After playing 10 games in a span of 18 days, the New York Rangers have mercifully hit a mini break in the schedule. They won't play again until Saturday afternoon in Washington against the Capitals, giving them three days to rest and regroup.
They've made it through 24 games with an impressive 18-5-1 record. Their win total ranked first in the NHL entering Wednesday's games, with their .771 points percentage tied with Boston for best in the league.
But regular-season success is not the end goal for these Blueshirts. They're aiming much higher than that, with some shortfalls emerging in recent weeks that need to be tightened up.
What the heck is going on with all these odd man rushes? Is the 1-3-1 particularly susceptible to these breaks, or is it guys out of place, maybe because the defense has a tendency to pinch up to keep the puck in?
— Clay Walsh (@walsh_clay) December 6, 2023
The defense as a whole has noticeably taken a step back in recent weeks, which is the primary area of concern at the moment.
Consider this: Through the first 18 games, the Rangers allowed a total of 40 goals, which works out to an average of 2.22 per contest. In the six games since, they've allowed 25 for a ballooned average of 4.17.
The initial boost we saw from head coach Peter Laviolette's detailed, structured defensive system seems to have dissipated. Their forechecking and backchecking pressure has been touch-and-go, D-zone breakouts haven't been as crisp, turnovers have increased and the key areas of the ice − middle of the neutral zone, slot and net front − haven't been protected as well as they were early on.
But the most glaring difference has come defending odd-man rushes, where New York has swiftly gone from one of the NHL's best to one of the worst.
Through 13 games played, the Rangers ranked second in the league in expected goals against off the rush at five-on-five, according to Clear Sight Analytics. A weakness under previous coach Gerard Gallant appeared to be turning into a strength under Laviolette. But in 11 games since − just about a month now − they've sunk like a stone in that category.
Since Nov. 10, the Blueshirts rank dead last in xGA/60 off the rush at 5v5. They're allowing an average of 4.2 high-danger scoring chances in those situations per game in that span, with no other team higher than 3.7.
So, why the drastic drop?
Fatigue is a factor that can't be dismissed given the grueling schedule, with 15 of their first 25 games on the road to boot. But there has to be more to it than that.
While the Rangers are experiencing this defensive slump, it's probably no coincidence that their offensive numbers have ticked way up. After scoring only 13 goals at 5v5 through their first 10 games (an average 1.3 per game), they've produced 36 in their last 14 (2.6 per game). They've also gone from one of the worst teams at generating off the rush (30th in xGF/60 in the first month of play) to one of the best (first in xGF/60 off the rush since that Nov. 10 marker).
Essentially, it looks like they're cheating for offense at the expense of what began as a much-improved defensive effort. They're taking more risks, which has led to an increase in turnovers, added vulnerability on the back end − and, ultimately, a team that's more susceptible to odd-man rushes against.
They can get by in the regular season by outscoring teams in the type of run-and-gun games we've seen lately, but recent history tells us it won't work in the playoffs. According to CSA, the last five Stanley Cup winners each finished in the top five in xGA/60 off the rush. The Rangers are currently 28th and slipping further back with each high-event game.
Would love your thoughts on Igor right now. Is he off of his game (still injured maybe) or is the defense not performing in front of him like they are with Quick?
— jacktnyr (@jacktnyr) December 6, 2023
For all the reasons we just laid out, I would definitely lean toward the latter. The increase in goals allowed recently falls more on defensive slippage than the goalies.
I will say that we haven't seen Igor Shesterkin consistently in top form yet this season, with Tuesday's performance in Ottawa a far cry from his best. His overall body of work has been good, not spectacular − 10-5, .911 save percentage, 2.75 goals against average − but he's largely been better than what we saw at the beginning of a frustrating 2022-23.
The best way to judge is to compare his results to the quality of the workload he's facing. According to moneypuck.com, the 27-year-old is saving 0.474 goals above expected per 60 minutes, which ranks ninth among goalies who have appeared in at least 10 games. That doesn't put him in the early Vezina Trophy conversation, but it does show he's been one of the better starting netminders in the NHL.
