The narrative that had taken hold since Gerard Gallant’s reign behind the bench started last season — and for good reason — is inoperative.
The Rangers who were insufficient at five-on-five and were carried offensively by the power play have ceased to exist.
Instead, the remodeled Blueshirts, who used 40 different game-opening line combinations in the club’s first 35 games leading into the wonderfully civilized Christmas recess, rank comparatively higher playing at even strength than with the man advantage.
No one would have expected that.
By the way, Gallant created 33 line combinations in last season’s first 35 matches. Neither that total nor this season’s tally includes units that were combined mid-game. So the Artemi Panarin-Mika Zibanejad-Vitali Kravtsov and Barclay Goodrow-Jonny Brodzinski-Julien Gauthier combinations that played the final two-plus periods of the 5-3 victory over the Islanders on Dec. 22 are not included in the count.
The 411 on 5-on-5
The 2021-22 Rangers improved their five-on-five game proximate to the trade deadline with the rental additions of Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte and defenseman Justin Braun. The club’s production and efficiency improved.
But before Vatrano was acquired as the first of the fortifications following Game 60, the Blueshirts ranked 24th in the NHL at five-on-five in goals-per-60:00 at 2.26 (thanks, Natural Stat Trick). They ranked 28th in xGF (expected goals-for) percentage at 45.85, and their goals-for percentage of 50 percent (111 for, 111 against) came in at 17th.
Hence, the flurry of trades that cost the Blueshirts one first-round draft pick, one second-rounder, one third-rounder, a pair of fourth-rounders and Morgan Barron, but also propelled the club to the conference finals.
This season, without any of the rentals and also without free-agent departure Ryan Strome, the Rangers will enter Tuesday night’s Garden match against the Caps ranked 12th in goals-per-60 at 2.66 and 15th in xGF pct. at 51.16. Their goals-for pct. of 53.96 (75 for, 64 against) ranks eighth.
So, despite splitting up Zibanejad and Chris Kreider and also having stopped trying to bang the Panarin-Vincent Trocheck peg of a connection into a round hole (or perhaps, because of these unanticipated moves), the Blueshirts have taken significant strides in their five-on-five game … and that is while receiving average goaltending for the first couple of months.
Nothing special about this power play
These results may not alter Drury’s approach to the deadline — at or around which everyone expects the Rangers to add a known-quantity top-six right wing — but it represents improvement and good news.
Neither of which applies to the allegedly vaunted power play.
After ranking fourth overall last season while operating at a 25.2 percent clip with a dynamic group that was feared, the Rangers sit at 15th at the break with a 22.9 percent rate that has provoked tears. That is simply not close to good enough for a unit expected to be a game-breaker.
The four-righty concept has been in place since Thanksgiving of 2019, when then-head coach David Quinn constructed a unit including Zibanejad, Panarin, Strome and Tony DeAngelo with the lefty Kreider. That unit went off at a clip of 29.3 percent from the Christmas break to the COVID-related March 11 end of the season.
Righty Adam Fox replaced DeAngelo at the top at the start of the following season. That unit remained inviolate until Trocheck, another righty, stepped in for Strome at the start of this season.
But with familiarity, the unit has become more predictable and even occasionally stale, even if Panarin and Zibanejad essentially exchanged places against the Islanders last week with No. 10 moving into the off-wing, left-circle, one-timer position that he originally held upon joining the team in 2019-20. The puck often moves too slowly. The setups are often too deliberate and at times telegraphed.
Strome was more of a facilitator while Trocheck has a shoot-first mentality out of the bumper position. Indeed, Trocheck is tied with Panarin in power-play shot attempts, trailing Zibanejad, while second in shots to Zibanejad. That’s a change.
Chris wires crossed
But the most dramatic change as the season has evolved concerns Kreider, who led the NHL last season with a franchise-record 26 power-play goals on his way to a 52-goal season. The league’s most effective net-front presence hasn’t gotten anywhere near the touches he did both last season and through the first 20 games of this season when the unit pretty much ran through him.
Over the first 10 games, Kreider had 28 attempts on the power play and 15 shots while being credited by Natural Stat Trick with creating 21 scoring chances. Over the next 10 matches, Kreider had 16 attempts and 12 shots while creating 16 scoring chances. So, through 20 games, Kreider had 44 attempts and 27 shots while creating 37 scoring chances and recording four PPGs.
But over the next 15 games that led into the break, the Rangers have either been unable to get the puck to Kreider either screening the goaltender or at the side of the net, or they have changed the game plan. In the past 15 games, Kreider has only 10 power-play attempts and five shots while generating nine scoring chances. He has gone 18 straight games without a PPG.
The difference is dramatic.
Maybe opposing penalty kills are preventing the guys at the top from getting shots through to Kreider. Maybe Trocheck’s increased shooting mentality as he has gained more comfort on the unit has changed the dynamic. Maybe defensemen are doing a better job preventing Kreider from getting position. Maybe Kreider hasn’t done as good a job establishing that net-front presence. Maybe the Rangers fell head over heels for Zibanejad’s one-timer.
Some of all of the above? Probably. But the fact is that over the past 15 games, Kreider ranks eighth on the team in power-play attempts per 60:00. Something is off there. It is imperative the Rangers get Kreider more involved. Everyone benefits when he gets his touches around the net.
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