Despite picking up five of six possible points over the course of their past three games — all on the road — the New York Rangers have not been at the top of their game for a while now. They’ve been lucky to escape with points in the past few games. The results were more telling immediately prior, where they had gone just 2-5-1 in their previous eight contests. What’s even more alarming is that they have recorded just one regulation win in their past 12 games.
There have been several extenuating factors during the bulk of this stretch that need to be taken into consideration. Perhaps most immediately obvious are the Rangers’ shorthanded lineups in anticipation of the eventual Patrick Kane trade, and the process of finding the right fits for Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko in their forward lines.
Another major factor, however, has been the continued absence of defenseman Ryan Lindgren.
Lindgren sustained an upper-body injury (which sure looked like a dislocated shoulder, coming from someone who has personally experienced that) resulting from a questionable-at-best hit from the Washington Capitals’ T.J. Oshie back on Feb. 25. He left that game in the first period and has not played since.
For large swaths of the past couple of weeks, the Rangers have struggled defensively, both in terms of giving up too many odd-man rushes and failing to consistently cover players in the net-front area. That’s where Lindgren, a defense-first player, has been most clearly missed.
In their past two games — an overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres and an overtime loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins — the Rangers’ defense, while still not spectacular, was better than it had been. Their even-strength offense, however, took another step back — a troubling development for a team with so much talent up front. That suggests that most recently, they have had to overcompensate defensively, at the expense of creating offense.
The Rangers’ struggles at both ends of the ice during this stretch without Lindgren are evident in the underlying team numbers as well. For the season, before Feb. 25 (the game Lindgren exited), the team’s expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%) at five-on-five was 50.25 percent — 18th-best in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s essentially average, which is a fine formula for winning when supplemented by what you’d expect to be the team’s strengths (in spite of some ups and downs this season): goaltending, shooting talent, and power-play prowess.
Since (and including) Feb. 25? The Rangers’ five-on-five xGF% has dropped to an ugly 43.28 percent — 26th in the league. While the defensive issues have been extremely obvious to the naked eye, what’s particularly notable is how much the offense has dried up after adding more star talent up front; the Rangers are only generating 10.16 high-danger chances per 60 minutes of five-on-five play during this same stretch (26th in the league, as with their xGF%). Prior, that number had been 11.57, which placed them closer to the middle of the pack.
Again, there are other factors at play besides Lindgren’s absence. But his significance cannot be ignored. Sure, he’s known for defense. As such, it might not seem like he would help much in sparking the struggling offense, but to assume such would be to underestimate his impact. Yes, the Rangers need their forwards to do a better job of driving offense, but even when those players have trouble doing so, the team can almost always rely on the brilliant Adam Fox to kickstart offense from the back end.
However, without his partner, Lindgren, even Fox’s game has suffered. That’s apparent from the eye test of watching the games, and in the numbers as well.
Since Lindgren has been out of the lineup, Fox’s most common defense partner at five-on-five has been Niko Mikkola — someone who was brought in to help the third pair, not to get major minutes on the top pair.
With Lindgren and Fox on the ice together this season, the Rangers have generated above-average offense in terms of expected goals (i.e., they’ve generated a strong number of quality scoring chances), while also allowing very little on the defensive side. Quite simply, this is what you want.
Now, let’s contrast that with the Fox/Mikkola pairing. With those two on the ice, the story is drastically different: The Rangers struggle to create any significant offense, and defensively, they give up a bevy of high-danger chances — especially in the low slot. Quite simply, this is not what you want.
Clearly, Fox is missing the stability and chemistry of his partnership with Lindgren, and hasn’t been able to play his game effectively when paired with Mikkola. Mikkola can be effective in a lesser role on the third pair, which is where he had slotted in before Lindgren’s injury, K’Andre Miller’s three-game suspension, and all of the pre-Kane trade shenanigans threw things into a state of disarray. Giving Mikkola such heavy minutes (he’s averaged 21:01 per game since Feb. 25), often against the opposition’s best players, is an unreasonable ask in a vacuum, but the Rangers have had limited options lately.
Lindgren might not put up big-time point totals, but he forms an effective duo with Fox, helping the latter to drive offense while not sacrificing anything defensively. Without Lindgren, the Rangers always seem to struggle on at least one end of the ice. His return should help alleviate that. His presence will also allow Mikkola to slot into his natural third-pair position, at which point Ben Harpur can become a healthy scratch once again.
It seems that Lindgren is close to returning, so hopefully that happens sooner than later. The Rangers need to re-stabilize their overall play so they can A) officially clinch a playoff spot, B) hold off the Penguins and lock up the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division, and C) most importantly, be playing their best hockey going into the playoffs. Lindgren might not be able to directly help the new-look forward group build chemistry with one another, but he’ll make a number of other pieces fall into place to better position the Rangers for success.