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The Great Cam Talbot Debate

Lundqvist understudy Cam Talbot: who said having too many elite goaltenders was a bad thing?

Lundqvist understudy Cam Talbot: who said having too many elite goaltenders was a bad thing?

Between Rangers and Oilers fans, the gulf in expectations over Cam Talbot’s trade value couldn’t be any wider.

Since rumors were floated that Edmonton was willing to trade the 16th overall pick for Talbot, both fanbases have been losing their collective minds. The consensus among Oilers fans in the comments sections and fan forums that I peruse (including TSN, The Hockey News, MyNHLTradeRumors, and the Hockey’s Future boards) is that trading anything above the 33rd overall pick would be massive overpayment for Talbot, and even trading the second rounder is a point of contention.

Opinions among Rangers fans are much more varied, ranging from “that sounds good to me” to “Hell no! Cam is worth a 1st rounder and prospects!” to “DO NOT TRADE OUR BACKUP GOALTENDER! HE’S TOO IMPORTANT!”

The reality is that one way or another, Talbot will be traded on or before Draft Day, and it’s clear that one team’s fanbase is going to be outraged.

Probably Edmonton’s.

But for those Rangers fans with through-the-roof expectations for Cam’s trade return, you all need to step back from the Playstation, and realize that your video game trade proposals will not work in the real world.

You also need to check your ideas on the importance of backup goaltenders, because you’re wrong.

All this and more will be explained in a little fictional Q&A I drew up to aid anybody who has plunged head first into the Cam Talbot trade debate without a pair of swimmies.

First off, what Is Cam Talbot’s actual trade value?

The short and honest answer to this question is what your college Microeconomics professor would tell you: whatever the market is willing to pay.

Was acquiring Scott Gomez worth trading hot prospect Ryan McDonagh for the Montreal Canadiens? No. But Canadiens’ GM Bob Gainey got it into his head that Gomez was the answer to the Habs’ problems finding a playmaker up the middle, and that combined with a sprinkling of doubt over McDonagh’s development led to one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL history.

With that in mind, multiple sources have confirmed that Talbot is indeed the most sought-after goaltender on the market right now, and is being chased hard by Edmonton, San Jose, Buffalo, Florida and Dallas, all of which possess a combination of multiple first round and high second round draft picks and deep farm systems. It’s not difficult to imagine one or more of those teams’ GMs talking themselves into a lopsided trade, given the circumstances.

Still, based on similar goaltender trades going back a few years, we can get a sense of Talbot’s floor value assuming a bad market.

Let’s start from the highest comparison. In 2013, Cory Schneider was traded at age 27 from the Canucks to the Devils for the 9th over pick in the 2013 draft (Vancouver selected Bo Horvath, their best prospect to date). Schneider had played 98 NHL games to that point, posting an insanely high .927 SP% with 9. In 10 NHL playoff games, he garnered a .922 SP%, though he only started six of those games and went 1-5. For his six starts, it is estimated that four were Quality Starts. Over three seasons in the AHL, his SP% was .921, and .922 in the playoffs. Schneider was also the 26th overall pick in 2004, so in addition to eye-popping stats at every professional level, he had the pedigree to match. There was no doubt about his skill level or ability to be a long-term starter.

At the time of his trade, Schneider had two seasons left on his contract at a cap hit of $4 million.

Talbot, 28, has played 57 NHL games posting a .931 SP%, .934 at even-strength, and 8 shutouts. His playoff experience has been limited to 2 games, with an unimpressive .826 SP%, though he came in to relieve Henrik Lundqvist both times. He essentially has a clean playoff slate.

Undrafted and signed out of College Hockey America’s University of Alabama in Huntsville, Talbot posted fairly mediocre numbers in both the CHA and in the AHL playing for the Wolfpack. His career AHL SP% is .914. It is clear that in comparison to Schneider and others such as Jonathan Bernier, Talbot does not have the type of pedigree that would put talent evaluators at ease when trying to project his long-term output as an NHL starter. Even Henrik Lundqvist, a 2000 7th round draft pick, put up big numbers in Sweden’s Elite league, establishing himself as the premiere European goalie before coming over to the NHL. Talbot’s progress came out of nowhere. Pedigree might not mean much at the end of the day, but it leaves the window of possibility open that Talbot’s success with the Rangers was a short-term phenomenon.

With a year left on his contract at a cap hit of just over half a million dollars, Talbot is a cap-friendly acquisition who can be resigned as early as January. Teams should not be warded off by the term of his contract, as the likelihood of Talbot going to a bad team is good, and the probable decline in statistical output he would experience would hurt his bargaining power as a UFA next summer.

He also risks injury or some other developmental hiccup, and for a 28 year old goaltender who was expected to be a career minor leaguer, the opportunity to sign a lucrative extension as a starter for an NHL team is too good to pass up for a big money UFA gamble. Talbot could easily get a 5-year $20 million contract by January with another solid half-season under his belt.

There is no doubt that Schneider was the more attractive acquisition at the time, but Talbot isn’t that far off.

