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Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich need Mika Zibanejad

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NHL: Vancouver Canucks at New York Rangers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There was some good news on Tuesday out of Rangerstown: Mika Zibanejad skated for the first time since being diagnosed with a concussion from a hit he took against the Detroit Red Wings. The speedy young center had begun to make quite a name for himself this season, leading one of the most electric scoring lines in the Metropolitan Division and lifting the Rangers out of their early season slump in the process. Unfortunately, Zibanejad’s absence left a big hole in the lineup, which Alain Vigneault decided to fill with David Desharnais. This is nothing against Desharnais, who is a fine depth player, but Zibanejad’s return could mean big things once again for Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, and could help repair what’s currently one of the Rangers’ worst lines.

Last year, both before and after his leg injury, Mika Zibanejad mostly fell into the “sneaky good” category on the Rangers depth chart. His skills were evident, but he was also second fiddle to the dependable, homegrown, beautiful bald eagle that was Derek Stepan (can you tell that I miss him?). He played to a very respectable 52.61 CF% and 4.1 relCF% alongside Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, a line he spent most of his time on, but struggled in his second most frequent spot in the lineup, next to Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich. That line, which played 123.58 minutes to the former line’s 223.91 minutes, had a CF% of only 48.59, with the relative number being slightly below the team average at -0.04. All in all, a pretty decent season, but maybe not superstar level stuff, which was fine because that wasn’t the expectation anyway.

This season things have been a little bit different for the erstwhile DJ, who despite wasting all of his time on the turntables came out swinging with Buchnevich and Kreider as his linemates. It’s a good thing too because the Rangers now need him to be a veritable 1C, given the sacrifice of Derek Stepan at the altar of the “rebuild on the fly” – it was plainly evident about midway through the offseason that, seeing as the Rangers hadn’t acquired anyone else to play center, Zibanejad was going to be depended on for serious point production and some of the challenging defensive situations the Rangers would face; it’s a tall order, but one he immediately showed himself capable of fulfilling.

While I’m sure this comes as no surprise, the KZB line started and stayed dominant right up until Zibanejad’s concussion, staking out a decisive claim for the title of the Rangers’ top line. In 174.68 minutes played together over 18 games (a somewhat smallish sample size, but nearly a quarter of a season nonetheless), the trio logged a 5-on-5 55.56 CF% against some of the team’s toughest opponents, and outpaced the rest of the team to a staggering 10.51 relCF%. In terms of scoring chances, which we’ll be measuring with Corsica.hockey’s expected goals metric, the KZB line played to a 57.66 xGF% at 5-on-5 and separated themselves from the pack to the tune of a 12.96% relxGF percentage. It more or less confirms what we all knew – that the three of them played better hockey than both their opponents and teammates in their time together on the ice.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story however, with the real crucial thing for any hockey team being you know, actual goals. On that end of things they were not the Rangers top line by any stretch, with the Kreider/Zibanejad/Buchnevich combo being on ice for only 4 goals for at 5-on-5 and 8 goals against. Obviously the numbers would be much more flattering if we were taking into account powerplay goals given how prolific the three of them were on the man-advantage, you simply can’t depend on drawing penalties all the time to win games (although the three of them did have a positive penalty differential of 5).

Fear not though, because as it happens, the KZB line has had horrible luck. Their on-ice shooting percentage has been a meager 3.85 thus far and the goaltending performances they’ve played in front of have been even worse, all apologies to Henrik Lundqvist. With that shooting percentage and their .901 on-ice save percentage, no wonder their GF% was 33.33%, with a relative GF% of -18.59. Going by expected goals, they should’ve seen 9.15 of them go in at even strength for the Rangers and 6.72 for the opposing team – not nearly as bad as their actual GF% makes it seem. Indeed, when that PDO regresses from 93.97 back to 100 as it is bound to do, things will begin looking even better for the KZB line.

That sweet, sweet regression to the mean will come just in time too, because things haven’t been quite as rosy with David Desharnais centering the Rangers’ two top scoring wingers. While that combo has played a much less robust 60.52 minutes together at 5-on-5 over 14 games, even with a sizable grain of salt the numbers are tough to swallow. The KDB line’s Corsi numbers in that time have been a 41.67 raw CF% and a -4.79 relative, and their expected goals aren’t much better at a 43.99 xGF and -4.78 relative xGF%.

