Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Quick thoughts on tonight's lineup

As per morning skate, the Rangers' lines today are:

Duclair - St. Louis - Nash
Kreider - Brassard - Stempniak
Hagelin - Hayes - Zuccarello
Malone - Moore - Glass

McDonagh / Girardi
Staal / Kostka
Moore / Klein

This is kind of halfway from what we were doing to what we should be doing. The first line is right. The second line keeps Kreider on Brassard's wing, which is great, but it leaves Stempniak up there even though Zuccarello is back. I'm trying to justify that, when Kreider-Brass-Zucc is the line we should be trying out. If it's one of those "the dude was out with an injury, and he's still a little sore, so play him lower in the lineup" things, then fuck that noise. It's the 4th game of the season, he should be resting until he's fully healed. If not, then why leave Stempniak up there? He's been good, but he's not going to be a better scorer than Zuccarello.

Hayes is in for Miller at center, which I wrote yesterday was what I wanted to see happen, so I can't complain about Hagelin - Hayes. And Malone is finally in on left wing on the 4th line, which is also great, so I can't complain about Malone - Moore. But - what's this - Malone didn't replace Glass at all! Glass shifted over to right wing! That's not even his natural side! When I said I wanted Hayes in for Miller, it was with Miller over at the wing. In this current lineup, either Miller or Fast would work just fine at that 4th line left wing spot (or 3rd line and drop Stempniak to 4th - either is fine). But we're so committed to Tanner Glass that we're willing to take him off his natural side just to sit Jesper Fast and JT Miller instead of him.

This tweet from Adam Herman basically says everything you need to know about this lineup decision.

On defense, AV brought in Kostka for Hunwick, which is totally reasonable and aligned with what I talked about yesterday. But he moved him up to be Staal's partner, putting Moore back with Klein. The only way I can justify this is that he wants Moore and Klein to get more time with each other and gel as a pair, so he's leaving the "fill-in guy" up with Staal until Boyle returns. But on a team where there's not a lot of justifiable difference among defensemen 5-8 (or 5-10), I don't know how much I buy that.

In conclusion, this is mostly okay modulo a couple of kind of weird decisions, except for the part where Tanner Glass makes the lineup at right wing over JT Miller and Jesper Fast, which is a stone cold crazy pants nonsense idea.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Taking early stock three games in

We should start with the good news: we're 1-2, not 0-3. But man, this team hasn't exactly looked great through 3 games in which it has given up 13 goals. Before we get into it, let's be clear: these are the reigning Eastern Conference champions, 3 games into an 82-game season, missing their big off-season defensive acquisition, their top center, and their leading scorer from last season. So it's hard to call things bad with any reasonable degree of veracity. We don't have to put any more stock into this start than we do into the Islanders' 2-0 start. And, like, I think maybe last season might not have started so well either or something? And it kinda went okay?

That said, the Rangers looked pretty bad this week, and we can try to draw some conclusions about changes we could be making to improve the team, both for now and for after we have any of our players back. So, what's been going wrong?

We'll skip goaltending 'cause it's pretty moot. Lundqvist is a known quantity, and a bad showing last night doesn't change that. Talbot is, as far as we know, a reliable backup. His .941 through 21 games last season is probably not sustainable, but we can only make decisions based on the knowledge we have, so Talbot is the right guy to go with as a backup for now.

Dan Boyle being out has definitely hurt this team's defensive corps, as you would expect it to. We basically brought him in to replace Anton Stralman, and we can't expect Boyle being out 4-6 weeks to hurt any less than losing Stralman for the same period would have last season. Also, last night, Ryan McDonagh was pretty noticeably bad, and we shouldn't expect that to last. "First night at the Garden as Captain" isn't the best explanation, but it's better than "Ryan McDonagh secretly got bad at hockey this August," so I'm not so worried about the top pair on this team.