At age 24, with a career NHL SP% of .912 in 62 games played, Jonathan Bernier was traded in 2013 from the Kings to the Maple Leafs for Ben Scrivens (at the time, a good goalie prospect), Matt Frattin, and a second-round pick. While Bernier was coming off an impressive season as Jonathan Quick’s backup, his NHL numbers were not nearly as good as Talbot’s are now. Bernier’s advantage was in age, pedigree (he was the 11th overall pick in 2006), and prior level performance (his numbers at every other level of competition were notably higher than Talbot’s). NHL experience is still what counts, so I am comfortable labeling Talbot the hotter commodity in comparison to Bernier in 2013, and the Kings received quite a package.

Ben Bishop, a third round draft pick with poor AHL stats and bad to mediocre numbers in 36 NHL games between two teams, was considered a promising young goaltender when he was dealt in 2013 at age 26 from Ottawa to Tampa Bay for Cory Conacher.and a 4th round draft pick. Though Conacher would go on to fizzle out, at the time he was in the midst of an impressive rookie season, scoring 24 points in 35 games for the Lightning and finishing 6th in the Calder Trophy vote. At the time, it was considered a fair deal.

Ben Scrivens and Devan Dubnyk, two young goaltenders with upside who had yet to put up consistently good NHL numbers, played on multiple teams and recently went for third round picks to the Oilers and Wild respectively. Though Dubnyk became a world-beater for the Wild and Scrivens struggled in Edmonton, neither goalie was a hot commodity at the time of their trade.

The next closest comparison to Talbot I could find was Jaroslav Halak, who was traded in 2010 at age 25 from Montreal to St. Louis for Lars Eller, a top NHL prospect who was drafted 13th overall in 2007, along with a non-roster played named Ian Schultz. At the time, Halak was coming off a monster playoff run where he lead the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals while recording a .923 SP% over 18 games. In 101 NHL games to that point, Halak had a .919 SP% and impressive minor-pro stats.

So it is clear that Schneider and Halak, both of whom went for a top pick or high-end prospect, had past performances that were in a tier just above Talbot’s, at slightly younger ages.

Talbot should also be evaluated far above Scrivens and Dubnyk at the time of their trades. Realistically, his floor value is more in line with what the Kings received for Jonathan Bernier, and Talbot comes in with much more impressive NHL numbers than Bernier had.

Considering the high demand for Talbot (as many or more teams that were competing to acquire Bernier, if I remember correctly), it is fair to estimate his minimum return at two second rounders and a low prospect or roster player. He is also the undisputed top goalie trade option, as Robin Lehner had a down season with Ottawa, and Martin Jones and Eddie Lack were not quite as impressive with their respective teams (Los Angeles and Vancouver) as Talbot was with the Rangers.

YOU KIDDING ME BRO?? We might as well keep him!

Why would the Rangers do that? It’s a guarantee that the team would lose him in free agency, as we have Henrik Lundqvist for the long term (please don’t propose a Lundqvist trade, it’s ridiculous and hurts my head). Talbot is not a young man, and has played well enough to earn a starting job now. His trade value will never be higher than it is now. It would surely lower at the trade deadline, when playoff bound teams mostly look to acquire forwards, and would pay less for half a season of Talbot than a young up-and-coming team like Buffalo or Edmonton would pay for a guaranteed full season. The Rangers also risk Talbot getting injured or not performing well, which would decimate his value.

Some have proposed keeping him as insurance in the event that Hank goes down, especially in light of Mackenzie Skapski’s injury. My question is: do you really believe there is such a thing as Lundqvist insurance? 20-30 regular season games is one thing, but if Hank is seriously injured, the chances that Talbot steps in and performs equal to the task during his first playoff run are low. You don’t just replace the type of playoff performances Hank has given us over the past four seasons. If we miss Hank for the playoffs, kiss the season goodbye.

But let’s not be dramatic. Until last year’s freak injury, Hank had never missed considerable time over his 10 year career. As a Rangers fan, I am not willing to sacrifice a very good return in assets on Talbot on the off-chance that Hank misses half the season or more. Besides that, backup goaltenders are not so important that you pass up the chance to cash in on a good one via trade.

Ask yourselves this: when was the last time the Rangers were missing a quality backup? From Kevin Weekes, to Steven Valiquette, to Martin Biron, Talbot and even Skapski, the Rangers have never failed to find an adequate backup. Having a backup capable of posting a .930 SP% is a vanity, not a necessity. It’s the difference between winning a President’s Trophy and getting the 6th seed, aka not worth losing Talbot for nothing.

The suggestion that somehow Skapski’s injury means that the Rangers can’t trade Talbot is also ludicrous. Are we talking about the same Mackenzie Skapski who played a total of two NHL games against the Buffalo Sabres? Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice pair of performances and led me to believe that he might be a good backup option, but he’s the most easily replaceable asset on the team. Hartford’s Yann Danis is just as good, and cheap UFA options like Karri Ramo and Michael Neuvirth are out there.

