A Tale of Four Teams Part II

In Part I, data on scoring chances and high-danger chancers from roughly the first two months of the 2015-16 season for four anonymous teams was presented.  All four teams play in the Eastern Conference and at the end of play on November 27, 2015 they were at or above NHL .500.  One team, Team B, clearly has played a low-event style.  Another team, Team C, seems to be – for lack of a better phrase right now – living dangerously.  The remaining two teams have been winning the scoring chance battle more often than not, although Team D has consistently generated more scoring chances this season.  In this follow up, I’ll reveal who the four teams, note where they currently stand in the Eastern Conference, and discuss what their scoring chance numbers may mean for December and beyond.

Who Are These Teams?

Let’s just cut to the chase, the teams, their record at the end of play on November 27, and their position in their division and, if necessary, the wild card race:

Team A = Montreal Canadiens: 18-4-2, 1st Atlantic

Team B = New Jersey Devils: 11-9-2, 5th Metropolitan, 2pts behind Wild Card #2

Team C = New York Rangers: 16-5-2, 1st Metropolitan

Team D = Washington Capitals, 16-5-1, 2nd Metropolitan

Here’s the summary table from the end of Part I again, this time with the teams identified:

Team SCF SCA SCF% HSCF HSCA HSCF%
Mtl 20.61 20.23 50.99% 8.23 7.84 51.52%
NJ 16.60 15.75 51.34% 6.45 6.68 48.73%
NYR 17.84 21.27 45.70% 7.53 8.63 46.40%
WSH 22.42 20.55 51.59% 9.10 7.61 53.49%

Of these teams I think the one that pops out the most is the New York Rangers, simply put the way they have been playing so far this season screams Minnesota 2012, Toronto 2013, Colorado 2014, etc.  Washington’s numbers also surprise a bit, they’re very good.  To me it seems like the Caps have flown a bit under the radar, although their recent winning streak has drawn some attention.  I’ve also been impressed with how they play almost every time I’ve watched them this season (rough approximation 5 or 6 games).  Once the Ovechkin era began they’ve always iced talented teams, but this season’s crew looks like one of their best.  Montreal also is a bit surprising.  Their Corsi and Fenwick %s are impressive but their scoring chances for and against per game are are not very discrepant, whereas Washington’s are.  Finally, it’s not surprising to see New Jersey as Team B, the one who clearly tries to play a low-event style.   The remainder of this post will focus on the Rangers.

The New York Rangers in 2015-16

The Rangers performance so far this year provides a demonstration of what excellent goaltending can do for a team (as well as some hot shooting).  Currently, Henrik Lundqvist possesses an even strength save percentage of 95.51%.  That’s first overall among goaltenders who have played at least 500 minutes this season.  The table below delves deeper into this.  It depicts the 5 on 5 goaltending statistics for the goaltenders on all 4 teams who have played at least 500 minutes.  SV% Low, SV% Medium, and SV% High provide each goaltenders SV% on low-danger, medium-danger, and high-danger shots respectively.  Finally each goaltenders rank among their peers is then presented in parentheses:

Goalie SV% Adj SV% SV% Low SV% Medium SV% High
Henrik Lundqvist 95.51% (1st) 95.31% (1st) 98.60% (7th) 95.56% (9th) 89.92% (2nd)
Carey Price 93.91% (7th) 93.47% (10th) 96.65% (22nd) 95.12% (13th) 86.36% (10th)
Mike Condon 93.55% (9th) 94.25% (4th) 100% (1st) 90.70% (30th)   88.89% (3rd)
Cory Schneider 93.31% (10th) 93.07% (15th) 97.11% (21st) 91.86% (27th) 88.00% (4th)
Braden Holtby 92.99% (17th) 92.79% (16th) 97.56% (18th) 92.86% (23rd) 85.26% (13th)

Simply put, Lundqvist has been amazing this season.  He is in the top ten of every category.  Not one of the other four goaltenders can say the same – although Mike Condon comes close.   The problem is, he’s had to be, especially lately (see Part I). Ranger fans are not oblivious to this and have been lamenting this state of affairs for quite a while (see here, here, and here).  For your convenience here are the game by game scoring chance and high-danger chance charts for the Rangers from the previous post where the red line indicates the opponents scoring chances and high danger chances.    