Boyle's injury does expose some depth issues on defense, which I think is interesting, given that last season we felt like we had good defensive depth, and nothing has substantively changed. I see 3 possible reasons for this. 1) We were all pretending John Moore was better at hockey than he actually was. Last season is kind of a blur, but I'm pretty sure I remember liking Kevin Klein more than I liked Moore, and I have been very unimpressed by Moore so far this season. A quick look at his numbers, though, tells me I'm full of shit: Moore's CF% away from Klein last season was 52.9%, and Klein's away from Moore was 45.9% (together, they posted 49.7%). So has Moore been worse in these few games so far? It's hard to use possession statistics meaningfully in a 3-game sample, but Moore is already a Corsi -10 on the season, which doesn't feel great. Conclusion: it's only been 3 games, maybe Moore is better than this.

2) Matt Hunwick really is that much worse than Raphael Diaz. This is my father's theory, and I have trouble believing it, on the grounds of "how much does either of these guys really matter?" But, honestly, I did like Diaz in the very brief time we saw him for last season, and I have not liked Hunwick in the equally brief time so far, so maybe this is contributing. 3) We have less faith in Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath than we did last season. I don't know why this would be true, but both came up and played games last season while we had defensemen out, and neither made the cut over Hunwick or Kostka this time around. If this is contributing to the defensive problem, then it's not actually a depth issue: we still have Allen and McIlrath in the system, and we could still bring them up at any time.

Overall defensive conclusion: stay the course for now. Our top guys are bound to right things a bit, it's at certainly plausible that Moore will improve, and Boyle will surely be back. If things remain bleak for a meaningful period of time, we've got Allen and McIlrath (and Kostka) waiting in the wings to challenge these guys' spots.

So what's been going wrong up front? It's hard to talk about this team's issues without starting down the middle. With Stepan out, Vigneault started the season with St. Louis at center and with Miller in as well (let's call those the two "experiments," with Brassard and Moore known effective centers). Though he clearly hasn't been as comfortable there as he is on his natural position at right wing, St. Louis has actually taken to centering better than I expected. He has already accumulated a Corsi +19 on a team with an overall Corsi -11. He's picked up faceoffs quickly: after going 4 for 11 in St. Louis, he went 7 for 16 in Columbus, and then 8 for 10 last night. And, somewhat improbably, his line has been responsible for 6 of the Rangers' 8 goals this season while only being on the ice for 1 of the 13 goals against. So if you hate Corsi for some reason (again, +19 on a team that is -11), St. Louis's on-ice goal differential is +5 on a team that is -5. Not too problematic, as a fill-in.

JT Miller, on the other hand, still seems to be riding the "potential" train. Despite 56 games over the course of the last 2 seasons, in which Miller was thoroughly mediocre (with the exception of Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore, who skew the numbers because their zone starts without him were so much harder than their zone starts with him, he brought down the Corsi of literally every linemate he had in those games except Taylor Pyatt, Brandon Mashinter, and Jeff Halpern), all anyone talks about is how he's going to be our next Chris Kreider. Maybe he is - 56 games is probably not enough to judge the trajectory of a 21-year-old's career - but he certainly hasn't looked good to me yet, at all. His Corsi actually looks better than his play has to me: in the 2 games he was in the middle so far this season, he accumulated a Corsi of +9 (due mostly to a surprising +7 in Columbus), but that doesn't really pass my smell test given how often I see him out of position, and while Corsi is certainly a better long-term indicator of success than goal differential, it doesn't exactly surprise me that he's been on the ice for just 1 of the Rangers' 8 goals and for 5 of their 13 goals against. And for a natural centerman, I'd like to see him do better than his current 9/23 on faceoffs.

Last night, in Zuccarello's absence, Vigneault took the opportunity to move Miller back over to the wing and bring up Kevin Hayes. Hayes looked to me to be much more solid in the position than Miller had been (though his 2/12 faceoff success was not thrilling), and he matched St. Louis for a team-high Corsi +9 for the game. At least for now, I'm prepared to agree with Vigneault's apparent inclination that Hayes is a better fit in the middle than Miller. Logically, then, when Zuccarello returns, it seems to me that he should replace Miller in the lineup, rather than Zuccarello's return forcing a worse center back to the middle. My fear is that Vigneault will return Miller to the middle when Zucc comes back, because he's the guy who we're "supposed to be developing there" - if Hayes is better, Hayes should play. If Hayes turns out to not be good, Miller is still around. But some days, I think I'm watching a different JT Miller than everyone else seems to be.