The Rangers also have stud goalie prospects Brandon Halverson and Igor Shestyorkin, in case any of you were worried about the future. Forget the players, though. We have the best goaltending asset in the league and he’s not even in net: Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire, the man who helped Lundqvist develop into what he is, along with Cam Talbot, Sean Burke, and a number of other goalies. Allaire works with our minor league goalies as well, including Danis and Skapski. He ensures that we get the most out of our guys in net.

Regardless, backup goalie is the least important position on the team, our starter is a horse who also happens to Henrik Lundqvist, and Talbot has no chance to be NYR’s regular starter. Therefore, given his impending UFA status and awesome trade value, he must be dealt. It’s not even a matter of opinion: he will be dealt this week at some point.

OK fine. We trade him to Edmonton, but I want a first-rounder, a prospect, AND Nail Yakupov! And if it’s Buffalo, I want their low first rounder, Mikhail Grigorenko, and that Zadurov guy!

While you’re at it, why don’t just ask for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel?

Look, some of you out there are acting like we’re holding on to Patrick Roy in the Summer of ’86, coming off his playoff run when he single-handedly won the Habs the Cup as a rookie. Talbot’s trade value is high, but I assure you, when he goes, it will not be announced by Glen Sather at a press conference as Peter Pocklington stands in the background with empty pockets hanging out of his pants.

Try and see this from the other team’s perspective. Would you give up the 16th overall pick in the deepest draft in over a decade, PLUS a player as supremely talented as Nail Yakupov, for Cam Talbot? Come on.

Alright, so what would you do?

Personally, as long as the Rangers land a high second rounder (like the 33rd overall owned by the Oilers) plus another two picks outside of the second round, and/or a good prospect, I’m happy. We will have turned a nobody playing in Huntsville, Alabama into a seriously good collection of draft assets at a time when we need to recoup them. That is outstanding by any measure.

Given the demand, however, I think we can do better.

What is the Rangers’ biggest need that cannot be readily filled by the farm system? That would be a sniping winger who can replace Martin St. Louis’ goal totals at half the age and a fraction of the cap hit, with more speed and perhaps a touch more physicality. Not an easy asset to locate without giving up key roster players in return.

Along with Cam Talbot, who is the Rangers’ most tradeable contract, that could be most easily replaced from within? That’s Kevin Klein. Yes, he did a great job for us last season, but from a speed and possession perspective, Matt Hunwick is better and probably cheaper if we re-sign him as a UFA. Klein is a stay-at-home defenseman who shot way above his career shooting percentage to record 8 goals on the season, and had a poor playoff performance after returning from injury. Hunwick can slide into his role with either Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath assuming the 7th D spot. We all love Klein, but Hunwick played extremely well down the stretch as an injury replacement, and there are too many good young defensemen knocking on the door in our system.

Paired together in a trade, Talbot and Klein would warrant a first round pick in a deep draft, and possibly be enough to get us Yakupov straight up. Why Yakupov? Because he is a sniper with blazing speed, creativity, and play making skills who turned up the heat at the end of last season. He was the first overall pick a number of years ago, and despite some sophomore year struggles, was impressive as a rookie and seemed to right his ship as of late. On a team like the Rangers, full of experienced, battle-tested players, and coaches who have guided many promising young players to reach at or above their potential, Yakupov could be dangerous and possibly a game-breaking as a 1B threat behind Rick Nash.

If the Rangers could spin Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, and Brian Boyle into gold, they can certainly do it for a player as infinitely talented as Yakupov.

Then again, the Oilers might not be interested in trading him anymore. There is always Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, but both players come with high salaries and would require more pieces to be added to the package. Yakupov comes cheap at under $3 million.

Along the same line of logic, a trade with Buffalo involving Mikhail Grigorenko would make sense, but it would likely have to include Klein. Talbot and Klein might only get us Grigorenko and second rounder, at best. You might shake your head and say, “Grigorenko! He’s a bust and they say he’s going to the KHL!” But again, these are examples of other teams’ most valued talent. It’s going to cost the Rangers if they wish to acquire young talent with incredibly high ceilings, even if that talent has had bumps in their development road. Is anybody surprised that the Oilers and Sabres aren’t the best organizations in which to develop talent?

San Jose GM Doug Wilson has gone on record as saying he open to trading the 9th overall pick, but it might take more than Talbot and Klein to get it in my estimation. There are some seriously good players available at 9, guys who could alter the course of a franchise. San Jose also owns the 39th pick. It is possible that the Rangers wind up trading them for that and their fourth rounder, or a prospect. Same with the Sabres’ 31st, the Oilers’ 33rd, or the Stars’ 49th overall picks combined with lower round picks and/or players.

To the casual fan, it might not seem like much, but this truly is one of the better drafts in recent history. The first round is littered with potential stars, and there is high-end talent expected to be available throughout the second round. If the Rangers wound up trading for the 33rd overall, for example, we might be able to pick up a player like Russia’s Denis Guryanov, who would be a top 10 pick in any other draft if not for 2015’s depth (and the fact that he plays int he KHL – he is the #7 ranked European skater, but is expected to fall to or near the second round).

