The point of researching history, aside from curiosity, is to learn from it. How were things done in the past? What was successful and what was not? Ultimately, how can both individuals and society use that information to evaluate the present and make informed decisions?
For a number of reasons, it has been challenging to figure out exactly where the Rangers stand as the 2016-2017 has progressed. We still might not have every definitive answer, but with the complete 82-game regular season behind us we can analyze the team on a holistic level. Plenty of work has been done to compare all the current playoff teams, but another way to analyze the Rangers’ chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Final are by comparing them to previous finalists.
First, let’s do a quick review of some statistics. Corsi percentage is the percentage of shot attempts a team has compared to its opponent. Fenwick percentage is the same thing but with blocked shots removed. Scoring chances is a statistic War-on-Ice developed in 2014 which only counts shots that fit a certain criteria. It’s largely an obsolete stat, but I’m including it for posterity. Finally, expected goals was developed by Corsica.Hockey and analyzes goal probability based on criteria such as shot location and the type of shot (slap shot, deflection, and so on).
Using both Corsica.Hockey and Puckon.net, I gathered data for all Stanley Cup Finalists since 2008 - as far back as we can get data for all four statistics - over their last 25 games of the regular season. The 25-game benchmark is used because it seems to generally be a great indicator of playoff success. Logically, it makes sense. For much of the first half of the season, players are shaking off rust and are learning new systems. Coaches are experimenting to find the right combinations. General Managers are trying to figure out the roster and if the coaching staff is doing its job. By the last quarter of the season, players are mostly assimilated, trading deadline moves have been made, and coaches are mostly in place. Here is how Stanley Cup Finalists as well as the 2017 Rangers have fared in these categories. All numbers are score-adjusted.
Generally speaking, Stanley Cup Finalists tend to do very well in these categories over their last 25 regular season games. Particularly Corsi and expected goals. Of course, there are some exceptions. Let’s look at them and see if there are any explanations for why they defied statistical trends.
The 2007-2008 Penguins stand out. They might be one of the few teams whose shot quality overcame deficiencies in total volume. There were also likely other circumstances at play. Sidney Crosby dealt with a significant ankle injury. They also had a lot of elite developing talent (Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, etc.) who put it all together in the playoffs.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Final is notable as well. The Bruins’ skaters weren’t statistically great, but certainly above average. Couple that with Tim Thomas having arguably the greatest playoff performance in NHL history, and the result is a Stanley Cup. For the Canucks, the Corsi and Fenwick stats show that they drove play at an elite level, and like the Bruins had fantastic goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider.
Finally, the 2015 Stanley Cup final goes against the grain. For the Blackhawks, injuries plagued them down the stretch. Most notably, Patrick Kane missed 21 of those 25 games. The Lightning also had some injury issues, but not nothing major. Both teams are definitely oddities here, but it happens. Over the entire 2014-2015 season, the Blackhawks were second in Corsi while the Lightning were third. Both teams seem to be the outliers here whose last 25 games did not properly reflect their true abilities.
Clearly, the Rangers do not measure up to most of these teams, and so we have to evaluate reasons they might instead be a rare outlier. Injuries have certainly hampered the Rangers down the stretch, and even when healthy many important players were rested in the last few games. There’s no doubt that this impacted their numbers. However, to what extent? From November through January, the Rangers were still below average in the NHL in all four statistics. There’s also the effect of familiarity. The Rangers were an enigma that teams struggled to figure out early in the season. Some value added back from a healthy roster might be negated by teams’ being more familiar with how to play against the Rangers.
It’s also been a long time since a Ranger game really mattered, and so internal motivation wasn’t exactly full throttle. Again, certainly relevant, but how much so? The Washington Capitals had the Presidents’ Trophy pretty much wrapped up a while ago. Over their last 25 games, the Capitals’ expected goals’ dropped significantly, but they were still dominant in shot attempts.
Finally, there’s Henrik Lundqvist. Though this season has been far from his best, he has shown the elite ability still exists within him. The big stage also brings out the best in him. If he gets back to that level of play, then to an extent he’ll be able to negate some of the statistical deficiencies from the 18 skaters in front of him.
Looking at historical trends, the Rangers do not look like a Stanley Cup contender. However, that doesn’t mean all roads are closed off. The 2011 and 2015 Stanley Cup Finals both serve up inspiration. If the Rangers can return to being a team that hovers around average in possession metrics while benefitting from superior shot quality, shooting ability, and elite goaltending, then they have a shot. Injuries occur. Weird things happen. Unlikely heroes emerge. The NHL playoffs should be fun, and odds as they may be there’s nothing to lose. Once the puck drops for Game One there’s no point in dwelling on the ugly. The Rangers could make some noise, and everyone should and will be cheering for success. Just understand that any prosperity will be in spite of the odds.
*This story has been edited to remove an inaccurate reference to timing of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ firing of Michel Therrien.