The New York Rangers will fly up the standings from 21st to 8th, according to the predictions we published in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11. But does our assertion that the New York Rangers are the league's most improved team really stand up to objective analysis? Let's pop open the hood and see.
It actually shouldn't come as too big of a shock that our projection engine spit out the Rangers at 8th overall. After all, in today's NHL the difference between 21st and 8th is only 7 points, and does this really look like a team that finished in the bottom third last year?
Goals For 16th
Goals Against: 11th
Power Play: 13th
Penalty Kill: 7th
Blocked Shots: 11th
How could a team that essentially ranked above-average in every category finish in the bottom third of the league? Unfortunately the Rangers were 4-11 in overtime and the shootout, one of the league's worst records. Given that a team's overtime and Shootout record has almost no correlation to their skill, a statistical regression in this one area alone could almost explain their predicted improvement.
The leap from 21st to 8th is therefore not as large as you'd expect. With the right offseason moves it's easy to fathom the Rangers closing the gap between themselves and the league's best. The question is if they have made those key moves.
Addition by subtraction - that's what the Rangers have done here. By shedding several ill-advised contracts (Kotalik, Higgins) and non-producing tough guys (Shelley, Voros, Brashear), the Rangers would become a better team simply by bringing in replacement-level players.
Gone OGVT DGVT
Jody Shelley -0.5 0.9
Enver Lisin -0.2 0.9
Ales Kotalik 0.0 0.2
P.A. Parenteau -0.2 0.3
Aaron Voros -0.2 0.3
Christopher Higgins -1.4 1.4
Donald Brashear -1.9 -0.4
TOTAL: -4.4 3.6
When Jody Shelley is your biggest loss, you know you'll have a season without regret. While the departures of players like Lisin and Higgins have left them slightly weaker defensively, overall they're a better club already.
Net effect: Up 4.4 goals for, and 3.6 more goals against,
According to Tom Awad, the New York Rangers were one of maybe only two teams that added a legitimate top-six forward, Alexander Frolov, without losing any. They also added secondary scorers in veterans Ruslan Fedotenko and Todd White, both of whom had fantastic 2008-09 seasons suggesting strong potential upsides. Here are the VUKOTA projections for the newest Rangers.
New OGVT DGVT
Alexander Frolov 5.8 3.1
Ruslan Fedotenko 2.8 1.3
Todd White 3.0 0.9
Steve Eminger 1.0 2.4
Tim Kennedy 1.9 1.4
Brandon Prust -0.7 1.3
Derek Boogaard -1.5 0.6
TOTAL: 12.3 11.0
Alexander Frolov finally provides the Rangers a second forward who consistently scores at the top-six level of 1.8 even-strength points per 60 minutes or more and, like White and Fedotenko, he has a considerable upside, like the 2.8 he enjoyed in 2007-08.
Not only have the Rangers replaced the missing defense, but they've assembled a collection of defensively reliable role players that should easily inch them into the league's top ten.
As for the others, Tim Kennedy was a fine scorer in the AHL and earned 26 points in 78 games for the Sabres at age 23, while Kurt Sauer's younger brother Michael was +29 while playing the point in the AHL 2 years ago. Corey Pronman has Derek Stephan ranked #25 on his list of prospects, a list that also included Evgeny Grachev 39th and Chris Kreider 42nd.
There's no question that Frolov is the big bang here, but even without him the Rangers have added four players that each offer over 3.0 goals of value. If only Sather could resist the urge of having a non-producing tough guy like Boogaard on his roster, they'd be even better.
Net effect: Up 12.3 goals for, and 11.0 fewer goals against.
Even if the Ranger roster hadn't changed over these past few months, you could still have expected some overall improvement thanks to the steady progress of their wisely-collected core of young players, like Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle. The following table is a list of the remaining Ranger players and how our VUKOTA projection system sees their offensive and defensive contributions changing this upcoming season.
Change OGVT DGVT
Michael Del Zotto +1.3 +1.5
Ryan Callahan +3.6 -1.4
Artem Anisimov +0.8 +0.4
Brian Boyle +1.0 +0.2
Brandon Dubinsky +1.3 -1.0
Matt Gilroy -0.5 +0.8
Sean Avery -0.3 +0.5
Michal Rozsival +0.2 -0.5
Chris Drury +0.9 -1.6
Dan Girardi +0.1 -1.4
Erik Christensen -1.4 -0.4
Marian Gaborik -3.0 -0.6
Marc Staal -2.1 -2.2
TOTAL: +1.9 -5.7
Even if it had been left alone, the team would be expected to improve offensively, though it would come at the expense of their team defense.
