While the Rangers’ recent streak of 13 wins in 14 games has fans and analysts thinking that this year’s version of the Blueshirts is starting to look a bit like last year’s, I’m not totally convinced. The similarities are certainly there: the whole team, especially Lundqvist, struggling in October in November; finally stringing together some good wins in January; incredible speed up and down the lineup. However, there’s a glaring element about this season’s group that makes me question just how comparable they are to the one that won the Prince of Wales Trophy eight months ago. The Rangers’ ability to generate shot attempts has diminished significantly this season, which does not bode well for their chances at succeeding in the playoffs.
Last year’s Rangers were one of the best teams in the NHL at generating shots, due largely to having three solid scoring lines and two elite defensemen who could consistently get the puck in the direction of the other team’s net. They ranked 5th in the league in Corsi-for per 60 minutes at 58.6, with only San Jose, Ottawa, Los Angeles, and Chicago getting shot attempts at a higher rate. This past offseason saw several of the Rangers’ top shot generators be sent packing: Brad Richards (63.8 on-ice CF/60), Anton Stralman (61.1), and Benoit Pouliot (57.8). Despite these losses, the Rangers had mostly the same core and the same coaching staff that put up elite shot numbers coming into this season. Yet, as we reach the halfway mark of the regular season, the team is only generating 52.9 CF/60 — a nearly 10% drop.
As Alex Ellenthal noted on Twitter a couple weeks ago, the shot generation problem is affecting the entire lineup. I’ve recreated the same type of chart below, updated through Tuesday’s debacle against the Islanders (note that I used percent difference between the two seasons, not absolute difference):
Yikes, that’s ugly. Eight regulars from last year’s team have seen their on-ice CF/60 drop by double-digit percentage points. Derek Stepan’s numbers in particular are eye-popping. His high on-ice shooting percentage and big point totals on special teams have masked what a terrible year he’s having at 5v5. Nash’s numbers are a big concern, too. I know he’s been scoring goals like a madman this season, but he made a huge impact on getting pucks towards the net in his first two years as a Ranger. What in the world happened between June and October that completely drained this team of its ability to generate shots?
It’s not that the Rangers are getting a bigger percentage of high-quality shots, either. Using the great scoring chance data from WAR On Ice (read more about how they define scoring chances right here), I’ve broken down what percentage of the Rangers’ shot attempts are scoring chances by line and compared to last year’s numbers. I did this by looking at the on-ice scoring chance and Corsi rates for each of the Rangers’ four centers in each year. AV keeps his lines fairly stable, so while this isn’t a perfect analysis, it’s a decent enough approximation.
Although the percentage of scoring chances has gone up a bit on the first line from last season to this season, the Rangers don’t look all too different (I blame the dip in quality shots by the fourth line on Tanner Glass). As a team, the Rangers SCF/CF% is 45.8%, compared to 46.4% last year. So any hypothesis that the Rangers might be sacrificing shot quality for quantity is out.
Why is this a problem, though? After all, the Rangers just won 13 out of 14 games (and followed it up by laying two turds against the Islanders and Bruins, but that’s not important right now). Unfortunately, over the long haul, teams that don’t generate enough shots don’t have much success. The Rangers’ current CF/60 ranks them 23rd in the NHL. I went back through all data from the 2007-08 season and beyond to find the bottom ten teams each year in CF/60. I then compiled a table of where they finished in the league, if they made the playoffs, and how far they went. You can check out the whole list below (click to embiggen):
For those of you scoring at home, only 25 out of the 70 teams listed here (36%) made the playoffs and just 10 of them (14%) won at least one playoff series. The moral of the story here is that playing low-event hockey is a dangerous game. The Rangers have survived up to this point by suppressing scoring chances against (their 24.2 SCA/60 ranks 4th in the league) and riding hot shooting percentage at 5v5 (9.0% going into last night’s game against Boston). While I’m impressed with their ability to limit opponents’ scoring chances, I’m more than a little skeptical about that shooting percentage. It seems to me like they’ve been getting some nice variance in their favor for the first half of the season. Not generating a lot of shots is okay when an unusually high amount of the ones you do take are going in. What happens when the luck runs out, though? We may have gotten our answer in the ass-kickings that the Islanders and Bruins handed the Rangers this week.
Success in hockey is more about the process rather than results. You’ll take the good bounces when you get them, of course, but smart teams know when their win-loss record isn’t indicative of how they’ve been playing. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ process in the first half of this season hasn’t been great. I would expect their 5v5 shooting percentage to keep regressing as the season continues, meaning that goals are going to become a bit rarer. The best way to score more goals when the shooting percentage pixies disappear is to get more pucks on net. If I’m Alain Vigneault and Scott Arniel, I’m taking the All-Star break to pour over video and figure out what, exactly, is preventing the Rangers from generating the number of shots they did last year. Figuring that out may be the difference between the Rangers making another run for the Stanley Cup and the team going out with a whimper in the first round.