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New York Rangers 2016-2017 First Half Review

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With 42 games now in the books, the New York Rangers find themselves with a record of 28-13-1. And despite the fact that they currently find themselves in a Wild Card playoff position, the Rangers are three points out of first place in the NHL, and are on pace for their 2nd best season in franchise history.

Oh, the joys of playing in the Metropolitan Division.

With that in mind, there is plenty to discuss about the first half of New York's season. So let's get right down to it.

Most Surprising Player?

3 Votes for Nick Holden (Connor, Kevin, and Mike)

5 Votes for Michael Grabner (Adam, Beth, Bryan, Jack, and Joe)

Jack: The Rangers were not major players on July 1st, as the team signed a plethora of depth players in order to shore up their forward group. One of those depth signings was a two year, $3.3 Million deal for Michael Grabner, who the team brought in to play the type of fast, aggressive game that players before him such as Carl Hagelin and Viktor Stalberg had played.

At the time, the move was universally seen as expansion fodder, as New York had zero eligible forwards to be selected by the Vegas Golden Knights. After a down season in Toronto, most people had expected Grabner to chip in a couple goals here and there, shift around the Rangers’ bottom six throughout the season and be nothing more than dependable, NHL-caliber player for Alain Vigneault. Boy, were they wrong.

Grabner opened New York’s season up with a bang, scoring the first goal of the team’s season against his former team, the New York Islanders. Since then, the Austrian forward has gone on to record 19 goals and 27 points while playing in all but one of the Rangers’ games this season. In fact, Grabner’s 16 five-on-five goals have him tied for 2nd in the NHL with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Maroon, and his rate of 2.10 Goals/60 leads the league.

Although his underlying metrics are not nearly as impressive, Grabner has still been able to vastly outscore his opponents while on the ice, sporting a team best +22.3 Relative Goals For%. Having played anywhere from the 4th Line with the likes of Jesper Fast and Brandon Pirri, to the top line with Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash, Grabner’s versatility has shone through thus far, and has been a major boon for New York.

With his play, Grabner has been able to spark conversation that the Golden Knights could opt to select him this June as their pick from the Rangers. Although seeing the team lose an asset like him for nothing is a sad possibility, the Rangers are playing with house money at this point. Michael Grabner has gone from a July 1st afterthought to one of New York’s most dangerous players, and nobody could have seen that coming.

Most Disappointing Player?

1 Vote for Henrik Lundqvist (Adam)

3 Votes for Brandon Pirri (Jack, Joe, and Kevin)

4 Votes for Kevin Klein (Beth, Bryan, Connor, and Mike)

Jack: Since the middle of the 2014-15 season, people throughout the hockey community have been weary of Kevin Klein. Once the defenseman went on a torrid offensive pace in his first full season in the Big Apple, the critiques against him started to mount. His offense wasn’t sustainable, some would argue, and once Klein ran out of puck luck, New York would be stuck with an overpaid, unremarkable 3rd Pairing blueliner. While Klein was able to continue scoring throughout the 15-16 season, the offense has dried up this season, and chickens have finally came home to roost.

After posting identical stat lines of 9 goals, 17 assists, and 26 points the previous two seasons, Klein has seemingly lost his goal scoring “touch” he once had. After scoring nine goals on 76 (11.9 Sh%) and 69 (13 Sh%) shots respectively, Klein has yet to find the back of the net this season despite launching 34 shots on goal. While his assist numbers are in line with his career averages, Klein’s goal scoring was the main contributor to his change in perception around the league, and now that it’s disappeared, the word is out.

Even though Klein hasn’t actively been harming the Rangers every time he takes the ice the way some of the team’s other defenseman do, his meteoric crash back to Earth this season has been a disappointment. An expected one, but a disappointment nonetheless. New York’s failure to move his while his value was at it’s peak over either of the last two offseasons is finally rearing it’s ugly head, and the Rangers have nothing to show for it other than a hole in their defense corps and less money than they would like to fix it with.

Note by Joe: Both myself and Mike had a brief conversation about this one. Both of us thought long and hard about putting Henrik Lundqvist on this list. I can’t speak for Mike, but here’s why I didn’t do that.

Lundqvist has set the bar for his own expectations of being the best goaltender in the league. He’s been average this year, and that’s simply not anywhere near where the expectations were. As a result, he has to at least be considered for this nomination.