Down the wing, it's hard to have a ton of complaints about personnel. Duclair is a great fit pretty much anywhere, and the idea of him being up with linemates like St. Louis and/or Nash is pretty exciting. I wrote here that Hagelin with Brassard and Zuccarello seemed like a silly experiment, and a few games in, I'm not deterred. Kreider with Brassard, as he was last night, and Zuccarello, once he's back, is just a smarter fit. That leaves Hagelin and Duclair to be the fast, exciting left wingers on the other 2 of the top 3 lines. Stempniak has been great for us so far: he was the only non-Nash forward to have a good game in Columbus, and he's put together a Corsi +11 so far. Obviously, Rick Nash is the best.

Which brings us inexorably to the wings on the 4th line: Jesper Fast and Tanner Glass. Fast and Duclair were mentioned in the same breath a lot during the preseason, but it never seemed to me like they were really on the same level. He may be wasted in 4th-line situations or with a linemate like Glass (who isn't?), but of the non-Glass forwards, he's easily the odd man out to me right now. If reconstructing lines makes him go away for a while, I won't be that sad.

Speaking of people whose disappearances won't make me sad, what weird reality keeps Tanner Glass in this lineup and Ryan Malone in the press box? Glass, whose past performances in the NHL can easily all be described as awful, has defied expectations so far this season by being merely bad. Even in games like our two losses so far, wherein every Ranger forward looks bad, Glass stands out as a step or three slower than everyone else. His Corsi -17 is even worse than it sounds, as he's used in much easier situations than his 4th-line compatriots (last night, for example, Glass's relative offensive zone start percentage was actually positive, at 22.04%, compared to Dominic Moore's of -75.00%). He's out there shitting up the penalty kill, even!

When Glass was signed, he was praised (by the very few who were willing to praise him) for his "willingness to drop the gloves." You and I already knew that wasting a lineup spot - of which you only get 12 - on a guy who's only job is to punch and be punched is fucking crazy. But even if we use the power of our imaginations to create a false world in which fighting actually affects a game's outcome - even if "willingness to be punched in the head sometimes" were somehow a "skill" that got us closer to winning the Stanley Cup - even then, Glass's first 3 games as a Ranger would be an indisputable failure. In St. Louis, it was last season's leading scorer, Mats Zuccarello, who was willing to get his ass kicked for his team. In Columbus, when some Jacket took an uncalled run at Zuccarello's head, it was offensive powerhouse Chris Krieder who jumped in and defended his teammate, ultimately serving 17 minutes in the box for it. So far, all Glass has done is take an unprompted flying leap at David Clarkson's head toward the boards, miss, and not get called for it.

If the Rangers had won all 3 of these games, Tanner Glass would still have been a waste of a spot, but I could justify Vingeault leaving him there solely on the (still pretty false) basis that "you don't mess with success." Things being as they are, though, there is absolutely no excuse for Vigneault to leave Glass in the lineup while saying he "doesn't yet know what to do with" Ryan Malone. Malone is likely not the answer to our problems, but he certainly has the potential to do more to help the team with that 12th lineup spot than Tanner Glass has done.

Islanders Tuesday, Hurricanes Thursday, Sharks Sunday to finish up this 4-game homestand. If I ran things, I'd make the Malone/Glass change effective immediately and shift the other forwards around when Zucc returns (he's day-to-day). No reason to blow everything up after a couple of terrible games; but no reason, either, to keep employing Tanner Glass. Also no good goddamn reason to lose to the Islanders, ever, so maybe do everything you can to make the lineup good enough to not lose to the Islanders.

Oh PS Rick Nash is a dad now.

Let's Go Rangers!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

In which Yom Kippur prevents me from proving how clever I am

So, the Rangers' last 2 preseason games were on Kol Nidre and the night at the end of Yom Kippur. So I recorded them, and I avoided news, as I watched them Sunday into Monday, I formed opinions and made notes about who I thought should get cut, who I thought was going to get cut, etc. Then I went to start posting about it and realized it had all already happened, because I was 2 days behind reality.

