What Have We Learned: A Look at Games 34-36

Three games and only two points added to the win column. It happens, right? Hockey is random, the better team doesn’t always earn the two points they deserve. There’s still time though – we’re not even at the midpoint of the season.

Except the Rangers didn’t deserve the points – especially not in their in last two losses. Hockey is random, but certain tendencies can be predictive of a team’s future. Those tendencies, like the lack of defensive coverage that leads to their 35-year-old goaltender facing far too many shots each night, can be damaging if not outright destructive to a team’s season. And when that team is the New York Rangers, it’s particularly concerning because this trend has been seen before. It’s also concerning because the Rangers don’t have as much leeway in the standings due to their dismal start to the 2017-18 season, particularly when the Metropolitan Division is as challenging as it is.

Offensively, the Rangers are trending down. Defensively, the Rangers are still somehow trending down. Goaltending luckily has been consistent, but to expect Henrik Lundqvist to guarantee a win game in and game out isn’t sustainable, and it’s concerning that he’s going to have to maintain this level of play through the spring once he’s 36-years-old. Can he defy age curves? Probably. But he could still regress this season, and that becomes more likely the more the team in front of him collapses, so the future doesn’t look bright even with Lundqvist’s exceptional play in mind.

There are a lot of issues up and down this Rangers team, but many stem from one place: behind the bench. It’s easy to point the finger at the coaches and it’s easy to absolve the players of their wrongdoings. The players are at fault too, but it begins at the top – and this isn’t anything new.

The Rangers were winning games they didn’t deserve to. While the additions to the win column are always welcome, it’s important to build off those wins so a team doesn’t become complacent and doesn’t begin trending downward. When a team loses but isn’t necessarily the worst team, it’s encouraging. Luck changes, momentum shifts, it happens. But when teams aren’t looking stellar and are winning games, it can become a problem. Those wins are inevitably going to turn to losses. And it only becomes more difficult to claw their way back up the standings when their game is likely flawed in a way that needs changing – which should have come despite those wins, but didn’t.

Does this all sound familiar? Because we essentially said the same thing last week. And this problem isn’t exclusive to this season; the same was said last season during the Rangers’ win streaks. They didn’t deserve the wins, it was clearly going to come crashing down, and it when it did it really became costly. Are we there yet this season?

The Rangers lost games they deserved to win and dug themselves into a hole this season thanks in part to some bad luck. They began to win and slowly climbed out of the hole. But as they won, things started to sour even when collecting those much needed points. Some luck helped them win games they didn’t deserve to win, and the team never addressed what could have cost them after each night. Now they’re losing games, and oh, do they deserve to lose them.

So now what? How do they get back to being a team that genuinely looks like they have a chance at hoisting the Stanley Cup without relying on their goaltending for all of their success?

So what have we learned? It’s important to look at the positives, but the negatives have been outweighing those positives for a while, and that isn’t going to change on its own. The biggest positive is of course the goaltending. This week Lundqvist started all three games, and he gave the Rangers a chance each night. First-line center Mika Zibanejad returned to action after being sidelined with a concussion. Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, and Paul Carey each had two goal weeks. David Desharnais added three assists, while Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider each earned two.

But what we learned more than anything was that the negatives that have been plaguing this team have to be addressed soon or there isn’t going to be a later – at least, not a later that includes a glimpse of hope at reaching the Stanley Cup. It’s time to focus on what is going wrong and try to find a way forward.

The most glaring “wrong” is the defense. At 5-on-5, the Rangers’ expected goals against of 2.84 per hour is still the worst in the league. They are also allowing shot attempts against at the second highest rate in the league (62.15 per hour); only the Arizona Coyotes face more (62.52 per hour). And far too many of those shot attempts are translating to shots on goal. In all situations, Lundqvist faced 37 shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs (3-2 loss), 48 against the Devils (4-3 shootout loss), and 40 against the Ducks (4-1 win). The week prior, it was 35 against the Boston Bruins (3-2 overtime win) and 35 against the Los Angeles Kings (4-2 win) just 22 hours before. Plus, Lundqvist faced 30 shots against the Senators (3-2 win) and Pavelec faced 45 shots against the Dallas Stars (2-1 shootout loss). Neither Lundqvist nor Pavelec should face so many shots against, and definitely not on a consistent basis.

Earlier this season, the defensive struggles were met with a number of personnel and deployment changes, but not tactical changes. And for a while now, three pairs have been fairly consistently deployed: Ryan McDonagh with Nick Holden, Brady Skjei with Kevin Shattenkirk, and Marc Staal with Brendan Smith. Not having consistent pairs was an issue earlier this season; now these pairs are consistent to the point that they’ve become stagnant and aren’t as effective as they could or should be. The coaching staff is so quick to rearrange the forward lines when they’ve felt it necessary, but these defensive pairs have been intact despite evidence that it’s time for shakeup.