Whoever the Rangers acquire, it may not be a player that can help us this year. But if trading our 27 year old backup goaltender can allow us to draft a future top-six winger or better, then mark me down as ‘Yay’.

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2015 Rangers Autopsy and 2016 Needs

The best goalie of his generation won't stay young forever.

The best goalie of his generation won’t stay young forever.

For fans of the 14 NHL teams that missed the playoffs, there are endless scenarios for improvement headed into the 2015-16 season. Teams that were eliminated in the first or second round have also stirred debate amongst fans as to what can be done to advance further next spring.

But what can be said about a depth-based team of mostly under contract players still in the prime of their careers, that has finished in the top four in three of the last four seasons? What more can be added or subtracted to the New York Rangers, who won the President’s Trophy and made it as far as Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals? Teams that come within five wins of the Stanley Cup always have more to lose than gain in the off-season, because the drop is further than the ascent.

Unlike the prior off-season, when the Rangers had key players head into unrestricted free agency including Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, and Brian Boyle (and the complications arising from Ryan Callahan’s pending UFA status and the necessary buyout of Brad Richards), this summer’s UFAs do not present any hard choices, and the cap room will be there to re-sign RFAs unless circumstances become abnormal. For more on that, see my previous post on the Rangers’ 2015 cap situation.

Operating under the not-so-crazy assumption that Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin can be re-signed within the $9-9.5m range, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller will be retained on reasonable two-year bridge deals, and that re-signing Martin St. Louis would likely mean the departure of Carl Hagelin or the trade of Keith Yandle, we’re going to look at the Rangers’ decisions for next season.

But first, what went wrong for the 2014-15 Rangers?

The Autopsy

The Rangers put a literal and figurative chokehold on the bully Caps in the semi-finals.

The Rangers put a literal and figurative chokehold on the bully Caps in the semi-finals.

It goes without saying that the regular season was a rousing success. While being a weak possession team, the Rangers were able to secure the league’s best record and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs by having the highest combined 5-on-5 shooting and save percentage in the NHL at 1019 (commonly referred to as SPSv% or PDO).

While many proponents of possession (even-strength shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts percentage for/against, where the Rangers hovered between 49-50%) will point out that high PDO teams typically fall short in the playoffs because these high shot/save percentages tend to be unsustainable in the long run while facing teams in a series, it should be noted that 5v5 SP% is always a stable stat for teams with stable goaltending, such as the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is what he is, and it’s been that way for 10 seasons now.

As for shot percentage, outside of a few individuals (such as Kevin Klein), there weren’t many Rangers who shot WAY above their career percentages. In fact, some (notably Rick Nash) returned to their typically high S%. Looking at simple Corsi% (5v5 shot attempts for versus against) and Fenwick% (5v5 unblocked shot attempts for versus against) does not always tell the full story: these stats do not take shot range into account, or a team’s ability to make opposing goaltender’s more active by shooting one-timers, generating rebounds and broken plays by screening and crashing the net, all of which make for better scoring chances. Teams get their shots in different ways, and there is something to be said for teams who dominate center ice using size, strength, and skill (Ducks, Penguins, Kings) versus teams that dominate along the boards and cycle the puck well using speedy wingers and relentless forecheckers (Rangers, Red Wings).

The other thing that the “possession uber alles!” crowd doesn’t tell you is when looking solely at possession stats for the playoffs versus shooting and save percentages (PDO), it is usually the high PDO playoff teams that succeed (Ducks, Blackhawks, Rangers, Lightning finish one, two, three and four in playoff PDO while only the Ducks finished top five in playoff possession). Interestingly enough, these high-PDO playoff teams tend to be strong regular season possession teams. Shooting percentages tend to go down in the playoffs, while save percentages go up, and not surprisingly, as in the regular season, it’s always the teams who find a way to get strong goaltending and timely, accurate shots who win in the playoffs. Shock of the century, right?

So what happened in the playoffs?

Well, the Rangers’ team 5v5 save percentage went up from .931 to .939, good for third highest in the playoffs and highest among the final four teams. Hank did his job, and as we saw, he was even better in elimination games.

Even-strength shot attempt and unblocked shot attempt percentages remained in the 49-50% range as they did in the regular season, while shooting percentage plummeted from 8.8% to 6.7% in the playoffs. For the second straight postseason, Rick Nash was the embodiment of this trend. To this point, Nash has led the playoffs in shots on goal with an outstanding 69, but his regular season S% went from 13.8% to 7.2%.

More on Nash and other individuals later, but let’s stick with the team analysis. Larry Brooks put out a column today calling for the Rangers to increase their toughness, subtly placing the blame on Coach Alain Vigneault by comparing his “turn the other cheek” comment directed at Chris Kreider to AV’s similar message to the 2010-11 Canucks who narrowly lost the Finals to the big, bad Bruins.

