March 4, 2024

The New York Rangers hated how last season ended.

“That one stung for a while,” captain Jacob Trouba said of their seven-game first-round loss to the rival New Jersey Devils in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. “They always sting, but that one was a pit in our stomach for a long time.”

It was easy, then, to predict that the Rangers would be a motivated group right out of the gate for the 2023-24 season. The majority of the roster returned. They had a new coach in Peter Laviolette, as Gerard Gallant paid for the playoff loss with his job. Star winger Artemi Panarin symbolically acknowledged the team’s renewed focus by shearing off his hair as a follicle “reset.”

But few predicted the Rangers’ start would be this good: 19-7-1 through 27 games for a .722 points percentage, third best in the NHL. The Rangers have never had a team finish with a points percentage over .700, tracking all the way back to their inaugural season in 1926.

They were near the top 10 in both goals scored and goals against per game. Their special teams are outstanding, including a power play that’s been among the NHL’s best. The freshly shorn Panarin had 39 points in 27 games to spark MVP talk. Chris Kreider posted 14 goals in his first 27 games.

They kept winning through injuries to star defenseman Adam Fox, who missed 10 games, center Filip Chytil, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury, and most recently Kaapo Kakko, who is expected to miss significant time with an injury.

They kept winning despite goalie Igor Shesterkin being off his game (.902 save percentage), thanks in no small part to veteran offseason signee Jonathan Quick getting back on his game (8-0-1, .922 save percentage).

It’s all added up to the Rangers being a favorite to win the Metro Division and the Eastern Conference, with a realistic chance at honoring the 30th anniversary of their 1994 Stanley Cup championship by winning another one next June.

What’s changed for the Rangers? Is this success sustainable?

The answers aren’t as encouraging as their record might indicate.

Here’s a look at some of the critical areas for the Rangers this season.


Laviolette vs. Gallant

The Rangers are Laviolette’s sixth NHL head-coaching stop. He won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and made the Stanley Cup Final with the Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and Nashville Predators (2017). He’s well-traveled but successful: Laviolette is eighth all-time in coaching wins (771) and has a higher points percentage (.590) than four of the coaches ahead of him on that list.

Before the season, he spelled out his manifesto for the Rangers: an aggressive approach on the ice, with lots of puck pressure and pursuit; a gritty team that can grind down opponents; and one that plays a “playoff style” well before the postseason arrives.

Has that outlook changed the way the Rangers play vs. when Gerard Gallant coached them?

“Statistically and specifically at 5-on-5, there isn’t much of the difference in the data from last year to this year,” said Meghan Chayka of Stathletes, an analyst for ESPN.

Josh Younggren, co-founder of the analytics site Evolving Hockey, noted that 27 games is a small sample, but that it was difficult to find discernible differences between the Rangers’ two seasons under Gallant and their start under Laviolette.

“Looking at various metrics from our site, the Rangers have been surprisingly consistent under both coaches,” he said.

Younggren said that under both coaches, the Rangers have hovered around 50% in shot attempts and expected goals percentage. They’ve maintained a shooting percentage between 8-9%.

Chayka continues to be impressed with how the Rangers generate chances at 5-on-5. They lead the NHL in offensive zone cross-ice passes per game (6.70), having led the league in that category last season (6.95).

“The Rangers take an NHL-leading 36.3% of their shots off of weak-side plays and an NHL-leading 37.9% of their scoring chances from weakside plays,” she said. “This creates an environment where the Rangers create motion in opposing goalies. They take 6.9% of their shot attempts on a goalie that is not set to the shot, which is third most in the NHL.”

That East-West passing in the offensive zone means the Rangers produce 11.8% of their scoring chances outside of the slot area, which is the third highest rate of chances away from the slot in the league this season.

In this sense, it’s good news that not much has changed from Gallant to Laviolette, because the Rangers continue to thrive offensively at 5-on-5.

“The Rangers have had this offensive approach for multiple seasons and have been effective doing so,” Chayka said. “The high-quality looks created by this passing are likely to continue based on the Rangers having top level playmakers.”

The best way to handle the Rangers’ offense at 5-on-5? Making their top players defend as much as possible, as the Toronto Maple Leafs did effectively in their 7-3 win at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

“I think it’s vital. I think they’re a far different team when their top people aren’t on the ice,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That’s not uncommon for most teams, but there’s a great discrepancy with this group, so we needed to manage that.”

Some of the Rangers’ depth players have been strong this season, with Younggren shouting out Jimmy Vesey and hard-driving rookie Will Cuylle. But the top five players in points are the usual suspects: Panarin (39 points), Vincent Trocheck (25), Mika Zibanejad (23), Kreider (22) and Fox (18). All the players not named Adam Fox are 30 years old or older.

Defensively, the Rangers are a little leakier under Laviolette. They averaged 2.73 expected goals per 60 minutes last season, and are averaging 2.90 per 60 minutes through 27 games, which is 21st in the NHL.

One point of emphasis for Chayka was their ability to keep opponents from getting scoring chances off the rush.

“When they allow too many opponent chances off the rush, they are playing with fire,” she said. “In wins, they are allowing 3.16 rush scoring chances per game. In losses, they are allowing 5.25 rush scoring chances per game.”