This is disappointing because I was going to post a whole bunch of predictions, and then they basically all came true, and I was going to look so smart you guys. Here's how smart I was going to look.

Obviously, I and everyone else on the planet were going to be right about the goalies, who were always going to be Lundqvist and Talbot, and are.

On defense, I never expected Conor Allen to be cut as early as he was (prior to these two games), but I definitely would have said that McIlrath, Kampfer, and Kostka (along with the more obvious Bodie, Hughes, and Zamorsky) were all going to be cut, and since it wasn't going to be Allen, I would have said that Hunwick was going to be the 7th D-man. Kostka, like his numbersake before him, looked too inconsistent - higher highs and lower lows - and what you want from a 7th defenseman (and, I'd argue, the previous 6) is consistency. Anyway, Hunwick is the 7th D; hooray.

Up front, skipping the obvious roster locks (Brassard, Hagelin, Kreider, Moore, Nash, St. Louis, Stempniak, Stepan, Zuccarello) left 12 forwards at camp going into these two games: Duclair, Fast, Glass, Haggerty, Hayes, Hrivik, Lindberg, Lombardi, Malone, Miller, Mueller, and Potulny. With Stepan starting the season on Long-Term Injured Reserve, and the team likely to carry two extra forwards, that meant half of those 12 were going to make the team. I was going to write about how everyone's new favorite Duke, Anthony Duclair, was of course going to make the team after his phenomenal preseason, and how Jesper Fast was more quietly impressive as well. I was going to say that Malone was impressive in his limited non-injured time, and that Glass was making too much money to not be put on the roster. I was going to complain about that last thing quite a lot. With our woes down the middle, we were obviously going to count on a big season from JT "Not TJ" Miller, leaving 1 spot for the remaining 7 forwards. I was going to say that the two players most likely to fill that spot were the centers Kevin Hayes and Chris Mueller. I was going to be right about all of those things.

Then I was going to be a little wrong again, claiming that I believed that Mueller deserved that spot over Hayes. I liked Mueller's reliable play in camp, but Vigneault's team is choosing to go with the potential of youth instead. When Hayes was deemed healthy enough to not put onto Injured Reserve, the Rangers sent Mueller down on waivers. So it goes.

So that was going to finalize the Rangers' roster at 24 (with Stepan on LTIR to hit the maximum of 23):
Forwards: Brassard, Duclair, Fast, Glass, Hagelin, Hayes, Kreider, Malone, Miller, Moore, Nash, St. Louis, Stempniak, Stepan, Zuccarello
Defensemen: Boyle, Girardi, Hunwick, Klein, McDonagh, Moore, Staal
Goalies: Lundqvist, Talbot

Then I was going to talk about the lineup for opening night. I was going to be very, very wrong about it. But in fairness to me, that's because it's kind of a stupid lineup.

The defensive pairs are what you'd expect (McDonagh/Girardi; Staal/Boyle; Moore/Klein). If it were me, McD would play with Boyle, and Girardi would play with Staal. That would give Boyle the opportunity to be big and create offensive opportunity while our best roving defenseman (and new captain) covers for him, and it would reunite another extremely effective shutdown pair in Girardi and Staal. If your number two pair is Girardi and Staal, you're doing something right. But we knew that wasn't going to happen, because Vigneault likes his second pair to be "offensively minded," while his best two defensemen (no doubt G and McD) play in the first pair.

(Also if it were me, Moore's spot would probably be heavily contested by Hunwick (and Conor Allen)).

It's up front where shit gets weird. Here's the lineup we'll see tonight in St. Louis:

Kreider - St. Louis - Nash
Hagelin - Brassard - Zuccarello
Duclair - Miller - Stempniak
Glass - Moore - Fast

This is kinda really dumb, I think? Let's assume that Kevin Hayes (and, by extension, Chris Mueller) is really not ready to play. Let's assume that therefore, with Stepan out, you've decided you have to move St. Louis to center.