Interestingly enough though, they’ve actual seen the biscuit on its way into the basket twice as many times as they’ve been scored on; the trio has seen 4 goals for and 2 against for a GF% of 66.67 and a relGF% of 16.67%. It gets even weirder – while the KZB line seems to have been plagued by bad luck on the scoring front, the David Desharnais Experience has seen just the opposite. This incarnation of the top line has an abnormally high 13.79 on-ice shooting percentage and a .950 on-ice save percentage, for a 108.79 PDO. Regression giveth and regression taketh away, and on the off chance that Desharnais is still centering Kreider and Buchnevich even with Zibanejad back (which AV would be insane to do, but hey) they’re in for a world of hurt when those underlying numbers turn into their actual numbers.

For a more qualitative look at things, I decided to pull some With-or-Without-You (WOWY) heat maps from hockeyviz.com, run by the esteemed Micah Blake McCurdy. To get full access to all of his tools and content (which are really great), I subscribe for $5 a month, so if you’re into that kind of thing I highly recommend you and Abe Lincoln part ways for the sake of hockey knowledge.

In any event, I’ve pull two pairs of heat maps for you all to take a look at – one for Kreider/Zibanejad/Buchnevich, and one for Kreider/Desharnais/Buchnevich, both in terms of shots for and shots against. Typically these kinds of heat maps show relative shot rates, that is, the amount of shooting that goes on by a certain line/combo of guys relative to either the league or the team’s average, but these ones are the raw numbers, so if you’re familiar and they look a little different that’s why.

First up we have the gold standard KZB line:

What we can see in the first one, which is shots for, is what we’ve become accustomed to when we think of the three of them together – shots from the top of the circle coming from either Zibanejad or Buchnevich, with the secondary splotch below the right circle pretty clearly being Buchnevich’s other office, and a whole lot going on in front – Kreider’s wheelhouse. The shots against map doesn’t look great but when you consider how many shots they’re producing (and, spoiler alert, what you’re about to see next), it doesn’t look so bad.

Now we’ve got Kreider and Buchnevich with Desharnais:

Looking at the difference between the two sets of heat maps, we can visualize more clearly how the Desharnais incarnation of things has been problematic. The heat map showing their shot production is much more sparsely populated compared to the KZB line’s, and although the highlighted area seems to have stretched a little bit further out into the slot, it’s not very densely populated elsewhere – a testament to the fact, regardless of what they’re giving up, which we’ll get to, they’re really just not producing much to begin with.

The second map demonstrates why I’m not overly concerned about the Zibanejad iteration of things’ shots against map, because while there’s a decent amount of stuff going on in front of the net for those guys, the Desharnais-centered line’s shots against looks like its own continent. In that regard, not only are opposing teams getting lots of shots from down in front of the net, they’re getting lots of shot of elsewhere, which suggests that Zibanejad’s contribution runs counter to a lot of what we heard about him when he was acquired by the Rangers. Despite coming in with a rep for defensive liability, Zibanejad seems not only to ramp up his partners’ production, but keeps them from hemorrhaging shots against as well.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that David Desharnais isn’t a good center. He’s a perfectly good option further down the depth chart, but by any measure simply can’t fill the void left by a guy like Mika Zibanejad. It speaks to how dire the Rangers’ center situation is currently, with one injury sending a shock wave through the lineup that, among other things, turns a dominant top line into something ranging from pedestrian to actually bad.

Given how prolific, yet unlucky, Kreider and Buchnevich have been with Zibanejad, and how lucky but really not so great the Desharnais replacement line has been, Alain Vigneault would do well to reunite his top line as soon as Mika Zibanejad is good to go (and not a day sooner, because concussions are no joke). It won’t magically change this team’s fortunes overnight, and likely wouldn’t have helped much against Dallas for example, given how lackluster literally every other player on the ice was for the Rangers with the exception of Ondrej Pavelec, but it will help tilt the ice in the Rangers’ favor more often than not.


*All data is at 5-on-5, via Corsica.hockey

**Data does not reflect the results of the game against Ottawa on 12/13/17