There's still another gear you hope to see Shesterkin get to, which we saw him reach in the final few months last season and carry into the playoffs. He seemed to be inching his way there with a SV% of .925 or better in three of his four starts prior to Tuesday, then hit a minor speed bump against the Sens. But he still ranks pretty low on my list of concerns.
Filip Chytil concerns
Is there any internal concern about chytil’s career? That’s been the biggest takeaway for me this season. I worry a lot about 72’s long term outlook on a personal level and team level. If yes, do you think Drury will try to get a safety net a la Sean monahan?
— go ‘gers (@dorge123) December 6, 2023
There are definitely concerns, which is why they're taking it so slow with bringing him back.
The reality for a player who has suffered multiple concussions, as we know Chytil has, is that the symptoms worsen with each head injury and they become increasingly susceptible to reoccurrence. That's nothing to mess around with.
The Rangers are expecting him back at some point in the near future, but there are a few hurdles to clear. The first is rejoining the team for practice, which could come as early as Thursday if the doctors determine he's ready to take that step. The 24-year-old center has been skating on his own for a couple weeks now, but he'll need to pass the test of doing hockey activities in a real hockey setting before a return to the lineup can be considered.
To your point, team president Chris Drury also needs to make contingency plans. He can hold out hope that Chytil will get past this and have a healthy second half of the season while also preparing in case it doesn't work out.
Vincent Trocheck has fit in seamlessly as the second-line center, but it's left the third line in a questionable state with Nick Bonino in the middle. He was specifically signed to play on the fourth line (and kill penalties) and seems out of place in his current role. In 14 games since the 35-year-old veteran was inserted at 3C, that line has only produced three goals.
Adding a center with a bit more offense to their game seems like a wise move, but the Rangers are also looking at a void at right wing. Even before Kaapo Kakko landed on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury, you could have argued that RW was their biggest need. Now there's an even bigger hole.
The problem is, they almost surely won't have enough salary cap space to add two forwards at the March 8 trade deadline. (More on that soon.) That's why, in my opinion, it makes the most sense to target a center who can also play RW in a pinch.
That would give them a "safety net" for all outcomes, whether it be Chytil suffering a setback, Kakko's recovery lingering late into the season or any other forward going down.
Brennan Othmann at RW?
Do you think down the line Hartford will try and play Othmann on the right a little bit? Side note Vince: how do you/everyone avoid getting sick from constant travel plus the fatigue/stress?? Having trouble with that recently…
— Katelyn (@katelyn4817) December 6, 2023
If the Rangers really view Othmann as an option to play RW at the NHL level, then I would expect him to make the switch at some point. But to my knowledge, he's been exclusively at LW through AHL Hartford's first 20 games.
That could be for one of two reasons: 1) They believe he's best suited to stay at his natural position and don't intend on moving him; 2) They're giving him time to build confidence in the spot where he's most comfortable before asking him to try something new.
If it's No. 2, that would speak to the patient approach they seem to be taking with one of the organization's top prospects. They don't want to rush him at the expense of his development, which is why I don't think he'll be an option for a recall until after the holidays.
Othmann has been testing that patience lately, though. He's on fire with 10 points in his last seven games (six goals and four assists), including five goals in his last three contests. If he keeps this up, his NHL ETA could accelerate. The key will be earning trust in areas that don't show up on the stat sheet, particularly on defense.
It's feasible to think the 20-year-old could claim a roster spot at some point in the second half of the season, but whether he's viewed as an option at RW remains to be seen. He's expressed a willingness to try it, but it's possible the Rangers prefer to leave him alone and have someone else make that switch.
They've already had fellow prospect Brett Berard flip from LW to RW with Hartford, but his NHL arrival may be further away than Othmann's. Maybe rookie Will Cuylle? He has basically no experience on the right, but Laviolette used him there for a couple practices at the end of training camp.
Given the organizational depth at LW, it stands to reason that at least one of these young forwards will have to make the move to the other side.
Jonny Brodzinski's chances
What are the chances that Brodzinski ends up staying with the big club and pitlick is the odd man out when Chytil returns?
