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Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller’s Weird Season

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NHL: New York Rangers at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are two very talented young players who look to be cornerstones for the Rangers both now and in the future. Both are putting up career high point totals (Miller has hit the 50 point plateau while Hayes is just 4 points shy of the mark), but we know that there’s more to player evaluation than points and production, since that can be a bit hazy due to sh% noise. When you take a look at the underlying numbers for both Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, you begin to see a rather...weird trend.

(All numbers at 5 on 5, adjusted for score, venue, and zone start. Courtesy of the fantastic Corsica.Hockey site)

As you can see in the chart, since Hayes has entered the league both he and J.T. Miller have seemingly sacrificed sustained possession (CF%) for driving up their scoring chances (SCF%). This actually falls in line with the adjustment Alain Vigneault has made to his offense, focusing on those long stretch passes to catch opponents in transition even if it means spending more time in their own zone giving up shots against.

Now, normally this trade off wouldn’t be that big of a deal but this season has seen Miller and Hayes get a big jump in their defensive zone starts (DZS%). Both players almost doubling these starts from 2015-16 to this season has led to a more defensive role that they’re probably not quite used to at this point in their careers. Also, keep in mind that the two young forwards are being helped out by the best defense money can buy, so this isn’t fully on them.

There’s also another element at play here: Miller and Hayes’s newest linemate and future Art Ross winner, Michael Grabner. When Grabner came to the Rangers, he was touted for his speed, his penalty killing finesse, and his reputation as solid third line winger with a steady two way game. We know how that’s worked out, playing with Hayes and Miller in AV’s transition heavy game has led to Grabner breaking out and leading the Rangers in goal scoring this season. However, Grabner wasn’t brought in to lead the Rangers in scoring; that’s just a nice bonus. He was brought in to add a bit of defensive stability to that duo. Has it worked out that way?

Well...kinda?

As you can see, Grabner hasn’t had that big of a positive impact this year relative to his teammates. Mostly reaping the benefits of playing a lot with Hayes and Miller, Grabner has been floating by on his sky high sh% and his excellent penalty killing while not really giving Miller and Hayes the defensive help they need.

So, what’s the conclusion here? Are Hayes and Miller bad players? Should they be split up? Has that 10-13-40 line run it’s course? Well, no, no, and probably. I think there are a lot of factors at play here and many of them stem from Vigneault’s coaching strategies and deployment. I think if AV shuffled things around and put Jimmy Vesey with Hayes and Miller in a more sheltered role while putting Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, and Grabner together to handle the more defensive minded assignments things will probably balance themselves out. I also think that Vigneault needs to adjust his offensive strategy in general to focus more on sustaining shot attempts and offensive zone pressure to help relieve the workload of Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and their Merry Men. So when looking at the numbers this season for the Rangers forwards, keep in mind that, in general, the Rangers are weird.

Thoughts, guys?