A Deeper Look At Alain Vigneault’s Lineup Options

“Everything is on the table” in terms of lineup changes, New York Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault said after their Game 2 loss. The Rangers were up 5-3 on the Ottawa Senators in the third period of Game 2, but two goals from Jean-Gabriel Pageau (completing his hat trick), forced the game to overtime. In double overtime it was again Pageau who scored, this time the game-winning goal.

Vigneault expected his team to win an 82:54 minute game, while only rolling three lines. Forwards Oscar Lindberg (5:07) and Pavel Buchnevich (5:47) were scarcely used. His coaching decisions ultimately cost the Rangers in Game 2 ––which is why line changes can be anticipated for Game 3.

Based on Vigneault’s tendencies, it is highly likely that he replaces Buchnevich with Tanner Glass; which would be a mistake for the Rangers. In 63 career playoff games, Glass has scored three points (two goals, one assist). Although Glass scored a goal for the Rangers in Game 1 against the Canadiens, the Rangers deviated from their speed and skill game with Glass in the lineup in the playoffs and it cost them. Against the disciplined Senators’ 1-3-1 system, it is imperative that the Rangers have a challenging offense and Buchnevich contributes to that while Glass does not.

But if Vigneault truly feels the need to alter the lineup (from the combinations of Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich, Vesey-Stepan-Nash, Miller-Hayes-Zuccarello, and Grabner-Lindberg-Fast), he has a number of options that do not include Glass.

If Vigneault’s primary concern is balance between the four lines, he could deploy a lineup of Kreider-Zibanejad-Miller, Zuccarello-Stepan-Nash, Grabner-Hayes-Fast, Buchnevich-Lindberg-Vesey.

Stepan and Zuccarello played together for much of this season on a line with Kreider (for 508 minutes) and with Vesey (59 minutes). With Kreider, Stepan and Zuccarello acting as the coach’s most consistent combination as the Rangers’ top line. However, once they were in the playoffs, the line struggled to generate offense against the Canadiens and was promptly was broken up.

Since then, Stepan has often played with Nash at 5v5 and on the penalty kill. They exemplifying their chemistry as recent as Stepan’s short-handed goal in Game 2.

If Vigneault wants to change the combination of Vesey-Stepan-Nash for their next game, he could create a dangerous line by playing Stepan and Nash with Zuccarello.

Zibanejad and Kreider appear to have developed chemistry in the playoffs, as the two have generated a number of chances together. Therefore, it would be logical for Vigneault to keep Zibanejad and Kreider on a line.

In Game 2, Kreider and Zibanejad played 16:15 minutes together at 5v5. In that time, Zibanejad assisted on Kreider’s first goal of the playoffs. Additionally, Zibanejad’s Corsi for percentage was 66.67 when he was on the ice with Kreider. With Kreider and Zibanejad playing together, the Rangers had nine shots for, six scoring chances for, and two goals for.

There is the issue of Miller, who has clearly struggled throughout the playoffs. In eight games he has only accumulated a single assist. In Game 2, he was 1-5 on faceoffs (16.67 percent), which is probably why Vigneault is considering shifting him to the wing for Game 3.

Although Miller has not been on a line with Kreider nor Zibanejad in the playoffs thus far, he played with Zibanejad during the regular season. And throughout their Rangers’ careers, Miller and Kreider have been featured on a line together. As Kreider and Zibanejad have created chances together, Vignuealt could hope that their play could re-spark Miller’s offense.

In the absence of offense from those who it was expected, Grabner and Fast have been two of the Rangers most consistent forwards on both sides of the ice. They have not only limited chances against, but have provided much-needed offense throughout the playoffs. Since the combination of Grabner and Fast has been key for the Rangers, Vigneault should consider keeping them together.

Hayes has not met expectations in the playoffs thus far, either. He has not played to his offensive potential, as evidenced by his low Corsi for per 60 of 54.03 in his eight playoff games and 1.84 expected goals for per 60 (the lowest on the team). His defensive play has been absolutely dreadful so far, as demonstrated by his 73.96 Corsi against and 2.82 expected goals against per 60.

To improve Hayes’ defensive play, he should play with those who are defensively capable to make up for those flaws –– say Grabner and Fast. The combination of Grabner, Hayes, and Fast have played together during the regular season (95 minutes) and were solid on both sides of the ice in that time (50.95 Corsi for per 60, 51.58 Corsi against per 60, along with a 3.14 goals for per 60 and 1.26 goals against per 60).