— louispomerantz (@LouisPomerantz) December 6, 2023
Some of the RW concerns would be alleviated if Brodzinski seizes his opportunity.
The 30-year-old has far outgrown his prospect status, but that doesn't mean he's a lost cause.
Granted, it's not the typical development path. But it's hard not to look at his recent body of work and conclude that this is a player who continues to get better.
Brodzinski was always a good AHLer, but he's turned into a dominant force the last couple years. At time of last week's recall, he was leading the league with 25 points (11 goals and 14 assists) in 16 games played.
He's never come close to that kind of production in 106 career NHL games, but is it out the question for him to figure out a useful role at this late stage?
Maybe it's asking too much, but the Rangers are short on options at the moment. And apparently Laviolette has seen enough promise to give Brodzinski a look on the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
"He had a really good training camp," the coach said. "We were just talking about pushing things offensively, and he was the one guy who did. He was generating lots of scoring chances, attempts, pucks at the net and doing lots of good things. He does it through his speed and offensive instincts. I think, in trying to put people in spots to be successful, that would be one for him."
Even though he and Brodzinski shoot from different sides (Vatrano is left-handed, while Brodzinski is a righty), there are some distinct similarities in the way they play.
They're both speedy wingers who prefer a north-south approach and play the game hard. They also have similar builds, with Brodzinski listed at 6-foot, 204 pounds and Vatrano at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds. And they both bring an aggressive, shoot-first mentality that adds an attacking element to any line they play on.
That's not to say they're the same player. One is an established NHL scorer (Vatrano has registered 137 career goals, compared to nine for Brodzinski), while the other has yet to prove he can stick at this level. But given the Rangers' current situation − Kakko out, Blake Wheeler ineffective and the other RW options all being fourth-liners − it's at least worth a try.
Also, how does putting Kakko/Chytil/Fox/etc on LTIR wind up hurting our cap space down the stretch. I don’t get it. I thought it was supposed to alleviate cap hit.
— FOX MULDER, MONEY FOLDER (@PizzaDatAzz) December 6, 2023
I've been sensing confusion from some fans about this convoluted process, so hopefully we can clear that up here.
We've seen teams in the recent past use LTIR pool money to their advantage (hello, Tampa Bay), but the key thing to remember is that those clubs had their injured players remain inactive until the playoffs. That's the loophole.
The Rangers' situation is different because they're expecting Kakko (and Chytil) back during the regular season. And the moment they come off LTIR, that extra cap space will vanish. That's why they can't just add whoever they want. They have to account for what their cap total will be once everyone is active.
In the meantime, they're doing damage to how much cap space they can accrue in advance of the March 8 trade deadline. There are two reasons for that: 1) On the days they're using the LTIR pool money, they can't accrue anything at all; 2) Even on the days they don't dip into the LTIR pool, they're limiting their accrual by being right up against the $83.5 million cap ceiling.
Accrual is a daily formula that adds up over time. The more cap space a team has, the more they can add each day.
At the time of the injuries, the Rangers had built up around $850,000 in available cap space. With that amount, for example, they were adding roughly $4,400 per day, with that accrual number increasing incrementally each day. (Which put them on pace for a total of roughly $3 million by the deadline.) But now, even on the days when they aren't using the LTIR pool, their accrual figure is much lower because the extra players they've added to the roster (like Brodzinski) have eaten up most of their available cap space. So even when they are accruing, the amount they're adding is a fraction of what it could have been if they were fully healthy.
How much cap space they end up with will be determined by when they clear up the LTIR situation. If Chytil and Kakko are both back by sometime in January, I project the Rangers would end up between $1.5 million and $2 million in available cap space at the deadline. But if one (or two) of those absences linger, that number could dwindle to $1 million or less.
Who is one player you would want to see the Rangers add at the deadline
— Brian (@BrianC___) December 6, 2023
That's a great question, Brian!
We've got four months to go until the deadline, so it's still early to hone in on one target. But I have started to ask around and put a preliminary list of targets together.
I'll do a little more research and plan to release something after the holidays!
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Rangers mailbag: Odd-man rush issues, trade-deadline needs and more