Rangers in Danger of Underachieving
At the onset of every hockey season, every individual player and team has expectations set for them. Sometimes those expectations are reasonable, and sometimes they’re not. Fans, team representatives, analysts, and everybody else involved in hockey has expectations for the Rangers’ and their players. The problem with that however, is the fact that everybody’s expectations differ, so one player’s stat line could exceed one analyst’s expectations, while the same stat line falls short of someone else’s. Players like Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Mika Zibanejad sparked debates about how they performed last season and what it means for their expectations for the 17-18 season.
Looking at New York’s roster, three team members in particular stand out as players whose production is likely to fall out of line with the average fan’s expectations. Whether it is due to unfairly high expectations from the start or concerns that an “off” season may just be that instead of a new normal, these three players have red flags around them to keep in mind as the season trudges along. With that being said, let’s dive into who those players are:
After winning the sweepstakes and landing the coveted winger out of Harvard last summer, Alain Vigneault put Vesey in a position to succeed throughout his rookie season. Spending a plurality of his even strength ice time with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, it’s hard to imagine any better scenario for an offensively talented player to break into the league and showcase himself.
When he wasn’t receiving minute in the top six with Stepan and Nash, Vesey found himself in a sheltered, yet still offense driven role, playing mostly with Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, and J.T. Miller. Even when he wasn’t gifted minutes with elite NHL players, Vesey still found himself with capable linemates, which is more than the average rookie under Alain Vigneault earned.
At a cursory glance, Vesey’s numbers look satisfactory. For a player who was projected to score in the neighborhood of 30 points fresh out of college, a 16 goal, 11 assist season appears to be something to build upon heading into his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, a deeper look into the numbers behind the numbers shows that 30 points could be closer to Vesey’s ceiling than his floor.
The most alarming note about Vesey is his even strength production, or lack thereof. Of his 27 points, only 19 of them came at 5 on 5, leaving him with 11 goals and 8 assists in the most important facet of hockey. Receiving nearly 12 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time per game, that grades out to a paltry 1.20 Points/60, getting outpaced by, Brady Skjei, Adam Clendening, and every regular forward on last season’s roster sans Brandon Pirri.
If Vesey were in a depth role (he wasn’t) meant to be defensively dependable (he wasn’t) and drive play towards the opponent’s end of the ice, (he didn’t) than 1.2 Points/60 would be acceptable. As if that wasn’t worrying enough, the linemates Vesey spent a majority of time with all performed better away from him than with him, indicating that the Massachusetts native was harming New York every time he hopped over the boards.
Out of Stepan, Nash, Hayes, Miller, and Lindberg, all five players had a significantly better Goals For% (ranging from 15% to 33%) away from Vesey than Vesey had away from them, and Hayes was the only player with a noticeably worse CF% without Vesey than Vesey without him. (The other four ranged from -0.7% to +8.1%.)
A 35-45 point season seems to be the “reasonable” estimate for Vesey’s sophomore campaign. However, the evidence from his rookie season point to any significant jump in production being unlikely. Vesey has been skating on the team’s fourth line with David Desharnais and Paul Carey recently, so he won’t have the ability to ride his linemates coattails like last season. Although he won’t spend the whole season there, don’t expect big things out of Jimmy Vesey this year.
When Kevin Hayes burst onto the scene in 2014, his rookie season was drawing comparisons to some of the league’s playmakers. Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, and Ryan Getzlaf were just three household names that hockey savvy fans envisioned Hayes becoming, and those visions weren’t so ludicrous after Hayes’ rookie season. After his rookie season, Hayes has been unable to regain the form he showed fresh out of Boston College, and he’s become a major landmine that Jeff Gorton will have to avoid next summer.
Since entering the league, Hayes has had a variety of critical roles in Alain Vigneault’s system. In 14-15, he centered a sheltered 3rd Line with Carl Hagelin and J.T. Miller, and it put Hayes on the organizational map. During the 15-16 season, he served as a common scapegoat for Vigneault to banish to the press box in favor of Tanner Glass. Although his sophomore campaign wasn’t up to the standards he set the year before, it was not a bad season in a vacuum.