This simplistic analysis might be popular with fans who constantly scream “HIT SOMEBODY!” throughout the game, but in both cases, Brooks is dead wrong. First off, anybody who watched the Canucks take a 3-2 series lead in that Finals knew that they blew it for one reason, and only one: Roberto Luongo fell apart. Even in spite of Tim Thomas’ otherworldly play in net for the Bruins, the Canucks win that series with ease if Luongo even played adequate in net after Game 4. It had nothing to do with hits, toughness, or intimidation.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present. In Brooks’ example where during Game 6, Chris Kreider took a penalty by retaliating against Steven Stamkos for a dirty hit on Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers were ahead 1-0 in a game where the team was being badly outshot. Was there a single fan who didn’t hold their breath once that penalty was called? Sure enough, at the tail end of the ensuing power play, Ryan Callahan scored on a breakaway to tie the game.

I get the need to stand up for teammates and show toughness, but considering that the Lightning’s power play conversion percentage was nearly 40% for the series, can you really blame AV for wanting to keep guys out of the box at all costs?

Lack of toughness is not what eliminated the Rangers in seven games in the ECF, nor was it ever a problem during the course of the playoffs. Below is a breakdown of hits per game in each game of all three series, with a W or L noted for the game’s result:

Round 1
Game 1 – NYR 32, PIT 32 W
Game 2 – NYR 25, PIT 21 L
Game 3 – NYR 37, PIT 43 W
Game 4 – NYR 42, PIT 28 W
Game 5 – NYR 36, PIT 28 W

NYR 172, PIT 152 W

Round 2
Game 1 – NYR 34, WSH 32 L
Game 2 – NYR 30, WSH 30 W
Game 3 – NYR 31, WSH 39 L
Game 4 – NYR 31, WSH 37 L
Game 5 – NYR 32, WSH 24 W
Game 6 – NYR 30, WSH 36 W
Game 7 – NYR 32, WSH 26 W

NYR 220, WSH 224 W

Round 3

Game 1 – NYR 30, TBL 18 W
Game 2 – NYR 28, TBL 26 L
Game 3 – NYR 33, TBL 41 L
Game 4 – NYR 30, TBL 32 W
Game 5 – NYR 29, TBL 29 L
Game 6 – NYR 27, TBL 22 W
Game 7 – NYR 29, TBL 25 L

NYR 206, TBL 193 L

The Rangers were 8-5 when they outhit or were even in hits with the opposing team, and 3-4 when they got outhit or were even in hits. The trend seems to be on the winning side, and barely. Of course, when you break it down by series, we beat the only team that outhit us for the series.

Speaking of the Capitals, aka the biggest team in the NHL in terms of average height and weight, and by far the biggest hitting, dirtiest team through the first two rounds, the hits were basically even for that series with the Caps having a negligible four hit advantage. All series long, we heard from announcers and fans, “This is a different Caps team! They play just like the LA Kings! This team is built for the playoffs!” And yet the “turn the other cheek” Rangers went hit-for-hit with them en route to a series win. We also outhit the Penguins, not a particularly tough team but one that made a point of coming after us and making every game a tight-checking, shot-blocking affair. And of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a cakewalk in terms of brute physicality, as they are one of the smallest teams in hockey.

I say “brute physicality” because Tampa did manage to wear the Rangers down in another aspect of the game: endurance. It was clear for most of the series, even in our big Games 4 and 6 wins, that Tampa was the fresher, faster, and harder playing team. This was the first time in years that the Rangers met a team in the playoffs that was as fast or faster on skates than we are. In a foot-race competition, it’s anybody’s guess who possesses the faster team. Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Keith Yandle and Ryan McDonagh can absolutely fly, and even resident old guys Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle were among the league’s fastest in their primes. But it’s how a team uses its speed that counts, and Tampa’s speedy forwards were able to wear the Rangers down by outworking us along the boards, keeping up in the neutral zone, and converging at center-ice in unpredictable breakout formations.

This is why we struggled against Tampa in the regular season, and it’s why we had trouble with the Islanders in the first three games of the season series. But unlike Tampa, the Islanders (and every other NHL team) do not possess a top six that can match the Triplets and Stamkos lines, and the Hedman-Stralman pairing is a nightmare and probably the third best in the NHL behind Doughty-Muzzin and Keith-Seabrook.

Too many times, the Rangers pin themselves against the boards during the breakout, immediately setting up the cycle and looking for shots from the point or at center when lanes are fully clogged up. Given that the clogging/shotblocking intensity increases during the playoffs, it’s no wonder that the Rangers have trouble scoring in the postseason. This problem is often alleviated when our defensemen pinch and join the play, but this can be high risk/reward when facing speedy teams. McDonagh pinches, leaving our slowest D-man Girardi to face a possible odd-man rush, and that that risk is intensified with the Yandle-Boyle pairing. When fans wonder why we don’t shoot enough from the points, well…do you really want Johnson and Palat barreling full-steam ahead at Dan Girardi after a blocked shot creates a fortuitous breakout for Tampa?

