A look at the Rangers defensive pairs

Which pairs have been the best and worst for the Rangers in the first 30 games of the 2018-19 season?

Last week, we took a look at which forward lines and combinations had been the best for the New York Rangers this season. Given the recent injury to Kevin Shattenkirk and the pending return of Adam McQuaid, it felt like a perfect time to take a closer look at the Rangers’ greatest weakness — the blue line.

What is the Rangers best line?

When we looked at the performance of the Rangers’ forward lines we paid close attention to each trio’s Corsi and expected goals. That gave us a general idea of how each line fared in regards to possession and overall play. Of course, there is a lot more to evaluating the play of a line or a pairing than possession and expected goal differential, but we’re focusing on what we can quantify with data.

First, let’s take a look at the Rangers’ eight most frequent defensive pairs and how they’ve performed in regards to possession and expected goal differential.

Anyone who has been watching the Rangers this season knows that the pairing of Marc Staal and Neal Pionk has seen a lot of ice time. They are the 19th-most deployed D-pair in the league at 5v5. Staal-Pionk, who have 40.45 percent shot share together, has the worst relative Corsi of the NHL’s 20-most deployed defensive pairs — their closest competition for that undesirable distinction is Washington’s pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen (-6.37 Rel CF%).

As a duo, Staal and Pionk have the worst Rel CF% among the team’s eight most-frequent defensive pairs. However, they a 46 percent expected goals and the best Rel xGF% of that group. When we expand the group to include all pairs that have played at least 20 minutes of 5v5 hockey together, Staal-Pionk ranks fifth on the team in that category. And their adjusted -2.23 Rel xGF% ranks third on the team among the pairs who have played at least 50 minutes together at 5v5.

One reason why Staal-Pionk likely has a favorable Rel xGF% compared to the Rangers’ other pairs is because they’ve been on the ice a lot when the Rangers started winning some hockey games. In the first 15 games of the season, Staal-Pionk played 131.97 5v5 TOI together and had a brutal -13.47 Rel CF%. In other words, they were a mess. In the next 15 games (beginning on November 9), they played together 215.12 5v5 together and had a -1.94 Rel CF%. Staal-Pionk also went from a -13.35 Rel SCF% in the first 15 games of the year to a 2.27 SCF% in the Rangers’ most recent 15 games. So, they’ve been better, but are still bad.

If you’re still here after all of those percentage symbols, you’re a trooper.

It should come as no surprise that Staal-Pionk and the rest of the Rangers pairs don’t look great when compared to the league as a whole.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, the Shattenkirk injury temporarily interferes with a possible reunion of the team’s most intriguing pair. In 35.9 5v5 TOI together, Skjei-Shattenkirk has a team-best 20.13 Rel xGF%, but were also seriously unlucky with a 93.65 PDO. But, in the last seven games, they have played just over seven minutes of hockey together.

It’s worth mentioning that Staal and Shattenkirk has pretty exceptional numbers in their 37.42 5v5 TOI together, and that Pionk and Fredrik Claesson have had encouraging numbers in 21.58 5v5 TOI as a pair. Also, Staal and Pionk both have a better Rel CF% away from each other than they have together (Staal 6.64 and Pionk 0.28). And it goes without saying that they shouldn’t be used on the penalty kill together.

So, why have David Quinn and the Rangers’ coaching staff been so resistant to splitting up Pionk and Staal? Perhaps it’s because that pair is dead even in 5v5 goal differential, or perhaps it’s because the coaching staff wants Pionk to play with a veteran defensive defenseman. Still, it’s been peculiar to see one pair stay together so much while the pairs around them have been juggled.

The pair of Claesson-Shattenkirk also deserves further attention because it has a similar xGF% to Staal-Pionk and is the second-most deployed pair on the Rangers. Together, Fredrik Claesson and Shattenkirk have a -2.83 Rel CF% and a -1.82 Rel xGF%. Most importantly, their adjusted Rel xGF% is the best on the team among the pairs with over 50 minutes together.

On paper, this Claesson-Shattenkirk should work together quite well. Claesson is an effective defenseman in his own zone and Shattenkirk is a noteworthy offensive-D. But they have both performed significantly better in terms of Corsi while playing away from each other. The high frequency of this pairing might also explain why Shattenkirk’s production has been unremarkable at 5v5.

One pair that seems to have clicked for the Rangers is Skjei and Tony DeAngelo. They are by far the best Rangers pairing in regards to penalty differential and are second on the team with a 0.56 Rel CF%. Offensively, they click; among the Rangers’ D-pairs who have played 100 minutes or more together, Skjei-DeAngelo lead the way with an adjusted expected goals for rate. They are not necessarily stalwart in their own zone though, but they can still be fun to watch.

The bottom line here is that the defense, as a whole, has been and will continue to be underwhelming. At the moment, the Rangers have too many specialists who play the right side without reliable partners for them who can play the left side. We’ve seen some encouraging signs from pairs like Skjei-Shattenkirk, Claesson-Pionk, and Skjei-Smith, but all of that comes with an asterisk because of small sample sizes.

It’s definitely time for the Rangers to split up Staal-Pionk and to get Pionk away from the opposing team’s top-six forwards. But that will be easier said than done with Shattenkirk out until the New Year and Brendan Smith running laps around and through Quinn’s doghouse — which is particularly vexing because he’s the only defender to almost break even in terms of shots on this blue line.

There is still a lot of hockey to be played this year and almost certainly a lot of juggling ahead for Quinn and company. With any luck we’ll see better play from the defense as a whole moving forward, if not, we can at least hope for better play from specific pairings.

Data courtesy of naturalstattrick.com, Corsica.hockey.