Last season, Vigneault christened Hayes as his defensive zone specialist after failing to adequately replace Dominic Moore. Coincidentally, last season just so happened to be the worst season his career. Hayes’ shift from a sheltered offense first player to a defensively reliable forward (in Vigneault’s eyes) has been pointed at as the primary reason in his decline, but it’s worth a deeper dive.
Matt Cane researched the impact that zone starts and deployment had on player performance here and here. I’d recommend reading his work for a deeper understanding of their effects, but the short version is that player deployment doesn’t matter outside of extreme circumstances. Hayes’ Zone Start Rating of 41.41 leaned clearly to defensive usage, but nothing as extreme as a true defensive specialist like 13-14 Brian Boyle, (23.83) 13-16 Dominic Moore (25.12) or for non-Rangers, 14-16 Paul Gaustad (9.35!!!!)
Due to that, hand waving Hayes’ sub-par play away due to zone starts is silly at best, ignorant worst. The fact of the matter is that Kevin Hayes was legitimately bad last season, ranking dead last on the team in Relative Corsi For% (-5.82) and Relative Expected Goals For% (-6.32). His point production was middling (1.6 P/60, 10th out of 13 qualifying forwards), and middling point production isn’t going to cut it for somebody who’s a drag on possession.
While it looked like Hayes would ascend into the top six in the wake of the Derek Stepan trade, Hayes currently finds himself centering New York’s 3rd line between Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, which is the same line that stuck together for most of last season. If the same linemates help Hayes have the same season he did last year, then the team will have to do everything possible to inflate his value and look to move him sooner rather than later. If Hayes makes it to the summer of 2018 with New York, don’t expect him to be coming off a strong season worthy of a 3rd contract.
As preposterous as it may sound at first, there’s a very real chance that Henrik Lundqvist has a second consecutive “down” season, and underachieves as a result. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if he just had a single bad season last year, or if we’ll be able to look back and mark the 16-17 season as the beginning of the end for the best goaltender in franchise history.
The case for Lundqvist being a candidate to fall short of expectations is cut and dry, unlike the circumstances surrounding Vesey and Smith. Last season was arguably the worst season of Henrik Lundqvist’s career by any metric you could think of. In terms of counting statistics, Lundqvist posted career lows in Save%, (.910, and his first sub-.920 season since 08-09) Goals Against Average, (2.74, his previous career high was 2.48 in 15-16) and Shutout Percentage. (2 in 55 starts)
In terms of more useful stats, Lundqvist graded out poorly in those as well. His 91.77 5 on 5 Save%, +0.11 dSave%, (difference between Sv% and Expected Sv%) and 1.455 Goals Saved Above Average were all the worst marks of his career as far back as the data goes in 2007-08. The only stat were Lundqvist didn’t perform at a career low level was in High Danger Save%, where his 78.72% was the second worst of his career.
As much as everyone would like to hope that Lundqvist is primed for a bounce back season, there’s plenty of reason to be worried that the Swedish superstar might not be the goalie he was throughout his career. Other goalies have had elite seasons beyond age 35, and Lundqvist joining the ranks of goaltenders who succeeded as they approached 40 wouldn’t be shocking. Tim Thomas had one of the greatest single season performances since the lockout in his 36 year old season, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Lundqvist to return to form and remind the hockey world why he’ll be a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame one day.
The problem with Lundqvist isn’t even a problem he’s caused. Well, I suppose technically it is, since his exemplary play in the crease throughout his career has led to sky high standards from fans and analysts alike. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Lundqvist could be incapable of playing up to those standards anymore. The team’s defensive improvements will play a major role in easing his workload, which should prevent him from completely bottoming out. But if the Lundqvist from last year is closer to the Lundqvist of the future than anything else, the Rangers will be in trouble.
*All data via Puck IQ and the newly re-released Corsica.