It’s not all negative for the Blueshirts. After all, this was a seven game series that saw us fall short by a mere two goals in the deciding game. As tough a matchup as the Lightning present, the Rangers are deadly in their own right. No team in the NHL has the defensive depth that we have, or three defensemen who can join the rush like McDonagh, Yandle, Boyle, and at times, Klein can. Our breakout is a thing of beauty when Stepan, Brassard, and Hayes feed Kreider, Nash, and Hagelin speeding up the boards. Those three forwards routinely embarrass opposing D, but the breakout has to work in a way that specifically utilizes our forwards’ strength.

Nash and Kreider are almost always ahead of defenders coming up the boards, but it’s absolutely crucial that both men cut towards the net instead of pinning to the boards, using their size and strength to protect the puck en route to a direct challenge on the goaltender. Hagelin doesn’t quite have the power to always crash, but he does have a center iceman in Hayes who, unlike Stepan and Brassard, does possess the size and hands to dominate the middle of the ice. Stepan is the type of center you want working off the cycle because he has the IQ to bring together all elements of the play, while Brassard has the shot and creativity to be dangerous off the rush with Zuccarello, a player with the same skill-set.

On the scoresheet, there wasn’t much separating the Rangers and Lightning, and to borrow the football cliche, playoff hockey is a game of inches. Zuccarello was scratched, and McDonagh was hurt down the stretch. A goal here and a save there can make all the difference in the world, and in that context it’s difficult to extrapolate any useful lessons from a tight seven game series.

I think, though, beyond the numbers and game-planning, there was one disappointing trend that reared its head early in the Washington series, and was our ultimate undoing against the Lightning. Simply put, the Rangers lacked battle level and often looked tired late in games, relying on Lundqvist and lucky bounces to bail them out of games they had no business winning. Games 3 and 4 against Washington saw us come out fast and strong, only to fizzle in the final two periods. Stellar play in goal and inspired third period and overtime performances helped us defeat the Capitals. After struggling against the Lightning in Games 2 and 3, Hank was phenomenal in Games 4-7, stealing two games in Tampa where the Rangers were badly outplayed until getting quick offensive explosions in the third period.

In both of their road wins, the Rangers were outshot by wide margins, and out-attempted in the shutout losses at home that saw Ben Bishop, to his ultimate credit, earn two shutouts behind a Tampa defense that didn’t allow a single high quality chance against him. Hank made some of the best stops of his career in Game 7, keeping the score 0-0 for two periods while the players in front of him were repeatedly beat to pucks by the opposition. Aside from Carl Hagelin and the injured Ryan McDonagh, there wasn’t a single forward or defenseman on the Rangers who seemed to have his legs that night. Short of Lundqvist perfection and a lucky overtime bounce, the Rangers were not going to win that game with such an effort.

Seeing Hank bent over in exhaustion and frustration before the start of the handshake line was the image of a franchise player who had given everything and more. Ryan McDonagh had a broken foot stiffened and numbed by freezing agents, according to AV, so he could play the last couple of games. The team’s two prime leaders left everything on the ice. Where was that commitment down the stretch from the rest of the team? This wasn’t a question in the losses against the Kings last year, but it is now. Why? I think the answer lies in the fact that the Rangers ran into a younger, faster team that refused to buckle under pressure like the Capitals and Penguins did. Like so many fallen teams have experienced against us, the Rangers got tired of chasing these guys around.

Who Stepped Up/Who Didn’t

Despite the view among fans, Keith Yandle delivered a playoff performance worthy of the assets it cost to acquire him.

Despite the view among fans, Keith Yandle delivered a playoff performance worthy of the assets it cost to acquire him.

I don’t think that more than a few sentences needs to be written about the regular season. Pretty much everybody stepped up, notably Cam Talbot, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, Kevin Klein, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan. Martin St. Louis considerably slowed down after a hot start, Zuccarello played well but struggled to convert on offense, and Ryan McDonagh returned to form down the stretch after injuries impeded his first half. Dan Boyle was a disappointment, while Keith Yandle basically continued his points-per-game pace from Arizona with slightly improved defensive play. Everybody else played to expectations.

But it’s all about the playoffs, and I’m going to single out a few guys here for good and bad.

Nothing more needs to be said about Henrik Lundqvist, who arguably had his best postseason performance this year. The highlight reel saves from 2015 alone are enough to make for an epic YouTube video, and his elimination game dominance continued, even in the ECF Game 7 loss.

Derick Brassard also continued his string of clutch playoff performances, ending with 16 pts in 19 games, along with 9 goals and a +9 rating.

90% of Ranger fans will disagree with my next choice, but Rick Nash had a very good playoffs. Did it match his MVP caliber regular season output? No. Was it a great performance, worthy of the superstar moniker? No. But he was absolutely dominant in two of our three wins in the ECF, and was almost as good the whole first round. The semi-finals is where he struggled the most, and if he managed to score just a few more points there, Nash would have been among the leading playoff scorers this year.

