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Why You (And The New York Rangers) Should Care About Possession Metrics

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We're not really sure if (or how) the Rangers are tracking puck possession. They need to fix that and soon.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I've had my bouts with fighting the powers that be over the level of statistics that some people in the media and fanbase choose to agree with or dismiss entirely. Here's the one about Dan Girardi hurting more than he's helpingHere's the one about whether or not Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle are actually hurting the team (hint: they're not). Here's the one about the third period shell. Here's the one about Henrik Lundqvist's insane start to the year, and whether or not the Rangers are ready for him to begin to regress (hint: they're not).

The biggest gap between those who love advanced metrics and those who don't seems to be corsi. Or shot differential. Or fenwick. Or corsi rel. Let's just simplify it: Possession.

Puck possession is probably the most important aspect of any hockey team's success, but for the Rangers it reached an elevated status of importance because of the various systems the Rangers run every night.

Patrick Kearns from the Fourth Period wrote a fantastic article outlining some of the issues the Rangers have had this year. In said article he wrote this:

Defensive play is where transition offense is conceived, and Head Coach Alain Vigneault probably knows that -- it's been his system for a long time now. The Rangers are a counter-strike team, that -- used to, at least -- let the opposition get a chance then quickly break out for a better scoring chance, followed up by chances.

Here's how it's working now: the opponents is getting chances -- plural -- and when the Rangers are taking finally the puck the other way, it's now either at the end of a shift with one or two guys breaking out and the rest changing, or with less authority.

This, to me, is the crux of any argument trying to highlight the importance of possession. Let's, for a moment, forget the laws of the NHL as a whole. Let's ignore the fact that the other team can't score if you have the puck, that you can't generate offense if you don't have the puck and that the best defense a team can have is having the puck more than the opposing team.

I've boiled this ideology down to the Rangers and their defensive system -- that Patrick outlines above.

Let's start here first: There is nothing wrong with leaving a few cracks in the defensive foundation in order to create offense when you have the best goaltender in the league. Lundqvist is a generational goaltender and relying on him to make a few extra saves per game in order to generate offense the other way isn't the worst idea in the world.

Where the above strategy has started falling apart is with possession. When the Rangers are clicking they're able to seamlessly transition from defense to offense utilizing speedy wingers and solid breakout passes. But as Patrick mentioned above, if the Rangers wingers are too tired from skating around their own zone for 30-40 seconds the offense is moot because they can't break into the zone with speed.

Have you noticed the Rangers have been dumping the puck a lot more of late? In the past that was actually an offensive strategy -- throw the puck into the zone and use speed to bear onto the opponents and force bad passes and/or turnovers. That's not a bad idea if you can swing it with a ferocious forecheck.

Where that falls apart is when a guy is dumping the puck into the zone to get a change. Or the Girardi "lightly toss the puck out of the zone where the only player who can grab it is an unobstructed opponent" move -- which doesn't count as a turnover but it should. Or the fact that when the Rangers do break out of their own zone two or three guys are gunning for a change while one player enters the zone on his own.

There's a reason why the Rangers are on the wrong end of the scoring chances game in and game out when they're getting their teeth kicked in possession-wise. It's because the Rangers don't have the energy to break into the opposing zone with any type of force because they're exhausted.

The games where the Rangers actually have the puck -- and the win over Ottawa is a pretty good example -- speed is a factor in almost every scoring chance. The Rangers are a rush-happy team that implements a rush-happy offense. They lay their chips down on Lundqvist and allow their own zone to be penetrated (and the chances that come with it) to get the puck and create chances the other way in the form of odd man rushes.

When the Rangers have the puck it works. A lot. And it allows the Rangers to run at a higher PDO clip than the average because the chances the Rangers are generating are generally more high-danger than your run of the mill cycle and shoot chances. It's fun hockey when it's clicking and the Rangers made a living off it last year. They've made a living off it this year, too, but they've gotten luckier than people want to admit.

See, there's another disconnect. People who laugh at advanced stats refuse to take a look at the bigger picture. The Rangers -- at the time of Mike's story about how the Rangers are more lucky than good -- had the highest PDO in the league. Lundqvist was also sporting a 94.4 SV% -- easily tops in the NHL. Both of those things were destined to come down, which they did. Some people just didn't notice the escalated numbers because, well, they didn't look at the numbers because the Rangers were winning. Who cares right? A Stanley Cup contender should.

Hockey isn't played on a spreadsheet. You need to blend the metrics with what you're seeing on the ice. But when you don't have an explanation for what's going on in front of you, I'm betting a set of statistics will help paint the picture for you.

During the 1-4-1 skid many people threw their hands up. All of a sudden the Rangers had "defensive breakdowns" and "looked sluggish." If they had taken a moment to look at the stats they would have realized that the Rangers winning streak was not sustainable the way it was happening and that the numbers had to regress eventually. They have -- although the Rangers have had a much better possession performance the past three games which they need to continue.

The point is the more the Rangers have the puck the better they are as a hockey team. That's the case for every NHL team -- regardless of whether or not some in the media want to relent to that statistical fact. But for the Rangers puck possession is even more important because they're relying on physical abilities (speed and agility) and thus their energy level on the ice is important.

Wasting that energy on getting the puck because they don't have it is a big reason why the Rangers have struggled of late and will continue to struggle if it's not fixed. Their record, especially in the beginning of the year, was more a product of luck than anything else.

The fixes are easy. Someone just needs to be willing to admit that they need to be fixed in the first place. And that person doesn't write for a newspaper or blog.

He's behind the bench.