Opponents that can break out pucks well and use their speed continue to vex the Rangers under Laviolette. Auston Matthews mentioned that in light of the Leafs using their agility to put four goals on the board in the first period.

“The way they play, they’re really good in transition and we obviously kind of got a bit of back and forth in the second. But I thought in the first, we were just above them, had good gaps, we were breaking pucks out smoothly and we were coming at them with a lot of speed,” he said. “It was hard for them to handle.”


The power play

The biggest positive difference between the Gallant Rangers and this season’s model has been on the power play.

New York clicked at 24.1% last season, which was good for seventh in the NHL. This season, they’re rocking a 30.5% conversion rate so far, second only to the Devils (31.8%). That 6.4 percentage point increase is tied for the third highest year-over-year improvement this season.

Entering Thursday, their 25 power-play goals were tied for fourth in the NHL.

The Rangers are earning around the same number of power plays per game as they were last season. But they’re capitalizing more, and Younggren believes that’s the biggest difference between the Gallant Rangers and Laviolette’s team so far.

“The only real difference I can find is their shooting percentage on the powerplay: It’s markedly increased while their underlying metrics are mostly in line with the previous seasons,” he said.

According to Younggren, the Rangers are averaging 11.7 goals for per 60 minutes on the power play, compared to 9.4 and 8.2 in their two seasons under Gallant.

From Stathletes, a snapshot of the Rangers this season vs. last season on the power play:

Their special teams have been a difference maker all season. They’re at 84.1% on the penalty kill, which would be up from 81.2% last season.

Opponents are taking note, such as the Maple Leafs this week.

“We talked about winning the special teams a battle or at least drawing even on that,” Keefe said. “They get their power-play goal. We wiped that out with a huge power-play goal in the third and scored a goal on a delayed penalty in the first period. So taking care of that special teams as part of it too is another really important piece.”


What about the goaltending?

Much like the sentence “the Washington Capitals are in a playoff seed despite Alex Ovechkin having five goals” doesn’t make sense, the Rangers being this good without Igor Shesterkin playing up to his standards is equally surprising.

“He’s an elite goaltender. We have a tremendous amount of faith in him,” Laviolette said. “There are things we can do in front of him that are better.”

The former Vezina Trophy winner has a .902 save percentage and a 3.02 goals-against average in 17 games. He has 5.6 goals saved above expected, per Money Puck. He’s still quite good. He’s just not Igor Shesterkin good at the moment.

Younggren sees the Rangers having “worse” goaltending now than under Gallant due to Shesterkin being around five expected goals saved off his pace from the previous two seasons.

Chayka agrees. “Something seems off with Igor Shesterkin in net. He has been average to below average,” she said.

Chayka notes that in save percentage vs. expected, Shesterkin was first in 2021-22 (+.224), 11th last season (+.078) but currently sits 32nd this season (-.052) for goalies with at least 10 games played.

While Shesterkin tries to find his game, the Rangers have been bailed out by the unexpected career resurrection of Jonathan Quick, 37, who has posted a .922 save percentage and a 2.20 goals-against average during an 8-0-1 start. Quick has 9.6 goals saved above expected this season, which is ninth best in the NHL.

“Jonathan’s career has been amazing. The fact that he’s found himself [again] being a three-time Stanley Cup champion, his work ethic and quality of person that he is can be a really good thing for your team,” Laviolette said.


So … are the Rangers for real?

What the Rangers have done for the first 27 games is encouraging. But is it sustainable?

“The Rangers are funny. This year’s team feels like every other Rangers team of the past few years. They’re still relying on solid to great goaltending, a very strong power play, and some luck,” Younggren said. “At the very least, this season’s roster is fairly similar to those under Gallant; and it appears their players, for the most part, are doing what they’ve always done.”

But Younggren feels the Rangers’ record is a bit inflated when one looks under the hood at what they’re doing analytically, as well as what he considers to be an untenable record in one-goal games this season: 9-0-1, easily the best winning percentage in those situations in the league.

That doesn’t mean the wheels are going to come off for the Rangers, however.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume, given the consistent roster and previous performance, they can keep up a similar recipe of strong goaltending and power play success,” Younggren said. “It’s typically quite risky to rely on goaltending and shooting alone — without similarly strong shot-attempt and/or quality metrics to back those up — but the Rangers continue to do it.”

Plus, they’ve managed to thrive without Shesterkin dominating. Based on his career numbers, one assumes he’ll find his groove.

Obviously, Laviolette is pleased with his team’s place in the standings. But like his players, they have bigger successes in mind. What he wants to see are the Rangers playing the way they’ll need to play in order to thrive in the playoffs.

“You can’t just flip a switch. It has to be pushed on throughout the season so that it’s not something that you’re asking to change or flip a switch to play playoff hockey,” he said. “It’s so that you’re preparing yourself the whole year to play playoff hockey.”

That playoff push is fueled with a sense of urgency. Not only to erase last postseason’s disappointment, but because this roster wants to lift the Cup together.

“The core guys have been here for a while now. We have limited chances. That’s the reality of the sport,” Trouba said. “The time is now.”

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