To put this into greater perspective, compare Nash’s 2015 playoff numbers to 2014:

Rick Nash – 2014 Playoffs
GP  G  A  P  +/-  PIM  PPP  SHP  GW  Shots  S%  Time-On-Ice
25  3  7  10   -1     8       2       0       1       83   3.6%      17:25

Rick Nash – 2015 Playoffs
GP  G  A  P  +/-  PIM  PPP  SHP  GW  Shots  S%  Time-On-Ice
19  5  9  14    +8    4      3       0       0       69   7.2%      18:30

The performance improvement is clear. Nash was second in team points behind Brassard, led the league in shots through three rounds, doubled his shooting percentage, and took less penalties while playing a minute more per game than last year. Was it a performance worthy of $7.5 million salary? Perhaps not. But Nash’s numbers put in range of other star players like Alex Ovechkin and Ryan Kesler. It wasn’t an “ultimate vindication” type postseason for Nash, but his play didn’t warrant him being the team whipping boy. More often than not, he was part of the solution.

You know who was even better? Keith Yandle. I know, I know, he’s a turnover machine who doesn’t come up with the points when we need them. Except none of that was true during the postseason. Yandle was our most effective offensive defenseman, scoring and assisting on some of the biggest goals of the playoffs. In terms of defense, outside of some bad turnovers against the Capitals, Yandle was mostly solid.

Below is a snapshot of the leading defensemen in 2015 playoff scoring: (click to enlarge)

Leading D Scorers

The number speak loudly in Yandle’s favor. He was third in scoring among defensemen while playing 1:36 less minutes per game than the next lowest minutes-getter on the list, Dan Boyle, who himself is nearly a minute and a half below Sami Vatanen, who is over two minutes below the next player. That’s elite level offensive efficiency from both Yandle and Boyle. But unlike Boyle, who far and away was the Rangers’ worst defensive liability, there was hardly any risk in Yandle’s play away from the puck. At +7, Yandle remained in the top three among all defensemen, while finishing seventh in shots.

That stat doesn’t tell the whole story, since Yandle had a low number of defensive zone starts and was normally paired against the opposition’s weakest lines, but the point is that he was not a liability. When playing without the puck, Yandle was better than adequate, and even found himself paired against better opposition in the first round when Klein was injured. For the start of Game 7, while McDonagh was being treated in the locker room, Yandle was on the first pairing with Dan Girardi. That’s a measure of earned trust. It makes you wonder why Yandle didn’t receive more ice time than Dan Boyle. It’s fair to say that any criticism of Yandle is a result of confirmation bias: fans chose to notice him only when he made turnovers.

On the other hand, Dan Boyle was the embodiment of high risk/high reward during the playoffs. Offensively, he was very good after some crucial shanked shots in the first round. Having him and Yandle contributing the way they did was a luxury, and you could say that the combination of those two, plus McDonagh, gave the Rangers a distinct advantage in offense from the blue-line over just about everyone else in the East. But being -3 against the weakest assignments and hardly any defensive zone starts is atrocious.

His penchant for coughing up turnovers at the blue-line was brutal, and his inability to move the puck up the boards against the forecheck kept the Rangers pinned in their own zone for egregious amounts of time. Boyle’s offensive contributions during a Rangers playoff goal famine was the only thing keeping Matt Hunwick out of the lineup. Coming up on his 39th birthday and a year left on a move-protected contract, one wonders whether the Rangers are better off buying out Boyle’s contract and paying him to play for someone else.

Rounding out the key playoff performers are Dan Girardi, who was miles better than last year, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and the young guys Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller, the latter of whom showed major promise as a potential top six forward next season.

That should mean the end of Marty St. Louis, who was the undisputed worst performer of the playoffs. Not of the Rangers, of the playoffs.

One goal and seven points with a -1 rating in 19 games, with a porous defensive effort to boot represented the low point of Marty’s hall of fame career. Last year, Marty was our second leading playoff scorer behind Ryan McDonagh, and scored in overtime to put us ahead of the Canadiens  3-1 in the ECF. To anyone who questioned the Ryan Callahan trade last year, I would defend Marty to the hilt. This year, not so much (though it’s interesting to note that Cally has also been terrible for his team this year, continuing a career trend of disappointing playoff performances).

On paper, Marc Staal was another disappointment, but it should be noted that for his bad play in the ECF, Staal was great in the first two rounds. Kevin Klein wasn’t the same since returning from injury, Tanner Glass was a non-factor, and Kevin Hayes struggled despite a couple of clutch moments of his own. Hayes can be forgiven on the basis of age and position – for a player who is not a natural centerman, it will take time for him to become a good playoff performer. This year provided him with experience that will give him an edge over his peers next season.

Needs For 2015-16

Will $6m be enough to re-sign Derek Stepan, or will the Rangers Center take Sather to the bank?

Will $6m be enough to re-sign Derek Stepan, or will the Rangers Center take Sather to the bank?

It all starts with cap management and in-house business. Glen Sather’s first priority should be signing RFAs Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin to value deals that will allow for moderate cap flexibility. That means farewell, Marty. Second, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast must be re-signed on inexpensive two-year bridge deals.