NYR 5v5 Score Adj SCs 2015-16 thru 11-27-15

NYR-HSC-11-27-15

To be clear those charts do not include the Rangers recent games against the Flyers, Hurricanes, Islanders, and Avalanche – which apparently for the most part were more of the same.  So again, what Henrik Lundqvist has done this season is incredible.  His team concedes, on average, 8.63 high-danger chances a game and, overall, 21.27 scoring chances per game – in both cases almost 1 more high-danger chance and 1 more scoring chance (may or may not be high-danger).

While Lundqvist’s numbers go a long way to explaining how the Rangers sit near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, they do not tell us why he’s had to be so amazing.  This is a team coming off two deep playoff runs – to the finals in 2014 and the conference finals in 2015 – and going into the season were widely considered a cup contender.  So in other words, what’s happening?

I think one of the Rangers main problems is the ability of their defense to successfully transition the puck to the forwards so that the forwards can maintain puck possession.  Their Corsi and Fenwick percentages support this idea, as they’re near the bottom of the league in both metrics (all statistics from war-on-ice and are 5 vs 5 score adjusted):

Team Season Corsi % Fenwick % PDO
New York R. 2015-16 47.1% (26th) 47.4% (26th) 105.8 (1st)

Yet, those numbers don’t really tell us if the responsibility for this problem lies primarily with the defensemen, the forwards, or the team’s preferred breakout strategy.  While I haven’t seen every Rangers game this season in the one’s I have seen, particularly over the past month I’ve noticed the following:

  • Difficulty breaking out of the defensive zone with possession.  
  • Turnovers in the defensive zone due to missed passes, misplays of the puck, or just throwing the puck up the boards when under pressure.
  • Forwards leaving the zone once the defense has the puck looking for a stretch pass.

Some examples are provided below:

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/embed?playlist=2015020284-49-ingame-h

This first play is from the Rangers 2-1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 19 and even though it’s during 4 on 4 it provides a good example of forwards leaving the defensive zone quickly and looking for a stretch pass from the defensemen.  Here, Tampa plays the puck in deep, note that once Yandle gets clear possession of the puck both of the Rangers forwards leave the zone.  Keith Yandle (#93) then tries to force a stretch pass through Valtteri Filppula (#51) who breaks the play up.  The puck is then picked up by Alex Killorn (#17) and it winds up in the back of the net.  Instead of forcing the stretch pass Yandle could’ve either skated it up himself, since Killorn and Filppula were both at the blue line and in the process of backing off Yandle and Kevin Klein (#8), or he could’ve sent a short safe pass over to Klein once he circled around the net.  

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/embed?playlist=2015020296-75-h

This play is from the Rangers 5-4 overtime win against the Florida Panthers on November 21.  On this play, Henrik Lundqvist makes a safe first pass up the boards to Oscar Lindberg (#24) coming off the bench.  Lindberg then attempts a risky cross-ice pass to Klein that is easily picked off by Derek MacKenzie (#17) who has a clear path to the slot and a high-danger scoring chance.  Lindberg had at least two other options on this play.  He could’ve attempted a pass back to Yandle or he could’ve simply chipped the puck out of the zone to give his team time to complete their line change and reset.  Given the angle of the replay it appears the safest play would’ve been to just chip the puck out as a Panther forechecker was between Lindberg and Yandle.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/embed?playlist=2015020309-328-h

