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For The Rangers, Offensive Struggles Start At The Top

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NHL: Edmonton Oilers at New York Rangers Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I love Jesper Fast. He’s versatile, can be plugged in anywhere, does everything you want in his own zone, and plays a valuable game on both ends of the ice.

As much as I love Jesper Fast, you know something is wrong when he’s the team’s leading scorer through five games.

The Rangers are 1-4-0 through their first five games, scoring just 12 goals (9 at 5-on-5) so far this season. That number, which already looks bad, looks worse when you realize the five-goal output in the loss to Carolina makes up 41 percent of that total. Extrapolating that game, the Rangers are scoring just 1.75 goals per game.

Fast is the team’s point leader with four (1-3-4), from there, Brett Howden, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, and Mats Zuccarello have three apiece, and then six players have two points. Kevin Hayes is not one of above mentioned 11 players above, with just a single assist in five games. Marc Staal is outscoring Kevin Shattenkirk so far this year with a single assist. Neal Pionk has not found the scoresheet, while Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov both have a single assist to their names.

No, not all of this is unexpected. In some cases (Pionk and the pointless Vinni Lettieri) there was a learning curve we planned for. In other cases (Namestnikov) there was the reality of their position/role taking away from offensive opportunities. You can plan for those struggles and still succeed; what you can’t plan for is the offense dying on the top while the depth is simultaneously struggling on the bottom.

Hayes’ struggles — particularly after such an explosive preseason — are both concerning and sort of shocking. He’s been a top-six staple the first three games of the year before taking a seat on the third line to make room for Howden. It’s not just the points, either, Hayes has seen some major struggles in possession as well (although in a five game sample, they have to be taken with a grain of salt). Hayes’ is the team’s third-worse possession player with a -6.82 percent relative corsi (Pionk at -14.37 percent is the worse), and his relative expected goals for is slightly below team average at -0.44 percent. The Rangers break even with 50 percent of the goals share with Hayes on the ice, which is one of the few stats were Hayes isn’t below the water line. Those aside, a single assist in just one game is a problem, and he’s not exactly the crease-crashing, barreling forward we’re used to seeing when he’s on his game.

(”Rel” statistics are the player’s statistic compared to the rest of the team. As an example, Hayes’ corsi of 39.66% is nearly 7% worse that the team average.)

He’s not the only one at the top struggling, though. Kreider’s “here today, gone tomorrow” streak is rearing its ugly head, with both of his goals coming in the loss to Carolina. Kreider has always been a streaky player in terms of scoring goals, but normally he brings things with his struggles, such as speed down the wing that backs off the defense when his line is on the ice. He also typically creates more neutral zone space, net-crashing goodness, or the ever-present screening of the goalie. The non-scoring things have been there sometimes, but not consistently. In the opening game of the year Kreider might have been one of the team’s worst forwards and against Edmonton you couldn’t find him with a magnifying glass. That’s fine every now and again, but Kreider’s lack of “non-scoring stuff” has been troubling.

Zibnaejad, who finally scored his first goal of the year against Edmonton, hasn’t been all that visible either. Kreider and Zibanejad both got off to slow starts, and David Quinn reacted by breaking up the KZB line, by switching Kreider with Fast to play with Zibanejad and Buchnevich. That group did well enough, but when David Quinn swapped Kreider for Buchnevich and put the Russian winger on his off wing with Howden against Edmonton, he struggled mightily.

Buchnevich isn’t absolved from anything here either. While I don’t think he’s been as quiet as Hayes, Kreider, or Zibanejad, his possession numbers (all relative: -0.11 percent Corsi, -13.73 percent goals for, and -11.98 percent expected goals) have been rocky to say the least. Some of those goals for numbers are skewed because of the team’s lack of overall scoring (that applies to everyone), but it’s still numbers we’re not accustomed to seeing from Buchnevich. For the record, Buchnevich has been on the ice for two goals against at even strength, Kreider and Zibanejad have been on the ice for five against, so take his GF% with a small grain of salt.