Though some of them have better reputations than others, essentially there is only one New York Ranger forward who consistently scores at the top-six level, and that's Marian Gaborik. Gaborik got off to such a hot start last year that our own Timo Seppa practically broke into the Hall of Fame to engrave his name on the Hart. Hey - if Henrik Sedin can win it, who can blame Seppa for staring down the cold computational face of VUKOTA, and claim that skating alongside Frolov will be Gaborik's ultimate difference maker?
To supplement that offense, our VUKOTA projections indicate that Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Chris Drury are all poised to develop offensively and join Gaborik and the newly-arrived Frolov as top-six forwards. That means the number of top-six forwards will actually be six. That's a big improvement from one!
On the blue line Del Zotto impressed everyone with 37 points as a teenage rookie defenseman, but he was also -20 and should improve this year. Marc Staal, on the other hand, had such an amazing season that VUKOTA felt he had no option but to regress to the mean just like Gaborik. Overall many of those plusses balance out the minuses, leaving the Rangers essentially even, but a little more offensively minded.
Net effect: Up 1.9 goals for, but 5.7 more goals against.
The Rangers picked up veteran Martin Biron, who averaged 15.5 GVT his last two years with the Flyers before a disappointing season with the Islanders (-8.0 GVT). Regardless of how far back he bounces, he'll certainly be a more reliable back up than the departed Chad Johnson or Alex Auld.
Chad Johnson 1.1
Alex Auld -2.8
Martin Biron 2.7
Henrik Lundqvist is coming off a strong season, earning 25.7 GVT, giving him a whopping 131.6 over the past 5 seasons. His worst season was 16.3, but VUKOTA has him pegged for 14.0, which essentially negates the advantage of having Biron, and then some. While it is fair to say that Lundqvist's performance will start to decline eventually, will it be so soon and so fast?
Net effect: 7.3 more goals against.
Adding everything up, the Rangers look to gain 19 goals of extra offense, at the cost of only 6 more goals against. Those 13 goals, along with a regression to the mean of their shootout and overtime record, could easily vault them into 8th.
Players that left +4.4 -3.6
New Players +12.3 +11.0
Player change +1.9 -5.7
TOTAL: +18.6 -5.6
Even with the pessimistic view that Lundqvist's decline will begin in earnest, that Marc Staal's development will stall (for the lack of a better word) and the downright heresy that Gaborik will regress to the mean, the Rangers are still a significantly improved club. Now imagine what would happen if they catch the upside of one of their unpredictable forwards or flashy young prospects?
At the risk of sounding like Columbo, just one more thing...
Before we close the book on this case, what about the news that Wade Redden will be playing the AHL for cap reasons, and the unfortunate fluke injury that could knock Vinny Prospal out the lineup for the entire season? The VUKOTA projection wasn't aware of these two losses, so how far back do we have to scale our expectations?
Out OGVT DGVT
Vinny Prospal 5.9 3.1
Wade Redden 0.5 3.9
Even on a team known for massive overpayment of mediocre talent, Wade Redden somehow managed to stand out. It's sad that a good hockey player has to ply his trade in the AHL or in European leagues simply because of a bloated contract, but there you have it. Redden is one of their key penalty killers, which will further aggravate the potential increase in goals against, or at least it puts more pressure on Lundqvist to stay strong for one more season.
As for Prospal, his injury essentially negates the acquisition of Alexander Frolov, given that they're of roughly comparable value both offensively and defensively.
Net effect: Down 6.4 goals for, and 7 more goals against.
The addition of Alexander Frolov and secondary scorers Ruslan Fedotenko and Todd White, the continued development of younger players like Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov, along with improved back up goaltending behind Henrik Lundqvist and not to mention cleaning out Sather's various mistakes like Ales Kotalik, Christopher Higgins and all the goons, have left the Rangers a significantly improved hockey team.
Unfortunately the loss of Prospal and Redden negates at least some of that improvement, leaving the fate of this Rangers team in the same hands they were last season: Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist. A simple regression of their overtime and shootout record is not enough to crack the top ten, and another strong season from both of New York's stars is mandatory if the Rangers hope to leverage their improved lineup and truly become one of the Stanley Cup's plausible dark horses.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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