This one is from the Rangers 3-0 victory against the Nashville Predators on November 23.  Marc Staal (#18) retrieves a dumped in puck.  It appears he thinks about taking it around the net but decides against that because he spots an oncoming forechecker.  Instead he tries to move the puck up the near-side boards to Viktor Stalberg (#25).  The puck then takes a bounce off the boards away from Stalberg to Gabriel Bourque (#57) who has space to get a shot off.  Lundqvist makes the save and the far-side winger (who was late backchecking into the defensive zone because he was presumably looking for a stretch pass) picks up the loose rebound and clears the puck into the neutral zone.  On this play it looks like Staal could’ve either taken the puck around the net and played it hard up the boards to beat the oncoming forechecker or he could’ve dropped the puck back to Dan Boyle (#22) behind the net, reversing the play, instead of trying to force a pass through another forechecker to Stalberg, who was himself covered by Mattias Ekholm (#14).

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/embed?playlist=2015020320-467-h

This play is from the Rangers 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on November 25.  Montreal dumps the puck into the Rangers zone where it’s retrieved by Ryan McDonagh (#27).  McDonagh tries to move the puck up the boards to Rick Nash (#61) where it is picked up by Tomas Plekanec (#14) who quickly moves it to Devante Smith-Pelley (#xx) who is in behind both Ranger defensemen who then scores.  On this play I think McDonagh needed to slow the game down and instead of trying to force it up the boards to Nash either take it back behind the net himself, drop it back behind the net for Derick Brassard (#16), who was in position to retrieve such a pass, or reverse it hard around the boards to Dan Girardi (#5) who was coming back towards the goal line after finishing a hit on the Canadiens player who dumped the puck in at the blue line.  

Theories

These are of course only 4 plays, however I chose them because they each provide an example of one or more the bullet points listed above.  A more thorough analysis could track a number of events within a team’s defensive zone.  For instance, when a defenseman has retrieved a dump-in and his team is now attempting to break-out of their zone there are a number of possible events/outcomes that could be tracked:

  • The defenseman successfully completes a pass to a teammate within the zone.
  • The defenseman successfully completes a pass to a teammate in the neutral zone, resulting in a zone exit with possession.
  • The defenseman clears or chips the puck into the neutral zone, resulting in a zone exit without possession.
  • The defensman skates the puck out of the zone himself, resulting in a zone exit with possession.
  • The defenseman ices the puck.
  • The defenseman attempts to clear or chip the puck into the neutral zone and the puck goes out of play, possibly resulting in a delay-of-game penalty.
  • The defenseman attempts to pass to a teammate within the defensive zone and the opposing intercepts the pass.
  • The defenseman attempts to pass to a teammate in the neutral zone and the opposing intercepts the pass within the defensive zone.
  • The defenseman attempts to pass to a teammate in the neutral zone and the opposing intercepts the pass in the neutral zone.
  • The defenseman mishandles the puck, resulting in a turnover.

In the case of the New York Rangers I think their main issue in breaking out of the zone with possession so far this season has been a strategy of looking for a long stretch pass into the neutral zone combined with some blue-liners who don’t excel at making such passes.  I also think something similar may be going on with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team who has surprisingly struggled offensively this year.  This is a fairly interesting thought to consider, mainly because the Rangers and Penguins have chosen opposite strategies when it comes to how much to invest in their defenseman.  The Rangers have invested $26,525,000 of their salary cap into their defensemen this season.  In contrast, the Penguins have invested $16,880,416 of their salary cap into their defensemen.  I’ll try to explore this matter more in a future post.

Conclusions

The Rangers current style of play is not sustainable.  Up to this point they’ve been winning on the back of their goaltending and a very high even strength shooting percentage.  I’d expect the shooting percentage to regress towards league average.  I don’t necessarily expect as much of a regression for their goaltending (i.e., save percentage). Lundqvist has given the Rangers excellent goaltending his entire career, often making up for average to below-average possession numbers.  What does all this mean?  What it suggests to me right now is that the Rangers are overrated. They do not look like a cup contender – save for their goaltending – and I’d predict an early exit from the playoffs (1st or 2nd round) if they can’t improve their possession numbers.

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