The Emperor Has No Clothes
As Yankees’ legend Yogi Berra once said, “It’s getting late early out there.”
Since the NHL changed its playoff format for the 2013-2014 season, the team to clinch the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference has averaged 95.5 points. The Rangers currently have four points through eight games. Thus, in order to reach 96 points and feel comfortable about merely clinching a final Wild Card Spot, the Rangers will have to play at a 102-point pace the rest of the season.
Let’s contextualize what that means. It means playing like a top-eight or top-nine team in the NHL the rest of the way. It means doing so despite playing a majority of the games on the road. It likely means working a 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist into the ground.
All just for the sake of squeaking into the playoffs and setting up a gauntlet of a playoff run without home-ice advantage against the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
And it all has to happen now. Literally now. A loss to the Predators tomorrow would bump the necessary pace the remainder of the way to 103.3 points. Should the Rangers go 2-3-0 in their next five games? It jumps to 104.5 points. The Rangers’ margin for error is close to zero the rest of the season.
Yes, the Rangers have been unlucky. They’ve repeatedly run into hot goalies, hit posts, and had cruel fate on many breakaway chances. Their 5.73 percent shooting at five-on-five is absurdly low; only the 2014-2015 Coyotes have finished a season with a worse mark in the last ten years (via Corsica.Hockey). The Rangers will start scoring more soon.
But maybe it’s for the best that they haven’t. This season, the team ranks 22nd in the league in adjusted Corsi (shot attempts percentage). They rank 17th in adjusted expected goals percentage, and 19th at five-on-five specifically. This despite playing six of their eight games on home ice.
That is all nothing new. The Rangers are playing inauspiciously, and have posted similarly below-average numbers dating back to 2015. Had the Rangers’ started this campaign 3-4-1 then players, coaches, fans, and media would be able to wax poetically about “the process.” Instead, the bubble of naivety and denial is forced to burst. This is a team that has been in decline for three-plus years, with early season puck luck often burying it. This time around, karma has swung the other way, and the team’s problems are accentuated; not hidden. “The emperor has no clothes,” a child cries out.
The Rangers are not in Hail Mary mode yet, but the time for figuring things out is done. Whatever Alain Vigneault and Lindy Ruff hoped to learn with the nine - this number is literal - different defensive pairings they have used so far, they better have. They better have figured out the kinks in a penalty kill that ranks dead-last in the NHL. Vigneault and Scott Arniel better have figured out that the team’s second-best winger so far this season, Pavel Buchnevich, should not be getting under 10 minutes per game alongside fringe NHLers. They better have collectively figured out that Marc Staal should not be on the ice for an offensive-zone faceoff with 20 seconds left in a tied game. If General Manager Jeff Gorton has any prospective trades lined up or call-ups from Hartford that make sense, then the time to pull the trigger is now.
All (well, some) of this is a lot to ask before November hits, but this is the bed the Rangers have made for themselves. They have a remarkable load of heavy lifting to do in order to set up a playoff appearance of any kind; let alone a meaningful run. If even so much as decent hockey continues in the coming weeks, then the cause is almost certainly lost. The worst thing the team can do is return to early 2000s form and make desperation moves in an attempt to salvage a sinking ship. It will then be imperative that Gorton makes the moves necessary to look towards 2018-2019.