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

(Between writing this and publishing this, it came out Buchnevich could be a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s game against Colorado. I saw the series of responses to my comments on Twitter half defending the move so I will simply say this: 1) If I were the head coach I would not be sitting Buchenvich, 2) it’s indefensible that Cody McLeod is “Plan B” for something like this, 3) in terms of on-ice performance Hayes, Vesey, and Kreider should all be getting this treatment before Pavel. Where I differentiate this from AV is that Quinn has made it clear he expects a lot from Buchnevich and this is about effort rather than talent, and he’s not putting McLeod in the lineup because he thinks it makes the team better. Quinn mentioned his job as the coach for getting Neal Pionk to know why he’s sitting, and this feels like a similar situation — and one we know wasn’t happening under the old regime. Mike and I debated about this heavily on the podcast (Ep. 112). For those of you who think this site is carrying the team’s water, I assure you the organization does not feel that way. I assure you I do not feel that way. I have tried to be clear about how I’m judging Quinn. I am giving Quinn leash because I am already seeing key differences between the now and last year. At least among the forwards, the defense has been a different story. And we’re ultimately five games into a season where Quinn is coaching and learning himself on the fly. If this is continuing in November or December, or there is continued failures to develop as the season wears on, you will see it reflected in coverage. For now, though, we need to give the coaching staff a chance to breathe.)

While Howden has been a rising star, his ice time has eaten away at Filip Chytil’s — which caused Quinn to refreshingly admit he needed to do a better job finding the kid time after the loss against Edmonton. Dropping Vesey down to Chytil’s spot on the fourth line, and moving Namestnikov to center there, would solve a lot of that problem, and get Chytil’s offensive ability to connect with players more suited for it.

While Quinn has shown a frustrating lack of awareness about what the problem is on defense — I’m not happy when one of Pionk/DeAngelo is sitting, so for both to against Edmonton is insane. Quinn has shown an awareness we haven’t seen before by openly taking the blame for Chytil not getting enough ice time, fixing it by moving him to the wing, and giving Howden an opportunity to grab a top-six center role from the fourth line. That mentality however, has not translated to the defense. You can make an argument that Pionk has actually been the anchor to Staal based on their numbers, but we haven’t seen enough of them apart from one another for me to firmly come to that conclusion. That said, for all the goodwill Quinn has earned with (most) of his forward moves, the defensive lack of development continues to bewilder. Unless the Rangers’ brass simply isn’t high on DeAngelo and Pionk and has made it clear to Quinn they need a stopgap before K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Sean Day, and (dare I say) Joey Keane or Ryan Lindgren come up, I’m not sure how Quinn can justify McQuaid and Staal being in the lineup game over game.

But nothing Quinn does to the forwards is going to matter while they’re playing so cold. Fair to say there’s no way Hayes, Kreider, and Zibanejad won’t heat up, or Buchnevich won’t get more consistent. The power play being a mix of lifeless and great without the goals, is causing some of these issues, too.

Which brings us to Shattenkirk, who has seen a healthy(ish) scratch already and has no points through four games. Quinn has hinted at Shattenkirk needing time to get to be 100 percent (Mike speculated this on Ep. 111, for the record) when he put him in the press box, dispelling the ripples it sent through the media as everyone started to panic.

Shattenkirk’s struggles have been magnified, somewhat unfairly. For as bad as his offense has been, his underlying numbers aren’t atrocious. He’s been on the ice for three goals against and none for, sure, but his expected goals is better than the team average, as is his Corsi. His PDO of 88.46 probably has something to do with this — I’ve never seen a PDO that low in my life. Ultimatley, though, Shattenkirk’s report card comes from goals and assists and there has been none of that. PDO plays a role there, but you can’t overlook his lack of scoring when it comes to the team’s struggles as a whole.

The million dollar question: What can Quinn do?

Well, to fix the offense he should probably find a way to get DeAngelo back into the lineup — as he can actually be expected to produce more than Pionk in that regard. He should also move Vesey down to the fourth line and get Chytil some top-six minutes (which appears to be the case). Fast, at this point, is the only forward who has been consistent in every game, so keeping him there until other guys heat up makes sense. The power play starting to click would go a long way, too, even if just for confidence, but Quinn has removed Buchnevich from the current group and continues to push Vesey out onto one if the units, so I’m not expecting success there magically.

All that said: the Rangers could have beaten Nashville and should have beaten Buffalo. They did beat San Jose. Henrik Lundqvist has been a big part of whatever success the Rangers have, but without the offense it’s going to be a long year.

The good news is this won’t last forever. The bad news is it has lasted this long.

Data is at 5v5, via Corsica.hockey