If you check out both the Blueshirt Banter website and the Twitter feeds of its writers during the preseason and beginning of the regular season, you will see virtually no editorializing on Dan Girardi and Marc Staal nor Alain Vigneault's usage of the defense. This was a collective, conscious decision that we implemented for two reasons. First, we wanted to remove as much confirmation bias on our part as possible. In a theme that is intrinsic to this article, we wanted to be introspective and show that our eventual evaluations of the three would not be the product of muscle memory. Second, we wanted to give all three the benefit of the doubt. As unlikely as it was, we wanted to give Dan Girardi a chance to prove that his cracked kneecap was holding him back from competence. We wanted to be open-minded about the first long offseason in a while giving both defensemen a chance to be fresh and in-shape for the next season. We wanted to give Alain Vigneault, the three-time Jack Adams finalist, a chance to show that he had learned from last season and was prepared to make some tough but necessary adjustments.
To start the season, it all looked pretty okay. Alain Vigneault's usage showed some substantial change. Dan Girardi, who had averaged 20:19 in ice time in 2015-2016, was all the way down to 16:34 over the first seven games (through November 1st). Only rookie Brady Skjei was receiving fewer minutes per game on defense. For Girardi's part, it resulted in significantly improved performance compared to last season. Adjusting for score, Dan Girardi owned a 49.6% shot attempts percentage at five-on-five. Still not great, nor justifying of his salary, but certainly competent enough to avoid actively hurting the team. The change in Girardi's usage and his improved play was felt at a team level. The Rangers were 12th in the NHL in shot attempts percentage at five-on-five. Not perfect, but a dramatic improvement on last season in which the Rangers ranked 20th. Combined with the team's ability to develop quality scoring chances as well as its goaltending, 12th was good enough for the time. The Rangers were trending in the right direction and there was plenty of time for ironing out the kinks. No doubt, a team that could make some noise in the playoffs.
On November 6th, the Rangers were set to play the Winnipeg Jets on a back-to-back after playing the Bruins the previous day. Vigneault opted to scratch Dan Girardi, calling it "preventative." The New York Post's Larry Brooks fairly wrote that the move represented a "sea of change for Vigneault," who was demonstrating he "does not belong to that subsection of population" who are "condemned to repeat" history. The Rangers would beat the Jets, 5-2, with substitute Adam Clendening playing a notable role.
The problem with change is that it is often temporary. Over a third of the population gives up on their New Years' resolutions after the first month, with only eight-percent sticking to it the entire year. Humans are imperfect beings, and one of those imperfections is our desire to cling to our comfort zones and routines of old no matter how self-harming they may be.
Vigneault has returned to his comfort zone. In the few games prior to scratching him, the head coach gave Girardi increased minutes. That trend continued post-scratch. The McDonagh-Holden pairing, which has been a perfectly respectable 51% in shot attempts percentage this season, was broken up, with Girardi earning a promotion to the top pair. Since November 2nd, Girardi has averaged 19:37 of ice time. That puts him second among defensemen in average ice time - behind only McDonagh - and it's at least partially related that the Rangers' shot attempt numbers have taken a nosedive since. The Rangers are 27th in the NHL in score-adjusted shot attempts percentage since November 2nd. Girardi, personally, is 38.55% in shot attempts over that span, more or less replicating his form from last year.
The "sea of change" was short-lived. No more precaution has been needed, apparently, as Vigneault kept the same defense on the next two back-to-back situations. In fact, Vigneault has played Clendening just once since October 26th. It's an extremely questionable usage of Clendening not just because of the risk of Girardi breaking down again, but because Clendening has been very productive in his short spell with the Rangers. Among all defensemen who have played at least 80 five-on-five minutes this season, Adam Clendening is first in the entire NHL in shot attempts percentage. Of course, that is not something that would sustain over an entire season, but Clendening very clearly has earned more than one game in the last month. Clendening's absence is, too, related to the Rangers' plunge in shot underlying numbers in at least a small way. If not Girardi, then Clendening could certainly replace Kevin Klein, whose shooting percentage has returned to reality and whose defensive coverage has been spotty at best this season.
This is where Vigneault will truly prove whether he has changed and learned from the errors of the past. It would be easy to dismiss all of this. After all, the Rangers are on top of the Metropolitan Division and lead the NHL in goal differential. However, similar underlying numbers right around Thanksgiving that predicted an unhappy ending last year are pointing in an alarming direction yet again this season.
And yes, the Rangers are nonetheless a better team than last season. In no way does that justify ignoring all problems and bad decision making. For one, this is a return to bad habits that have sunk the the team the last few seasons. Today, it's Girardi getting increased minutes. Is that where it ends, or does it spread elsewhere?
If this is as bad as it gets, it is still important enough to be concerned about. Teams put forth incredible sums of money and effort scouting potential seventh-round picks, or evaluating nutrition plans, or finding new training equipment, in hopes that such effort will result in even a slight edge over the other 29 teams. From 2012 through 2015, the Rangers have had a playoff series decided by one game, or one period, or even as little as one goal. All of those little things can be the difference between packing up for the summer or winning a tight playoff series. A couple of underperforming defensemen getting unjustifiably long leashes while a more capable one sits is not even a little thing. Nor is a drop from 12th to 27th in the stat that has proven time and time again to indicate future results. Those are the types of red flags that can drag a team down for an entire 82-game season, let alone a seven-game series against the Penguins or Capitals. By the time the Rangers realized their problems last season, it was too late. Though the problems are far fewer this time around, they still are ever-present. Hopefully, Vigneault will see the foreshadowing for what it is this time around and clean up the unnecessary deficiencies before too much damage is done.