The Rangers defeated the Vegas Golden Knights last night by a score to 5-0, which puts the team at 6-3-1 over the last 10 games. That 10-game record is better than four of the eight teams currently in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and equal to or better than six of the eight in the West. That is darn good, even though the stats (advanced and not so advanced) look pretty terrible.
As of last night, the Rangers allowed more shots on goal per game than any other team in the NHL; as of this morning, their shots against per game total was 36.0—which is second worst, only to Chicago (which has the dubious distinction of allowing 36.1). In addition, the Rangers penalty kill percentage is only 77.5 (in the bottom 10 in the league) and the New York’s face off win percentage is only 46.8 (second worst in the NHL, only to Buffalo). Never mind the “advanced” stats like xGF% and expected goals per game (which given the location and type of shots faced last night, was 4.9 for Vegas).
So, how is this happening? How have the statisticians who have predicted loss after loss been wrong? And, of course, can the Rangers win anything long term with stats like these?
Before we go any further into what has been my side of a somewhat contentious twitter discussion over the last two days, let me admit to my bias. I love stats themselves in all forms, and I love how hockey statistics have advanced over the years. Many years ago, I was one of the first writers to join the earliest version of Hockey Prospectus, an early hockey statistics website. I for years hated the supposed battle between scouting and statistics in hockey—there should never have been a battle, both are very helpful to any team who wants to win hockey games. The NHL teams eventually recognized that and all today use analytics in some form or another—giving jobs to some close friends of mine along the way.
But statistics cannot take into account everything. Part of what makes in-person scouting so important (we are not going to get into the in-person versus video scouting here), is that, at least in part, it gives experienced hockey people a chance to look at the player visually, measure character, talk to a player and figure out how that player may fit with an organizational philosophy, no less compare what their memory of successful NHL players are to the new player (either amateur or pro). Some of that needs something beyond statistics. Then there are the things that neither the scouts nor the stats can know ahead of time. Is the player ill during a given time or something is on his mind that affects his play? Is team chemistry clicking like crazy? Are the shooters and/or the netminder seeing the puck as big as a giant beach ball? Is a player in the zone so the game has literally slowed down?
So, when you see statistics, remember there are things that cannot be accurately measured for a particular game (at least not that I know of). But that does not mean they are not valuable. And it also does not mean that teams can win in the long term without changing some of what statistics have shown are necessary to sustain a winning team over the course of a season.
Getting back to the Rangers, their winning ways have shown us a lot of things.
- The Blueshirts have a backup goaltender who is likely ready for number one duties in the NHL. Alexandar Georgiev has appeared in 14 games with a 2.67 GAA and a .926 save percentage. In his last four games, the 23-year old has two shutouts and saved 147 of 151 shots (a stunning .974 save percentage). Granted three of the four teams Georgiev has faced are not currently in the playoff picture and the fourth team (the Golden Knights) has the lowest win percentage of any team slotted for the playoffs right now, but it still is an outstanding feat. Especially if you were watching these games—Georgiev literally was the saving grace. He deserves a shot at number one and with Lundqvist still here and supposed heir apparent Igor Shesterkin playing amazingly in his rookie NA season in Hartford (Igor’s stats rank him first in the AHL among all goalies—15GP, 1.98GAA, .930sv %), the Rangers have some unenviable decisions to make.
- The Rangers’ defense is great jumping into the play and have the most goals in the league for defensemen (26, including the three by Brendan Smith), but as the advanced stats guys tell you, their stats are terrible entering the zone with the puck and, as seen above, the Blueshirts are allowing way too many shots on goal. This must change; eventually the goaltending will not be able to continue to make up for these mistakes and the young defenseman have to learn the two way game. The game plan cannot be just flood the offensive zone, rack up goals, and hope the netminder will stand on his head and not give up four goals a night (NYR is scoring an overage of 3.21 GPG). As they say in the stats world, this is not sustainable over the long haul, and that includes the coming years.
- Speaking of the rebuild, if the Rangers want it to be successful, it requires their prospects to play regularly. Whether the team will keep the young players they have obtained (by trade or draft) over the last few years or trade them for needed assets down the line, the players must actually play now to develop. Skating on a fourth line for less than 10 minutes an NHL game will not help a player develop sufficiently to either maximize their own potential or maximize the Rangers’ return for him. Not just Andersson, but more of the younger players need to see ice time in Hartford, even if it means that lesser talents are skating in New York. The Blueshirts have not had so many talented prospects, at all positions, in all the years that I have been covering the team. Everyone wants to win, but let’s never forget that we are in the middle (yes, middle) of a rebuild and development is still more important than winning at this point. So, although 6-3-1 is amazing and to be enjoyed, let’s remember that the team’s ultimate goal is a Stanley Cup, which, according to the statisticians is at least a couple of years away.