Ultimately I elected not to choose Lundqvist. Part of it is because I think he’s doing a lot of what he can with the defense in front of him (and like it or not, injuries to the offense hasn’t helped the team’s two-way play) but part of it is also that I think those expectations are too high. A goalie shouldn’t have to be the best goalie in the league to be considered successful.

I’m loath not to mention him, though. Those expectations are expectations for a reason, and it’s because he’s been that good for that long. Unfair? Yes. Reality? Yes.

So Lundqvist’s name has to be mentioned. Hopefully he — like he always does -- pulls himself back to form down the stretch and we’re never talking about this ever again. But to not mention it would be unbecoming of this website.

Best Rookie?

3 Votes for Brady Skjei (Adam, Beth, and Mike)

5 Votes for Pavel Buchnevich (Bryan, Connor, Jack, Joe, and Kevin)

Jack: When the Rangers initially selected Pavel Buchnveich with the 75th pick of the 2013 Draft, opinions of the selection were mixed. While most agreed that the Cherepovets native had a high level of skill and talent, there were two major red flags that came attached with Buchnevich.

First, there was the issue of his contract with the Severstal Cherepovets, which ran through the end of the 2014-15 season, which meant that he would be unable to come across the pond until the 15-16 season at the earliest. Secondly, Buchnevich was affected by the underlying “Russian factor”, with speculation from some that the talented forward may never leave the KHL. Since then, those doubters have been silenced, and Buchnevich has been an impact player from his first game at Madison Square Garden.

Buchnevich made his NHL debut in the team’s season opener against the New York Islanders, and made his presence felt immediately. While he put his elite puck skills and on-ice vision on display throughout the game, Buchnevich left his mark by recording the primary assist on Chris Kreider’s dagger-delivering goal to put the Rangers ahead for good in the 3rd Period.

Although it took until November for Buchnevich to record his first NHL goal, the floodgates opened soon afterwards, as he tallied goals in four consecutive games before heading to the injured reserve including this goal of the year nominee against the Winnipeg Jets:

Despite only appearing in ten games this season, Pavel Buchnevich has been everything New York could have asked for and more. Four goals and eight points in 10 games, sparkling underlying metrics across the board, and an individual skill level that brings an electric atmosphere to the Garden every time he hops over the boards. Now that he is healthy and ready to get back in action, look for Buchnevich to continue making significant strides in his first NHL season.

MVP?

1 Vote for Derek Stepan (Joe)

1 Vote for Rick Nash (Beth)

2 Votes for Ryan McDonagh (Adam and Jack)

4 Votes for Chris Kreider (Bryan, Connor, Kevin, and Mike)

Mike: Kreider may have missed six games in the first half of the season, but the underlying numbers still suggest that he has likely been the Rangers’ best forward.

In the first year of his new four-year, $18.625 million contract Kreider has taken his game to another level. And it has been most noticeable (and most important) at even strength.

Kreider trails only Buchnevich (and his 10 game sample size) in possession numbers among Rangers forwards. And despite missing half a dozen games the former BC Eagle trails only Zuccarello and Grabner in even strength production. Two-thirds of his 30 points this season have come during five-on-five play.

That is quite a feat for the main roster forward with the lowest ES PDO on the team.

What is even more impressive is how effective and impactful Kreider has been this season while battling nagging injuries. While struggling to stay healthy Kreider had a 16 game stretch where he scored only one goal from mid-October until December 3rd.

But he’s been healthy again for a little while now. He’s back to the dominant winger that so many Rangers fans knew he had the potential to be. Since his scoring slump Kreider has scored 12 goals in his last 17 games. That’s the same number of goals that J.T. Miller has scored in 42 games this season.

Thus far Kreider is the only Ranger to put over 100 shots on net. He’s also tied for the team lead in power play points and primary points. In short -he’s been an offensive wrecking ball. They key for him in the second half will be staying healthy.

Special Teams Play?

8 votes for better than expected (Adam, Beth, Bryan, Connor, Jack, Joe, Kevin, and Mike)

Bryan: After a rather disappointing and abrupt ending to the 2015-2016 campaign, Jeff Gorton was tasked with overhauling his team and making them more difficult to play against. Heading into the summer, there were two areas of concern, one of which was correcting the special teams, while the other involved patching up the defensive woes. While the jury is still out on the latter, Jeff Gorton not only absolved the special teams issues through savvy summer acquisitions, but vaulted the Rangers back into the upper echelon of the league in terms of the penalty kill and power play.