McDonagh and Holden isn’t a strong enough first pair. McDonagh’s not playing his best defensive hockey, though he’s steadily accumulated assists. And contrary to what the coaches have said, Holden isn’t a “safe and dependable” partner – at least, not on the first pair. His career in New York hasn’t reflected that notion at all. Holden’s been a lot better than last year, and he should be in the lineup when looking at which seven defensemen are up at the NHL level. But his usage in the lineup is questionable, even after he tallied three points this week. He’s an average defenseman with some glaring deficiencies in his own zone; playing on his offside isn’t doing the team any favors, especially when McDonagh’s play isn’t at the level expected of him.

And what’s really concerning is that those “safe and dependable” comments came right after the Rangers lost to the Devils – a game in which Lundqvist faced 38 shots against at 5-on-5 (48 in all situations) and Holden was the worst skater in terms of Corsi differential (minus-17), shot differential (minus-11), and was on the ice for the only 5-on-5 goal against. But he scored a goal, so that somehow cancels out his poor defensive play.

Shattenkirk also struggled against the Devils and his ice time was subsequently limited. He was rightfully held accountable for some costly plays, but shouldn’t Holden have been held to the same standard and not praised? And when the Rangers are down a goal or the game is tied, the idea is to maintain and build upon the lead. A player with Shattenkirk’s offensive upside helps the team do just that, but instead he was scarcely used.

Speaking of Shattenkirk, he’s been skating alongside Skjei. That pair had some great results at first and really handled the responsibilities of a first pair when McDonagh was injured. But their play hasn’t been as encouraging since, with a Corsi for percentage of only 47.32. While that’s above average relative to the rest of this team’s defensive pairs (plus-1.36 relative), it also needs to be kept in the context of which other pairs were deployed and how awful their numbers were. Shattenkirk and Skjei’s expected goals for percentage of 45.49, on the other hand, is below average relative to the team (minus-3.52). It’s important to look past just their goals for (51.72 percent) because the other numbers are much more indicative of their play, and less indicative of both goaltenders’ performances.

At a certain point, something has to change on defense. General manager Jeff Gorton renovated this defense this offseason and somehow their play is still problematic. As much as the personnel needed to change, there have been some consistent issues that have plagued the Rangers’ blue line, like the tactics.

At this time last year, the Rangers 5-on-5 Corsi against per hour of 57.11 was the eighth highest in the league, while their expected goals against per hour of 2.44 was the fourth highest. In 2015, their Corsi against per hour of 55.71 ranked towards the bottom as well, while their expected goals against per hour of 2.45 was the worst in the league. So as much as this team has changed personnel-wise, the problems extend further than that and still haven’t been remedied.

Usage problems aren’t exclusive to the defense; there are some clear issues on offense as well. Take Saturday for example. The Rangers were struggling on both sides of the ice, and shortened the bench after the first period.

The Rangers needed a more dynamic offense to match the Leafs; somehow that turned into not using two of their best forwards, Zibanejad and Buchnevich. If Zibanejad’s usage was injury-related, that decision clearly makes sense; otherwise, not so much. As for Buchnevich, you know, that guy who leads the team in scoring rate (2.49 per hour), primary point scoring (1.91 per hour), game score (2.77 per hour), expected goals for percentage (53.93, plus-7.56 relative), and ranks third in Corsi for percentage (50.72, plus-5.94 relative), it didn’t make any sense.

To bring the Rangers within one, J.T. Miller – who started the game on the fourth line for some reason, but was promoted to the first line later in the game – scored on a beautiful pass from who else? Buchnevich, that guy who is constantly moved down the lineup, despite his considerable contributions to this team.

Every coach has their flaws. Alain Vigneault and the Rangers’ coaching staff certainly have theirs. But it comes to a point when you have to ask: what’s the breaking point? When do those flaws outweigh their value? Yes the playoffs are still in reach for now, but this doesn’t look like a team that truly has a chance at victory this season, and a lot has to do with the decision-making behind the bench.

As much as this is a different iteration of the Rangers, the issues are the same and they aren’t going away. As much as Henrik Lundqvist can try to mask them, 2013-14 should have been a lesson: he couldn’t do it by himself then, and he still can’t now – and he shouldn’t be expected to. The onus is on the coaches to use these players to their strengths and find the right balance for this team; 36 games in and they still don’t have it, and this week was an clear indication of that.

*Data is at 5v5, via Corsica.hockey