HDCA: High danger chances against
HDCF: high danger chances for
xGA: expected goals against
xGF: expected goals for
HDSV%: high danger save percentage
When the NHL announced its division realignment plan and the public saw which teams would be in each division, one division stood out. It’s clear to most hockey fans that the Eastern Division is the symbolic “Group of Death” in the new system.
The division is competitive, top to bottom. It may lack a team with firepower throughout the lineup like Tampa or Colorado, but there are no easy outs. Even the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, the only teams in this division who didn’t make the 24 team playoffs last year, have improved mightily. There is an abundance of experience and playoff pedigree in this division. In a season where almost every game will feel like playoffs due to the shortened season, that experience will be even more advantageous. Saying that, the team that I think is best positioned to make some noise out of the Eastern Division is the youngest in the league, the New York Rangers.
It may be too early to hang my hat on this raw Rangers team. But, their strong back half of the 19-20 season and the emergence of Mika Zibanejad as a genuinely elite centre in this league has their rebuild ahead of schedule. The Blueshirts finished the year with a 13-6-1 record in their final 20 games before the world blew up. They can also thank the NHL for blatantly rigging the draft lottery, giving them a dynamic, complete winger to just stick in their top-six right away.
The Rangers are deep, have the star power and the goaltending necessary in today’s NHL. Although the division is deep, there isn’t one team head and shoulder better than the rest. I’m going to break down what the Rangers are up against, what they need to improve on from last season to truly compete and go deeper into why I think they’re ready to establish themselves.
Many questions surround the teams that have usually been considered locks to make the playoffs over the best decade. The Penguins have Crosby and Malkin, and I’ll admit, it is hard to see those two ever letting their team miss the playoffs entirely, but I think it is fair to say there are not many certainties to how their depth will hold up. I mean, this is their 3rd D pairing right now… yikes.
Tristan Jarry should be counted on to continue his dazzling form from last season. Still, he has never had a legitimate starting role, and Casey Desmith is not the same backup as Matt Murray. Offensively you can count on the first two lines to score, but after that, it will be up to Jared McCann to really drive the bottom six. You just cannot count on Mark Janikowski (7 points last season) and Sam Lafferty (6 goals last season) to pitch in much offensively. The Penguins should make the playoffs, but I cannot see them winning the division. The Capitals are in a similar boat. Their top 6 is untouched and can go toe to toe with any top 6 in the league. Still, in a season where the games will be coming thick and fast, depth scoring is needed. Question marks surrounding the backup goalie situation also wave over the defending division champs heads as Henrik Lundqvist’s unfortunate health issue leaves them in a pickle. Ilya Samsonov is more than capable of taking on a starter’s load. Still, the amount of back to backs in the 3-month regular season means the backup will need to be stable. This could easily blow up in my face, but I think the Capitals miss the playoffs by a hair.
To quickly run through the rest of the division, the Bruins lost 2 of their top 4 defensemen and did practically nothing to replace them. The Bruins relied upon their top line more than anyone last season but did little to address the secondary scoring issues and will be without last year’s Rocket Richard winner, David Pastrnak, for at least a month. You wouldn’t bet against them to make the playoffs, but the likelihood of them getting off to a slow start is high, and you won’t be able to win the division with a bad start. The Islanders also lost 2 key defencemen and have yet to sign their best player in Matt Barzal. He is a contract holdout at the moment. They caught fire in the bubble, but can anyone really see them being the best team in this division throughout 56 games? Me neither. Thanks to good offseasons, the Sabres and Devils will be fun to watch and should be much better than last season. Still, I am relatively confident in saying neither team will take the division.
Finally, the Flyers seem like the most popular pick to win the division. Well, they probably have the most depth on paper. I present to you the odd-year theory. Now stick with me here, this may seem far fetched, but it’s actually just math and science. Since the 2011-2012 season, the Flyers have made the playoffs every time the season ends in an even-numbered year but has missed the playoffs entirely when it ends in an odd-numbered year. Coincidence? I think not!
Seriously though, it wouldn’t shock me one bit if the Flyers run away with the division or come 6th. All things considered, in my opinion, they are the Rangers’ biggest rivals for this division crown mostly down to their strength throughout the lineup and their goalie, Cahtah Haht (Thanks, RA).
Building on a strong year
The Rangers came into the 19-20 season with tempered expectations. Just 2 years prior, the team announced they were going into rebuild mode with their now infamous letter to the fans. They managed to get the 2nd pick in the 2019 draft, thanks to some lottery luck. Then decided to speed up their rebuild a little bit in free agency by breaking the bank for Artemi Panarin and trading away their bright, young defenseman, Neal Pionk, in exchange for Jacob Trouba. Trouba immediately signed a massive contract with a term of 7 years at $8,000,000 per. The 26-year-old defenceman had a poor season by his standards, and he is going to need to be a lot better if the Rangers are to fulfill my prediction. Based on his seasons before 19-20, last year should be nothing more than a blip.
