With a shade over 20% of the 2022-23 campaign in the books, now is a good time to take stock of where the Rangers are at. Having made minimal additions in free agency and opting for an internal replacements for their additions from the previous trade deadline, there was reason to believe see similar results to last season’s squad.
For those in need of a reminder, the 2021-22 Rangers were a very bad team at even strength for most of the season. The deadline acquisitions of Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Tyler Motte helped shore up the team’s forward depth and resulted in better play down the stretch, but by in large the team was carried by Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina-trophy winning goaltending and strong special teams play.
Sitting at 8-6-3 thus far, the Rangers are on pace for a low 90’s point total over a full season. 100 points was the necessary amount for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference playoff race last year, but that represents an unusually high cutoff. No team has ever missed the playoffs with at least 97 standings points, so 97 should be the benchmark used for playoff qualification here.
New York would fall short of the necessary 97 points if they were to maintain their current pace. For a team that won 52 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals last season, that might be alarming to think about. However, a deeper dive into the numbers behind the team’s pedestrian start to the season gives more reasons for residents of Rangerstown to be encouraged rather than discouraged:
The biggest difference between the Rangers’ early season play this year versus last year is that although the record doesn’t reflect it, they’re playing significantly better. There have been a few clunkers thus far, the home games against Detroit, San Jose, and Boston stand out for that category, but overall the team has seen massive improvements.
The stronger shares of shot attempts, shots on goal, and expected goals are a pleasant surprise given the lack of offseason moves to reshape the roster. For those that aren’t particularly interested in the shot-based metrics, even the team’s goal differentials are better in spite of the lower shooting and save percentages we’ve seen thus far.
The Blueshirts aren’t finding the back of the net as often as last year, are getting less saves out of their goaltenders, but have managed to improve their goal differential while still ending up with a weaker record. How does something like that happen? Well, the 21-22 Rangers were 5-1-3 in games decided by one goal through 17 games while going 5-3-0 with a minus two goal differential in the multi-goal games Their three losses were by four, four, and six goals respectively. When they lost, they got blown out.
This season, the team is 2-2-3 in one goal games, but they’ve gone 6-4-0 with a plus seven goal differential in multi-goal games thus far. After recording 40+ shots on goal four times for the entirety of last season, the Rangers have already accomplished that feat five times this season, with an additional two games at 39 SOG’s. Sometimes you just run into a hot goalie, and the likes of Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg, Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders, and Juuse Saros in Nashville are the caliber of goaltenders that can steal a game any given night, All three of them have done that to the Rangers thus far, and it’s not something to be worried about as the season progresses.
The special teams units are slightly weaker than they were over the course of the full length 2021-22 campaign, but not weak enough to be the reason the Rangers are where they are right now. The 0/5 showing out of the power play units on Saturday against Nashville left plenty to be desired, but that was the only game out of the previous five the Blueshirts haven’t recorded at least one power play goal.
It can be frustrating to hear people, whether it be players or analysts, say “we’re just not getting the bounces right now” when the team struggles to win one goal games with any consistency, but there’s plenty of truth in that. Looking at Sunday’s game against Arizona, the Coyotes were skating circles around the Rangers for the first half of that contest. They held a 20-4 shot advantage midway through the second period and had their Blueshirts on their heels. Igor Shesterkin kept the game from getting out of hand until a loose puck quite literally pinballed onto Barclay Goodrow’s stick in the slot with a clear shooting lane, and the team never looked back from there.
On a more in-depth level, there are some issues the Rangers will need to resolve. Much like last season, New York’s depth players have a bad habit of getting buried in their own end of the ice on a regular basis. With the exception of Jimmy Vesey, (who has been a very pleasant surprise for a player that some didn’t want to make the roster out of camp) the rest of the 4th line-type players have struggled.
Sammy Blais hasn’t looked good, Ryan Carpenter has been a non-factor, and Ryan Reaves continues to be one of the worst players to skate a regular shift in the NHL. Julien Gauthier has made a handful of nice plays individually since his recall and looked good overall, but his on-ice shot and chance differentials paint a less rosy picture. Assuming the Rangers are in the thick of the playoff race later in the season, they’ll be in need of rental forwards once again.
The Jacob Trouba-K’Andre Miller pairing has had poor results in the goal department, but the underlying numbers point towards that being bad puck luck rather than consistently bad play so far. Meanwhile, the 3rd pairing of Braden Schneider alongside either Libor Hajek or Zac Jones has been the opposite, with decent on-ice goal results covering up negative differentials in shots and scoring chances. Hajek’s struggles as an NHLer have been well-documented, as have Schneider’s, but whether Jones’ poor results are a product of his own play or being paired with sub-par players is up for debate.
What’s not up for debate is that the Rangers have been playing well thus far. The 8-6-3 record might raise red flags for some, but one winning streak can change that outlook in swift fashion. Last year’s team ripped of a seven game winning streak following a loss in their 17th game, and that was a team showing much less than the current one. The Rangers aren’t going to keep running into goalies making 40+ saves every other night. When that stops, and it will, the wins will start to pile up once again.