Two Defensemen Failed The Rangers, But They're Not Boyle and Yandle
Though Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle are the targets of criticism following the Rangers' playoff exit, two other defensemen are truly deserving of scrutiny as the Rangers enter the offseason needing change.
The concept of scapegoating in sports can be awfully curious. In the 1986 World Series, Boston entered the bottom of the 10th in Game Six with a chance to win the title. Ahead in the 8th inning, closer Calvin Schiraldi gave up two hits and the game-tying run. Then in the 10th inning, again with a lead and one out away from winning the title, Schiraldi gave up two more hits. Then Bob Stanley came in and threw a wild pitch, which allowed the Mets to tie the game yet again. Somehow, Bill Buckner is the player who got saddled with the blame for the eventual loss.
With the Rangers knocked out in the Eastern Conference Finals, people are understandably looking to see what has gone wrong for the Presidents' Trophy winners as they fail to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. On the defensive side, Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle seem to be popular targets for blame.
Boyle in particular has been a victim of criticism for much of the season, with beat writers questioning his merit for being in the lineup at all. You can also rest assured that there will be speculation about a contract buyout. And yet, the grizzly veteran was the Rangers' best defenseman on the right side this entire postseason. At full strength, the Rangers earned 55.2 percent of the shot attempts with Boyle on the ice. Boyle possessed a +8.3 percent Corsi Rel and a +6.4 percent Scoring Chance Rel. In essence, the Rangers generated a lot more offense than the opposition did whenever Dan Boyle was on the ice. And he personally produced points, with 10 in 19 games; six of which came on the power play. On the defensive side, Boyle clearly isn't perfect, but he receives a lot of unwarranted flack. In fact, among all NHL defensemen during the playoffs who have played at least 150 minutes at five-against-five, only Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman, and Jeff Petry allowed fewer shot attempts-per-60-minutes.
While we could debate the trade itself in hindsight, Yandle essentially lived up to his billing. Even when adjusting for the score, Yandle had a 52.7 percent Corsi and a +4.9 percent Corsi Rel. He skated well with the puck up the ice and distributed well, and it reflects in his leading of all playoff defensemen, minimum 200 minutes, in points-per-60-minutes. He's also fourth in points/60 at five-against-five. In Yandle's case, he most certainly is not particularly apt in his own end, but that comes with the package. He receives sheltered minutes, and his defensive weaknesses are further mitigated by the fact that he doesn't allow the opposition to have the puck very much in the first place. Despite his warts, Yandle did exactly the job required of him despite playing through a pretty miserable shoulder injury for most of the playoffs.
Boyle and Yandle did not face the other team's top offensive players, but that's by design. Instead, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, who have reputations as shutdown defensemen, are really tasked with the shutdown aspect. McDonagh and Staal as well, but there are other components at play there; particularly significant injuries.
Dan Girardi, for the second season in a row, did not perform well in the playoffs. Especially with McDonagh and Staal battling injuries late in the Tampa series, the Rangers needed the absolute best from Girardi. A 45.9% in shot attempts is not even remotely close to meeting that need. Tampa Bay's triplets line absolutely slaughtered Girardi, with his "best" matchup of the three being a 40.7 percent in possession against Tyler Johnson.
And as bad as Girardi was, Kevin Klein was probably worse. After Matt Hunwick had a perfectly solid series against the Penguins, Klein was inserted in and underwhelmed. A 46.5 percent Corsi in his 14 playoff games, Klein does not even own the excuse that Girardi does of having the oppositions' top players beating him. Klein played most of his minutes in the Conference Final against Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula, and Ryan Callahan; three solid players but hardly world beaters.
The circumstances are clear. Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, who are offensive defensemen, did the job they are paid to do; get the puck into the offensive zone and generate offense. Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, who are paid to prevent the opposition from getting a lot of shot attempts, failed to do that. Here are how the Rangers' right-handed defensemen performed the entire players as compared to those of Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Anaheim.
Amazingly, Dan Boyle was pretty even with Anton Stralman. He's not getting many minutes against the opposition's top players, but that's not Boyle's role. The concerning thing for the Rangers is that they lack a defenseman in the upper right-hand corner. In fact, outside of Braydon Coburn, Girardi and Klein are the worst ones here by a pretty wide margin. It's an even bigger issue when accounting for the fact that Girardi and Klein combine for $8.4 million in cap space.
A lot of blame is being placed on the Rangers' offense for their exit, and to a degree that's fair and worth looking at. There are a few problems, however. First is that the Rangers put 21 pucks into the net during the series. Bishop registered a Goals Against Average of 2.78 and a Save Percentage of .902. That's pretty significant damage in the playoffs, and especially against a good defensive team.
The other issue is that hockey is not like many other sports, where offense and defense are largely independent of each other. The two blend into each other in hockey. The value of a defenseman such as Anton Stralman is not just that he's good at stopping the opposition from scoring, but that he can then get things going the other way. Klein and Girardi are not particularly strong at sending outlet passes, or skating through the neutral zone with the puck, or spinning out of the corners behind the net with the puck quickly, or doing anything else to stretch the ice. It doesn't matter how talented your forwards are; they can't score from the defensive end.
And, thus, the reverse is true in regards to Boyle and Yandle. They have issues in their own end, but they don't spend very much time there to begin with. Complaining about their defensive inefficiencies makes as much sense as complaining about Dominic Moore's mediocre offensive production or Chris Kreider's inability to penalty kill well; that's not the main part of their job descriptions. There are very few players in the NHL who are great in every aspect of hockey. For the rest, it's a cost benefit analysis. Yandle and Boyle will make the occasional bad turnover or questionable play in their own end, but what they bring offensively makes it worthwhile. For Klein and Girardi, they are shutdown defensemen who did not shut down much of anything. Their reputations as such are seemingly dependent on having the best goaltender of this generation behind them to mitigate errors as well as an emotional influence; for Girardi, it's how hard he works, his personality, his Cinderella path to the NHL, and his longevity with the team. For Klein, it's an absurd shooting percentage in the first few months of the season that was impossible to sustain and the mere fact that he's not Michael Del Zotto.
Remove those sentimental distractions and what you have are two expensive defensemen in their 30s who bring little to the table offensively and who do not adequately prevent the opposition from generating offensive chances; not to the extent that their cap hits suggest they should, at least. With a low salary cap yet again, the Rangers will have some work to do just to be able to re-sign some important players; and that's before they begin to figure out how they can get better for next season. Cap room is at a premium, and there's not much margin for error. Both Girardi and Klein are great humans who have had some fantastic moments with this organization. But on a team with few holes, the right side of the defense is just not up to standard. And it's something General Manager Glen Sather and Assistant General Manager Jeff Gorton must realize and address if the Rangers are to reach their goal of winning the Stanley Cup next season.