A few years ago, 2013 to be exact, those of us who pay attention to possession numbers couldn’t wait to tell Toronto Maple Leafs fans, and their coach really, that their record was something of a mirage. The small sample size of that particular schedule and some excellent play from James Reimer had masked what really wasn’t a very good team, and their Corsi number showed it. The counter that came from the organization itself and a good portion of their fanbase was that they quality of shots they gave up and that they engineered made up the difference. We all laughed and laughed at this notion, even though one day someone was going to actually do that.
Maybe it’s this year’s Rangers?
The Blueshirts stand second in the East, just behind the Canadiens and tied with the Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division. They sport a +29 goal-difference, the best you’ll find anywhere. Some of that is caused by having two special teams in the top-10 in the league. Some is from that 11.2% shooting-percentage at even-strength. That’s not where the interesting meat lies, though.
The Rangers are a woeful possession team at the moment. They have a 47.1 Corsi-percentage, 25th best in the league behind such luminaries as the Jets, Canucks, and Devils. So in years past we would call them a total fraud and just wait for their inevitable collapse, or wait until Henrik Lundqvist prevented said collapse. Which he is more than capable of.
But these days, unlike 2013, we have a few more tools to see what kind of chances and attempts the Rangers are giving up and what they are generating. In xGF%, the Rangers are 12th, with a 51.7% mark. So even though they’re giving up far more attempts, relatively speaking, than they get overall, the types of attempts and chances that occur during their games favor them.
When it comes to simply scoring chance-percentage, the Rangers are again one of the better teams in the league. ranking 6th with a number of 53.8. This doesn’t necessarily connect to winning, because some of the teams ahead of them are Minnesota, Buffalo, and Carolina. But still, it does speak to the types of shots and attempts they get and give up.
You can’t ignore the Rangers shooting-percentage at even-strength, of course. It’s a full three points ahead of the team in second. In the past five years, only two teams have pierced that double-digit threshold for a season in even-strength shooting percentage. That’s this year’s rangers, and the aforementioned 2013 Maple Leafs. So it’s either coming down and the Rangers’ fortunes are going with it, or they’re going to remain the luckiest team we’ve ever seen. But if they keep it at 9%, the other teams to manage that have been really good. Last year’s Rangers shot over 9%, the 2012 Bruins did and were defending champs, the ’13 Hawks, the ’15 Lightning, the outlier of the ’13 Stars, the ’13 Penguins who were conference finalists, the ’12 Lightning, the ’14 Ducks who won the division, and the ’13 Lightning.
Watching the Rangers, you can see why there might this disparity. The defense basically has no puck-movers, though I suppose if you squint really hard Ryan McDonagh could be considered one. And he would be better off being paired with a puck-mover anyway. So the forwards have to do a lot of the work of getting the Rangers out of the zone. Watch tonight and see how many times you see all three forwards below the circles when the Rangers are trying to break out. Your defense never really has to back up. You can pin them, squeeze the space, and cause turnovers, which would cause more attempts against.
But the Rangers forwards have so much speed, 1-12, that they can close off shooting and passing lanes quicker than most teams, which is why they’re blocking a lot of shots. And those turn into breaks the other way, where their speed causes openings other teams won’t get. They can streak by defenders who have gotten a standing still start.
It’s almost certainly not a sustainable model, especially if you’re asking every forward to play a 200-foot game. They’ll lose control of their motor functions by March. Alain Vigneault will have to tweak it in some ways. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be unlocked in this quick-strike, counter-attacking game the Rangers have been playing most of the season.