Lastly, Vigneault could reunite the fourth line of Buchnevich-Lindberg-Vesey. Although their time together was limited, they showed potential that the Rangers should explore further.

Against the Senators in particular, it is imperative that the Rangers have a fourth line that can play a two-way game, since the Senators can match the Rangers with a skilled, offensively capable fourth line.

Lindberg has been one of the Rangers best forwards in the playoffs (which only makes his benching in Game 2 even more bizarre). Through the Rangers’ eight playoff games, the Rangers have generated a high number of shot attempts and shots for with Lindberg on the ice (64.93 Corsi for per 60, 34.52 shots for per 60––both second highest on the team). Defensively, he has been outstanding for the Rangers. The Rangers have the lowest shot attempts against (43, which equates to his excellent 35.34 Corsi against per 60) and shots against (16, which generated a 13.1 shots against per 60) with Lindberg on the ice. Neither the Canadiens, nor the Senators have scored on the Rangers while Lindberg is on the ice.

If Vigneault is genuinely concerned with Buchnevich’s defensive play, his opportunity to balance that would be playing him with Lindberg. Buchnevich’s time and opportunities have been limited throughout the season, which is why him being played on the fourth line is a likely choice for Vigneault. However, simply having Buchnevich on the fourth line instead of Glass gives the Rangers a better chance at defeating the Senators’ trap since his creative play is much more likely to generate offense.

Vesey’s play has also been impressive in the playoffs so far. He has the second highest Corsi for per 60 (52.16), behind only Lindberg.  Also, his scoring-chances for per 60 of 10.72 is the third highest on the team, further exemplifying his offensive abilities that can help the Rangers’ match the Senators’ fourth line.

If Vigneault is looking to balance his lines as best as possible, to give the Rangers’ the ability to roll four lines consistently throughout a game, then this could be an ideal lineup. However, it is not the only way for the Rangers to re-assemble their lineup.

The Rangers also have options without breaking up all of their current lines. Vigneault could keep the Vesey-Stepan-Nash line intact, who have excelled at creating chances. Of the Rangers’ combinations in the playoffs, this one has the highest Corsi for per 60 (71.17) and a commendable Corsi against per 60 of 55.13 in comparison to the other lines. This combination leads the team in shots for per 60 (37.09) as well. While all of that gives the Rangers’ offensive opportunities, it has not resulted in as much scoring as the Rangers have needed––which is why Vigneault may prefer to disassemble this line.

Following this line, could be a combination of Kreider-Zibanejad-Hayes. Again, Kreider and Zibanejad have given the Rangers enough reason to keep them together through the playoffs so far. Vigneault has to find a combination that will get Hayes going, which could be on this line. While Zibanejad and Kreider are great at creating offensive rushes, Hayes has the patience and skill to slow down a play––that could benefit the Rangers, by giving Kreider and Zibanejad the time and space to breakout for the Rangers.

The third line could combine Buchnevich with Miller and Zuccarello. Zuccarello and Miller played together in the Rangers’ Game 6 win over the Canadiens––the game in which the Rangers finally got the performance they craved from Zuccarello, which is why keeping him with Miller is an option.

Buchnevich and Zuccarello are both cerebral players that can create plays that could set Miller up with scoring opportunities. Miller was the second highest scorer for the Rangers this season with 56 points, but has been missing that scoring touch in the playoffs. By matching him with creative players, Miller could rediscover his offensive capabilities.

As for the fourth line, Vigneault could continue to deploy Grabner-Lindberg-Fast. This fourth line has been exceptional for the Rangers. Their stellar defensive play has been a major asset for the Rangers in the playoffs. This line has stifled their opponents’ offense, as the Rangers Corsi against per 60 (31.28), shots against per 60 (7.36), and scoring chances against per 60 (1.84) with this line on the ice are the lowest on the team. No goals have been scored against this fourth line combination either.

Vigneault has a number of line combination options for Game 3 against the Senators. It is crucial that Vigneault not only dresses the most favorable balance of combinations, but actually utilizes all four lines––which he inexcusably did not do in Game 2. He has to stick to the Rangers strengths moving forward: their ability to roll four lines and their speed and skill game. Detracting from that has only cost the Rangers in the playoffs, which is why the Rangers’ lineup choices are so imperative.

*All data is at 5v5 and is sourced from NaturalStatTrick and Corsica.hockey.