The first acquisition came in the form of Michael Grabner who, thus far, has been putting together quite a first season in New York. Part of Gorton’s master plan involved adding more speed and skill throughout the lineup, and Grabner fit that bill to a tee. Grabner is the definition of pure speed, and that speed alone not only helps the Rangers at even strength, but also makes them a major threat on the penalty kill. Aside from Grabner, though, the Rangers as a whole have bought into a less stagnant system and have transitioned into killing penalties through the use of skill.

Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are prime examples of that, as both have seen increased roles when it comes to killing penalties. As of recently, that duo has been the Rangers most dangerous threat while down a man, and have created chances through the use of speed and skill. As a result, the Rangers have firmly planted themselves in the 9th overall spot this season with an 83% success rate on the penalty kill. That is up 17 spots from last season, where the Rangers were ranked 26th (second to last in the Eastern Conference) with a success rate of only 78.2%. In addition, the Rangers’ penalty killing units have already generated five goals this season, which are two more than last season in 40 less games.

While the penalty killing units have had a tremendous turnaround, the power play units have also had themselves quite an uptick in terms of production. As of right now, the Rangers have the 4th best power play, operating at 23.2%, which is also good for 4th best in the Eastern Conference. Much like the penalty killing, Jeff Gorton quickly improved the Rangers power play with two savvy acquisitions, one of which came in the form of a trade. The addition of Mika Zibanejad in his limited time thus far has provided the Rangers with a much needed spark that they have been sorely lacking. That included adding a righty shot to the power play, which has a shoot-first mentality once the puck hits his tape.

Part of the Rangers early success involved feeding Zibanejad in Ovechkin’s office, and just letting him fire pucks toward the net. That not only allowed the Rangers to open up the ice a little more, but also gave them a legitimate shooting threat from in close. Unfortunately, the absence of Zibanejad has been fairly evident since he went down with a broken fibula back in late November, but his impending return will only make more dangerous with the man advantage.

While Zibanejad was sidelined, Brandon Pirri slotted into the shooting role and currently leads the Rangers in total power play shots, with 28. Even though the bounces haven’t been breaking in Pirri’s favor as of late, the threat of the big shot leaves teams thinking twice before committing to make a play. In addition to the acquisitions up front, the Rangers have also found in-house replacements to fill the void left by Keith Yandle’s departure over the summer.

Obviously losing Yandle was a huge blow to the Rangers’ power play, but for now, the Rangers have found worthy replacements in the form of Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei. In 41 games this season, McDonagh currently leads the Rangers in power play points with nine, which matches his production from last season in 32 less games played. While Skjei hasn’t put up the numbers comparable to McDonagh, he provides the Rangers with a calming presence with his ability to skate out of danger and move the puck up the ice.

Despite the likes of Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Rick Nash missing extended time, the Rangers have found a way to maintain their success rate on the power play. With the Rangers inching closer to becoming 100% healthy (knock on wood), the sky is the limit for the Rangers when it comes to special teams. It has played a large part in their success thus far, and could be considered their saving grace as the race for the playoffs heats up.

Even Strength Play?

1 Vote for Worse Than Expected (Mike)

3 Votes for Better Than Expected (Beth, Jack, and Joe)

4 Votes for As Expected (Adam, Bryan, Connor, and Kevin)

Jack: Coming into the season, a majority of the pundits around the hockey world seemingly had the book written on the Rangers this season: They’d be a middle of the pack team that will go as far as Henrik Lundqvist and their forwards take them. Through 42 games, they were half right.

New York’s forward corps has been even better than expected, as they currently lead the league in goals per game with 3.43 goals. The emergence of Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey, and Pavel Buchnevich has played a major role in that, but so have Rick Nash’s return to form and Chris Kreider’s breakout as an elite power forward.

