Last night’s 5-3 Rangers’ victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets marked the 16th game of the 2017-18 season–that’s right, 20% of the regular season is already gone. It was an impressive win for the Blueshirts when, after going down 2-0 and being outplayed by Columbus early in the second period, New York stormed back with four goals in the third, including three on the power play. Even more impressive was the fact that the second and third PP goals in that period took only three and 12 seconds, respectively, to score after the Blue Jacket went to the box.
Now, when was the last time that the words “power play,” “Rangers,” and “lethal” were all used in the same sentence? Not recently, that’s for sure. In assessing last night’s game, opposing head coach John Tortorella said, “When you take stupid penalties, you don’t kill them off.” Frankly, how “stupid” the penalties are has nothing to do with the Rangers ability to convert them. The old Rangers power play probably would not have converted them anyway, no matter how many chances they had. So, what is different?
Clearly, it is the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk that has changed the outcomes on New York’s power play chances. But, as everyone knows, Shatty also comes with defensive liabilities, so today we are going to look at a first evaluation of Shattenkirk’s acquisition. With 20% of the season gone has he been worth the cost?
Before we go into brief performance statistics, let’s look at the basics of the signing. On July 1, 2017, Shattenkirk signed for $6.5 million per season for 4 seasons. According to sources (capfriendly.com), he has a no movement clause for this season , and then for the next three seasons, Shatty has a modified no trade clause. The Rangers were delighted to get him. The team had not had a power play quarterback for decades, and after missing with their draft picks of Bobby Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto in the 2000s (not to mention passing on Cam Fowler to take Dylan McIlrath in 2010), the Rangers really needed someone to run the PP.
And Shattenkirk’s stats at the time of the signing were outstanding—since the start of the 2011-12 season, he ranked second among NHL defensemen in power play points (131), third in power play goals (32) and assists (99). He was the only NHL defenseman that ranked third or higher in all three categories over that six-year span.
On the down side, he was basically playing on the third pairing last season in both St. Louis and Washington. Although he is an excellent puck mover, Shattenkirk’s defensive positioning when playing against highly skilled forwards leaves quite a bit to be desired. So, on those defensively solid, deep teams, he did not have to “play up.” Despite knowing his deficiencies, the Rangers slotted Shattenkirk in the first pairing with Ryan McDonagh to start the season. Very quickly, it became clear that the pairing was not the best, in that Shattenkirk was just not good enough positionally to hold off other teams’ top forwards on a consistent basis. He then played some on the third pairing, but right now, he is being used on a second pair with Brady Skjei. Although last night, he had some issues, this does seem to be right place for him on the current blueline.
Let’s get to a bit of Shatty’s statistics now—only a bit, I promise. In the 16 games in which Shattenkirk has played, he has five goals and 10 assists, including eight helpers on the PP. One of the goals, against Florida this past Saturday, was an OT game winner. Currently, he sits third on the team in points per 60 minutes (2.61), and Shatty’s average time on the ice per game (21:31) is second only to McDonagh. His shot block total is 22, which is third among the blueliners (and NYR as a whole).
However, Shattenkirk is also first on the club in giveaways (32; McDonagh is next at 24) and has been on the ice for the Rangers in 17 of the opposition’s 42 even strength or short-handed goals thus far this season. Since the beginning of November, he has been on the ice for five out of eight of those goals (with just about the same amount of ice time as his season average). Last night, he recorded three giveaways and his performance on Oliver Bjorkstrand’s third-period goal left quite a bit to be desired.
But, overall just looking at the stats, Shattenkirk has been a positive addition to the team. He has solved the power play threat issue that has plagued the Rangers for years. He distributes the puck amazingly well and everyone else’s numbers have gone up. With 52 goals across the team, the Rangers have potted 3.25 goals per game (13th in the NHL). Last year, New York’s goals per game was 3.09; and the year before it was 2.84. Although some of this is not due to Shatty’s addition alone, there is no question that his offensive presence on the blueline has had a positive effect.
And then there are the advantages that do not show up in the statistics (sorry analytics fans, there are advantages that cannot be measured using numbers). One of them is the psychological advantage of knowing that you as a team have the ability to score easily—the advantage of knowing that you can come back from a goal deficit—that you can relax and play your game instead of squeezing your stick too tightly. The Rangers have been playing catch up hockey of late, but knowing that they can and should persevere because winning is very feasible is an advantage that cannot be measured in numbers. As Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said after last night’s game, “[o]ur guys continue to do what they have been doing since day one—they keep playing.”
The difference is the power play, and the difference on that is Kevin Shattenkirk. And although there will likely be times going forward where you will be shaking your head at some of his defensive faux pas, just remember all those frustrating years of power play emptiness, and losing games 2-1. In remembering that, perhaps you will conclude, as I have, that the $6.5 million contract is a bargain.