Third, Sather must sit down with Dan Boyle and convince him to waive his no-trade clause. Buying out the remainder of his contract (one more year at $4.5m) is also an option, but that would reduce his cap hit to $2.5m for an extra year. While helpful for 2015-16, that extra $2.5m will come back to bite us when Kreider and Hayes become RFA eligible the following season. If Boyle does accept a trade (and a team actually trades for him), part of the cleared space should be spent on bringing back Matt Hunwick in case one of our D prospects aren’t ready to step up.

James Shepherd can walk in favor of Oscar Lindberg, who has been described by Wolfpack watchers as a faceoff winning, defensive menace who can contribute on offense and is NHL ready yesterday. Lindberg was the Wolfpack’s second leading playoff scorer during their own run to the conference finals in the AHL.

Another young player who is ready to step up is Carl Klingberg, ho can provide big size and nasty physical play in a bottom six role. He could be the first call-up in case of trade or injury.

In the aforementioned Larry Brooks article, he mentions the need to bring Dylan McIlrath into the fold on defense to provide toughness. There isn’t a Rangers fan on earth who doesn’t want to see McIlrath, the 10th overall pick in 2010, make the team and succeed long-term. The issue, as always, is whether or not he’s ready. There hasn’t been a lot of feedback on McIlrath, positive or negative, except that he’s coming along slowly and needs to work on his skating and defensive positioning. On the other hand, Brady Skjei, our top defensive prospect, is a speed demon with a hard shot who is earning rave reviews for his defensive play in the AHL. This article from Hockey’s Future provides insight into the current development status of both McIlrath and Skjei.

Next season, barring a buyout or trade of Dan Boyle, or a significant injury, the only opening on defense will be at the number seven spot. In this role, a player will see anywhere from 20 to 30 games at most. If it’s true that McIlrath is incapable of playing left defense, that means he’ll have to wait until Dan Boyle is gone to compete for a regular spot. As for Skjei, his speed and defensive attributes are much better suited to an evolved NHL that values speed, awareness, possession and playmaking over hitting and crease-clearing. McIlrath can absolutely be valued as a hitter, but he can’t play at the pro-level without some of the finer skills in his repertoire. After all, based on the above descriptions of McIlrath and Skjei, who do you think would have benefitted the Rangers more against the Lightning?

Mat Bodie, Conor Allen, and the hulking Ryan Graves will also be competing for defensive spots this year and next. Graves possesses all the gritty aspects of McIlrath, along with the size, which could ultimately lead to McIlrath’s trade.

The best scenario is that Skjei and McIlrath, or the two best defensive showings in camp, spend time alternating as the 7th D, playing in the range of 15 games each, with the better of the two replacing Dan Boyle when he departs in summer 2016 (and possibly both making the team if Keith Yandle also leaves).

As for the rest of the team, it will be up to the young core to turn the dial up while Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal are still in their primes. There could be anywhere from a three to five year window until these players begin to rapidly decline, but until that happens, expect the Rangers to remain at the top of the league in terms of Cup competitiveness.

Is Kevin Hayes the next big, dominant Center in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf?

Is Kevin Hayes the next big, dominant Center in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf?

Unlike years past, there is no trade or free agency option that will make this team better. All needs are currently filled, it’s just a matter of the young players getting better. Fortunately, team leaders Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello still have room to grow and improve, while Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast are in the infancy of their careers and could potentially be twice what they are now. McDonagh must take the next step and bring his offense up to the level of players like Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. Hayes and Stepan will have to become reliable faceoff winners. Kreider can be a premiere power forward with unmatchable athleticism if he can bring a consistent effort over 82 games.

The key for the Rangers, the difference between winning or not winning a Cup in these next three years, will be the continued upward trajectory of these players. Best of all, the Rangers’ cap situation should not prevent us from retaining every single one of them, as only Stepan, Kreider, and Hayes remain to be signed long term with key veteran contract expirations on the horizon.

As prospects continue to graduate to the big club, and with Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich as the only consensus Top 50 prospects in our system, the Rangers must explore trades to replenish lost draft choices. Cam Talbot can be used to gain a high second or low first round draft choice this June, and if a reasonable deal can’t get done with Keith Yandle, he would net a very good return at next year’s trade deadline. If Yandle continues to play well and if Kevin Klein regresses, Klein’s salary is very cap friendly and could probably get us a first round pick in return. This all depends on the rapid development of Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath, but trading Klein opens up enough salary to keep Yandle along with our 2017 RFAs.

Brady Skjei might be the next homegrown Rangers defenseman, following in the footsteps of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

Brady Skjei might be the next homegrown Rangers defenseman, following in the footsteps of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

Projected 2015-16 Rangers Depth Chart:

LW                                C                               RW
Nash                       Brassard                  Zuccarello
Kreider                     Stepan                       Miller
Hagelin                     Hayes                         Fast
Glass                        Moore                      Lindberg

LD                                RD
McDonagh               Girardi
Staal                          Klein
Yandle                       Boyle

Goalie
Lundqvist
Skapski

13th Forward: Klingberg
7th Defenseman: Skjei