minutes? We know Miller and Etem can play LW, can Hayes?
Either way, I'm not sure this is an idea the Rangers plan on floating this season - as I'm sure intentions are to stick with Nash - Brassard - Zuccarello... and that's not a bad thing at all. The case can be made that it may be better for the Rangers depth to break that line up, reunite Stepan and Nash, and use a younger winger with Brassard and Zuccarello. I'm going to continue with that logic throughout the rest of the post.
Line 1: Kreider - Stepan - Nash
The biggest question for the Rangers now becomes, who rounds out the 2nd line as the Rangers 2LW? Miller and Etem can both play the left-side. Hayes has been predominantly a center or a RWer in his career. My belief that Hayes should remain a center for the rest of his career has me boiling this battle down to Etem and Miller.
Miller has every advantage before they hit the ice in camp. He's been with the team. He's played with Brassard and Zuccarello before. He has the better slash stats last season. Does Miller also have upper-hand under the microscope?
Etem: 45gp / 5g / 5a
Miller: 58gp/ 10g/ 13a
If you take the past two seasons into account and look at 5v5 play, these numbers get a lot closer.
Etem: 74gp / 9g / 9a
Miller: 88gp / 11g / 10a
Using scoring chances relative to their teammates, and corsi relative to their teammates, we can get a brief look at how well Etem and Miller drive offense:
The chart is a little misleading, because it makes them appear a bit farther apart than they truly are. Realistically? This is CLOSE. Perhaps the battle to watch in camp is to see who the coaching staff comes away more impressed with. They should both get an opportunity to prove they belong in the top-6. For the sake of this post, we'll go with Miller winning the 2LW battle, but it's not his to keep. That's a battle that will continue into the regular season.
2nd line: Miller - Brassard - Zuccarello
Keeping Hayes on the third line really opens things up for the Rangers in terms of allowing their depth to shine. Hayes was an offensive machine during 5v5 play for the Rangers last season recording the 9th best P/60 in the league among centers who played more than 200 minutes. This is the main argument as to why the Rangers want to find Hayes more ice time, but at what cost?
3rd line: Stalberg - Hayes - Etem
As an organization, the Rangers are often highlighted as one that doesn't really dive too deeply into analytics. This was proven every time Tanner Glass hit the ice for the Rangers last season. It's hard to explain in words why the Rangers employ Tanner Glass, because in all honesty, it's hard to imagine why they do. In graphs, well... here's the effect that Tanner Glass had on Dominc Moore last season:
Dominic Moore is one of the best 4Cs in the NHL, and Tanner Glass turned him into a borderline NHL player.
Hopefully, bringing in Stoll, having guys like Lindberg, Bourque, and others in camp will provide the Rangers coaching staff with enough bodies to convince themselves that Tanner Glass does not belong on the ice.
Line 4: Stoll - Moore - Fast
Unfortunate omissions: Lindberg, Bourque.
Both Lindberg and Bourque require waivers to be sent back to the AHL if they don't make the Rangers roster. These are the kind of things that analytics can't tell you. The metrics can guide you to icing the best team every night, but can't tell you your limitations based on the CBA. Will the Rangers be willing to sacrifice one or both of these guys to waivers? Lindberg would surely be picked up. Bourque has a chance to pass through, but could certainly be tagged by a team who experiences injuries in training camp and preseason.
Team the Rangers should ice recap:
Kreider - Stepan - Nash
Miller - Brassard - Zuccarello
Stalberg - Hayes - Etem
Stoll - Moore - Fast
McDonagh - Girardi
Staal - Boyle
Yandle - Klein
I realize this post is getting quite long, so I'll do a quick blurb on the D here...
One of the best things that could happen to the Rangers in the next couple of weeks is Dylan McIlrath establishing himself as an everyday NHL player. If he can do that, and show he is capable of taking a shift in 60 games on a makeshift platoon with Diaz, then the Rangers could trade Kevin Klein for help on the wing in the top-6 if Miller, Etem, Fast, or Hayes prove "inefficient" in that role.
What McIlrath does have going for him is a very similar skillset to former Rangers defenseman Mike Sauer. Sauer, before taking that viscous (but certainly clean) hit from Phaneuf that effectively ended his NHL career (way too soon), was well on his way to becoming one of the best possession defenseman in the NHL.
In 2013, Michael Schuckers and James Curro published research on a metric they deemed Total Hockey Rating. You can read about it here. Their study came to the conclusion that Mike Sauer created the 15th highest wins among defensemen in the 2010-2011 season. Other defensemen on that list? Doughty, Seabrook, Visnovksy, Karlsson, Chara, and Sauer's partner that season, Ryan McDonagh.
Sauer certainly trumped McIlrath in the skill department, but McIlrath has the size that Sauer did not. If I'm the Rangers right now, I'm glueing McIlrath's eyes to a montage of Sauer's play from the 2010-2011 season.
Now, let's drop the puck already.