Playoff Post-Mortem: New York Rangers

A reflection on the Rangers' season and playoffs, and thoughts on what comes next.

New York Rangers complete mind-blowing comeback vs Montreal Canadiens

What Happened?

They got beaten, badly, by the Hurricanes in all aspects of the game. The Canes had a decisive edge in the quality chance share in each of the three games at 5v5, with the Rangers only having the advantage in all situations in the third game. New York also had a lot of trouble converting the few chances they got into goals, in part due to an excellent performance by James Reimer in game three. Meanwhile, Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shesterkin, part of a goaltending trio that ranked fifth this year in save percentage above expected and papered over the team’s hideous defence during the regular season, failed to prevent the Hurricanes from capitalizing.

The Rangers’ biggest problems came at even strength, where they were always going to have to rely on Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad to cover for their lack of depth. Panarin was not on the ice for a single non-powerplay goal for, and finished with a single primary point, while Zibanejad scored in game 1 and then called it a day. Both players finished deep in the red in terms of possession. This team didn’t have a chance if their stars got shut down, and that’s exactly what happened.

There isn’t much to like in the skater charts. Jacob Trouba got significantly outchanced and massively outscored when on the ice. Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich got buried as well. Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo were even more hopeless than the “should be in Hartford” trio of Gauthier, McKegg, and Howden.

The silver lining for the Rangers is Adam Fox. Fox played the most minutes of any Rangers skater at even strength, and finished the series with a 56% expected goals for percentage. His pairing with Ryan Lindgren was New York’s only duo above the 50% mark. He was also the only Ranger who played all three games without being on the ice for a single goal against. He’s the team’s best defenceman by far, and based on his deployment the coaching staff is ready to recognize it.

Season Review

The Rangers tried to skip the rebuild line this season, and it almost worked. The point of a rebuild is to get franchise players, and New York did it fast, far quicker than anyone expected, but there is still a lot of work to be done before this team can seriously compete.

They got some unbelievable performances in 2019-20. Artemi Panarin put up a season that was far better than anyone had any right to expect, so good that it made $11 million a year look like a massive discount. Thanks to him, a line with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast on was the NHL’s best in terms of the percentage of goals the Rangers scored when they were on the ice. Mika Zibanejad led the NHL in goals per game riding a 19.7% shooting percentage - six points higher than his previous career high. Adam Fox had a remarkable and unfairly overshadowed rookie season, where he put up superb numbers at both ends of the ice and quietly established himself as one of the best defencemen in the league already. His isolated impact numbers were elite, and the more you dig into the microstats the better he looks. Finally, Igor Shesterkin lived up to the hype in a short NHL stint before getting injured at the end of the season.

But there were some serious issues, including some that were unforseen. Jacob Trouba fell off the map, playing sub-replacement hockey in major minutes in a season that was supposed to be his coronation as a legitimate #1 defenceman. His six year, $8M dollar per year contract projects as the 15th worst in the league - a potentially catastrophic anchor in a flat cap world. Kappo Kakko, the prize of the brief “rebuild” and a surefire Calder candidate put together the worst rookie season of the cap era by a D+1 top five pick, finishing near the bottom of the NHL in terms of offensive and defensive wins above replacement at even strength. More predictably, the team’s absolute lack of forward depth led to AHL talent receiving serious minutes and leading the Rangers to the second-worst expected goals against rate in the league.

A top-ten offence and an elite powerplay combined with top five goaltending to drag the Rangers into the playoff bubble (no pun intended), but the team defence is rotten to the core. Whether it’s a matter of coaching, as many Rangers fans have told me, or construction remains to be seen. But goaltending is never a sure bet, and relying on it to paper over bottom-five possession numbers probably won’t work a second time - especially considering that this year was likely as good as it gets for Panarin and Zibanejad.

Where Should They Go From Here?

The Rangers have a lot of work to do this summer to try to build on the steps they took this season. Here’s what I think they should do.

  • Recognize that they cannot count on Panarin and Zibanejad to be as good as they were this year. Panarin had one of the best 5v5 seasons of the analytics era, finishing with the highest on-ice goals for impact ever recorded (slightly higher than 17-18 Connor McDavid), while Zibanejad is primed for a massive PDO regression (specifically in terms of shooting).

  • Do not make the Ryan Strome mistake. EvolvingWild’s projections have Strome as a ~$7M player on his new contract, but considering he played at a 70 point pace he’s not going to accept a “show me” deal. If it takes a trade to avoid paying him serious money for a 104 PDO season centring the MVP, so be it.

  • Figure out what they’re doing with Tony DeAngelo. He had a horrible series but a very strong season - if that brings his price tag down to well below his on-ice value, then keep him. If not, there are teams who could use an RFA-aged offensive RD. Explore left-handed defencemen targets for a swap to try and prevent Brendan Smith/Libor Hajek/Marc Staal from being one of your top four LD next year.

  • Rebuild the bottom six. From scratch, if they have to. If Greg McKegg, Michael Haley, Brett Howden, and Julien Gauthier are still there, try again. They don’t even need an amazing bottom six - just an NHL-calibre one!

  • Buy out Marc Staal. Just do it.

  • Figure out the goaltending. Judge the goalie market at the draft and see if they can’t move Georgiev for real assets in return. Trading Henrik will probably be a no-go after his showing in the play-in round, and maybe buy him out as a worst case scenario.

  • Explore the $4.2 to $6.3M offer sheet range. The Rangers have all their picks in 2021, but the 1st + 3rd compensation range is a sweet spot this offseason. RFAs projected in this range include Anthony Cirelli and Devon Toews - two guys on teams that can’t currently afford them who would beautifully fill organizational needs.