The defense has been shaky at best, and downright abhorrent at worst. Despite Ryan McDonagh playing at a Norris-worth level once again, the rest of the team’s blueliners have been unable to keep up with him. Nick Holden has been a pleasant surprise as a solid 2nd Pairing defenseman, but he can only do so much. Opinions on Kevin Klein are mixed, but most agree that the 32 year old has slipped from where he was last season. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi haven’t been as bad as previous years, but they have continually been unable to do their jobs and anchor the Rangers defense corps behind McDonagh. Brady Skjei is a work in progress, and Adam Clendening hasn’t seen the ice enough to change the team’s fortunes one way or the other.

The one element that hasn’t gone as expected for the team is Henrik Lundqvist’s play. After putting on one of the greatest single-season displays of goaltending since the lockout last season, the franchise icon has been unable to regain his form. At this point in the season, Lundqvist is currently sporting a 91.47 Save% at 5 on 5, on pace for the lowest number of his career. In addition to that, Hank is also on pace for his year in terms of Goals Saved Above Average, as he’s actually in the negative (-0.54) for the first time ever. All of that is in spite of the fact that the team has managed to cut down on high quality scoring chances, as they’ve managed to push back their opponent’s average shot distance compared to last season (30.53 Feet vs 31.72 Feet, all data via Corsica).

Despite sitting three points out of first in the NHL at the midway point, the Rangers still have glaring holes on their roster that need to be fixed. Unless the team is able to bolster their group of defenseman before the trade deadline, then they could be looking at another early playoff exit. And irregardless of that, New York needs Henrik Lundqvist to play well down the stretch, as he usually does, and bounce back from a rough 2016 if they’d like to have any chance at a parade down the Canyon of Heroes this June.

Second Half Expectations?

3 Votes for a Wild Card spot (Adam, Kevin, and Mike)

5 Votes for 3rd Place in the Metropolitan Division (Beth, Bryan, Connor, Jack, and Joe)

Connor: The New York Rangers currently have 57 points through 42 games played this season. They sit in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division behind Columbus (60 points in 40 games), Washington (59 points in 41 games), and Pittsburgh (57 points in 41 games). New York occupies the first Wild Card position, seven points ahead of the second Wild Card team, Philadelphia, who has played two more games than the Rangers. The simple conclusion is that the Metropolitan Division is stacked and it is possible, if not likely, that five teams from within it will qualify for the playoffs. How will the New York Rangers perform in the second half of the season and where will they end up in the standings after the regular season concludes?

Injuries are an unavoidable part of hockey. Unfortunately, this reality can have a profoundly negative impact on a team’s season. Ask any Montreal Canadiens fan about last season. The Rangers have endured some major blows to their lineup, with players like Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad missing significant time. Promising rookie Pavel Buchnevich has played in only a quarter of his debut campaign thus far due to back complications. Now the concern for Marc Staal weighs on the minds of Rangers fans. However, New York has remained competitive throughout these injury spells due to solid forward depth and some surprising performances throughout the lineup. Now the return of their three injured forwards seems imminent. The Rangers seem poised for a resurgence to the dominant play they exhibited in the early stages of the season when the team was fully healthy.

The issue at hand is that the teams competing with New York are playing some phenomenal hockey. While Columbus’ near-historic streak required luck, such as an ungodly powerplay success rate, they proved they are a contender with one of the most underappreciated rosters in the league. Perennial competitors Pittsburgh and Washington are who we thought they were, with explosive superstar talent leading rosters built to compete every night. Philadelphia and Carolina are pushing for playoff positions, but the top four in the Metro have built a cushion between themselves and those bubble teams. I do not see any of those top four falling off the table and it seems probable that the Rangers will be fighting for that second or third spot in the division when the dust settles.

What New York does at the trade deadline, and they very well may turn to some polarizing options, will determine the course of their postseason trajectory. The impending expansion draft and complicates matters at the trade deadline and sets the stage for some very interesting moves. Despite this, I think the Rangers roster will remain very much the same as it is when it is healthy. They may add a piece at the blueline but I doubt there is a true blockbuster.

While this team seems like a safe bet for a playoff berth, they do not strike me as a Stanley Cup champion. A divisional third seed or a first Wild Card spot seem to be the consensus among the Blueshirt Banter elite in our ivory tower. The Rangers will play exciting hockey. They will break the 100-point barrier. However, they will face formidable playoff opponents. I see the Rangers avoiding the Wild Card but falling in the playoffs to either Washington or Pittsburgh in the postseason, probably in the first round.