Trouba played the most minutes on one of the worst defensive units in the league. The Blueshirts were 3rd worst in the NHL in giving up HDCA and 4th worst in xGA. Defensively was just an absolute mess in their own zone at times last season. They didn’t do much to fix that, pretty much just swapped Marc Staal for Jack Johnson, which is akin to swapping Harvey’s for Burger King, which is to say they both suck. Nonetheless, I would assume the Rangers expect internal growth from players like Tony Deangelo, Ryan Lindgren, and Adam Fox, which isn’t the world’s worst plan. Fox and Deangelo specifically were excellent last season, putting up 42 and 53 points, respectively. Fox, a rookie last season, was incredible defensively and had a 52 percent share of xGF when on the ice. The Harvard alum should get a significant increase in minutes too. Deangelo was excellent offensively last season and looked truly dynamic at times. He needs to work on his defensive positioning and awareness, but Trouba returning to form will hopefully help.
There is hope that 2018 first rounder K’andre Miller will be on the third pair this season, and that is good news for Rangers fans. Miller is a big, smooth-skating defenseman, and he reads the game well. He’s also just way better than Jack Johnson.
In the top 10 in almost every offensive category last season, the Rangers were dangerous offensively, including goals and HDCF. Much of this was down to the MVP level play of Panarin, but Ryan Strome had the best year of his career to go along with 40+ point seasons from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Mika Zibanejad’s 0.72 goals per game pace will be hard to sustain. Still, his growth as a player and ability to drive a line by himself gives the Rangers flexibility in their top 6. Going back to Panarin, it’s hard to state in words just how good he is and was last season. When he was on the ice at even strength, the Rangers scored almost double the number of goals as the other team, 75 to 38; the dude is unstoppable.
I would love to see them load up that first line every now and then because Panarin and Zibanejad’s chemistry is fantastic. They mesh so well together. You could even throw Alexis Lafreniere on the right-wing just because it’s fun. Looking deeper down the lineup, Kappo Kakko cannot possibly play worse than he did last season. I really don’t know what happened to him last year, but I’m confident that he should bounce back in the guy’s ability. Filip Chytil had a sneaky good season last year and should slot in as their 3rd line centre. He may even get the opportunity to play with Alexis Lafreniere. Lafreniere will make an impact right away and is the going away favourite for Rookie of the Year. He’s NHL ready in every way, and his physicality will add something to the Rangers that they don’t have much of. It really doesn’t matter who their right-winger is, that 3rd line will score as much as any in the league, which gives the Rangers scoring throughout the lineup.
Why the time is now
I haven’t gotten into the goalies yet, but that’s because I was saving the best for last. King Henrik is gone, but I still believe the Rangers’ biggest strength is their goaltending. Now I understand why some may think that is incorrect or even just stupid, considering the Rangers goalies have played less than 100 NHL games combined. But hear me out, After being called up from the AHL, Igor Shesterkin played 12 games last season and had a .932 save percentage and the 10th best HDSV% in the league. Igor Shesterkin’s previous 4 seasons were spent in the AHL and KHL. His save percentages over those years were .934%, .953%, .933% and .937%. Goalies are an absolute crapshoot, but based on all the evidence we have, it seems like he will translate to an elite goalie in the NHL. His backup, Alex Georgiev, had a down year last year, but I expect him to have a good year with his certain role this year. In 18-19, he had a .913 SV% and saved 4.27 goals above average in 33 games, which put him among the best backups in the league. Ideally, you just want your backup to not lose you games with his poor play, and Georgiev rarely plays so bad you blame the game on his poor play. Shesterkin is good enough to steal the Rangers at least a handful of games and gives them a chance to win every game he starts.
Lots of people still have questions about the Rangers, and they should. I have questions too. Mainly about the amount of ice time Jack Johnson will get and why that number is over 0.00. The Rangers are volatile in every sense of the word. Their ceiling is sky-high due to the number of young players they have and each player’s potential. You just never know when 1 or 2 or even more are going to break out into the best they can be. I think this Rangers team is very similar to the 17-18 Leafs team. Had a good season early in the rebuild, young and are just bubbling with offensive talent. They will be chaotic, fun to watch, and inconsistent, but you just have to be consistent in a shortened season at the right times. When I think of teams best suited to put together a 10 game win streak, the Rangers are near the top of that list. You either believe in their players making a step, or you don’t, and I do believe in their talent. Talent is crucial in the NHL. Culture and being hard to play against are essential too, but first, you need the skill. I also think the other teams in this division are being overrated a little bit based on reputation. No one is confident in their predictions for this division. There is just too much variance. It would be funny if I was wildly wrong, and I’m by no means ruling that out. The Rangers could come 7th, and I wouldn’t be stunned. It’s the NHL, it’s a 56 game season, one PDO bender, and you’re set for the season. But in a season that should be high-scoring and full of chaos, why not pick the high scoring team and full of chaos?
Analytic sources: Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.