Actually, can we pause for a second and admire how far into this post I got before making a "St. Louis in St. Louis" joke? Thanks.

So, let's assume you've decided that that's the best way to move forward with this roster. That's fine, I don't hate that argument. It moves a great right wing to a position where he's weaker, but it gives a spot to a guy like Jesper Fast over Kevin Hayes, so I get it. But given that, here are my three issues.

1) Brassard and Zuccarello are a good pair in search of a left wing. Preferably a big, puck-controlling left wing, like they had last season, who can use his size to go in deep and protect the puck while Brassard does clever things with it and Zuccarello skates circles around everyone. Like, for example, Chris Kreider, whom they've had on their wing in multiple preseason games in which they were effective. Meanwhile, St. Louis, who has a big, strong, puck carrier on his right in Nash, could use someone very, very fast on his left. Rumor is that Brassard asked to be playing with Hags, which I guess holds some weight? But I'd have to be convinced to keep it this way for too long, and I have to assume that, by the time Stepan is back, if this line isn't clicking, Vigneault will switch it around.

2) I don't want this space to become "shit on Tanner Glass" central, but how does he make the lineup while Ryan Malone sits on the bench? I came into camp pretty discouraged about both of them, but Malone, in his injury-limited camp time, looked big and fast and smart and impressive. Glass was invisible except when punching or being punched. I can't justify why Glass plays with Malone on the bench unless a) his salary justifies his lineup spot b) Vigneault wants him around because of past experience in Vancouver c) the game we are playing is some weird derivative of hockey where you win by punching and/or being punched. This team had some heavy competition for forwards making the roster out of camp at all; on a team with that kind of talent up front, it's inexcusable to waste one of your only 12 lineup spots.

3) Last season, the 4th line was a real asset to the team, which is what people say when a 4th line is effective at all and can be trusted to possess the puck like a normal line. That line was, generally speaking, Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, and whoever. I'm a pretty big fan of building a 4th line like that again, and Moore is the right center for it again. Putting aside that I'm interpreting "Tanner Glass" to mean "Ryan Malone," we've got 3 more wings left in the lineup: Duclair, Stempniak, and Fast. We've got 3 more spots: two on a 3rd line centered by JT Miller, and one on that "effective at having the puck" line centered by Dominic Moore. Do you see where I'm going with this? Doesn't it seem like a no-brainer to put Duclair and Fast, who worked together very well in the preseason, around Miller, and put Stempniak with Moore where he can be a part of that reliable 4th line?


I'm a little concerned that Vigneault's lineup suffers a bit from the John Tortorella school of promotion: the top 3 forwards make the top line, and so on down the list. All of which is to say, here is what my opening night lineup would look like:

Hagelin - St. Louis - Nash
Kreider - Brassard - Zuccarello
Duclair - Miller - Fast
Malone - Moore - Stempniak

Doesn't that sound better? Am I crazy? What would your opening night lineup look like?

PS HOCKEY IS BACK, O FRABJOUS DAY

Thursday, September 25, 2014

First roster cuts

From the 63 players initially invited to camp, 20 were cut today following an afternoon prospect game, as expected. Without going into the list of who was cut (again, such things are readily available), that leaves us a much more manageable 43 players. To continue with my annual tradition of long lists of players at camp that I really just maintain for my own sake and then put online because it's as good a place as any, I hope today to organize them in a way that makes it clear how they got here, because I think it will help me see, really, who's competing for which spots.

Forwards (25)

Rangers from last season (10): Derick Brassard, Jesper Fast, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Dominic Moore, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello.
Of these guys, only Fast and Miller aren't obvious locks to make the team, and with the Rangers' center shortage (NB: Stepan is out 4-6 weeks starting today) and Vigneault's high praise of his game Monday, Miller's got a very good shot as well (I seem to be the only person who isn't 100% on board there). But even discounting Miller, that leaves 4 lineup openings, plus 1-2 "extras."

"Veterans" who signed in the off-season (7): Tanner Glass, Matthew Lombardi, Ryan Malone, Chris Mueller, Ryan Potulny, Lee Stempniak, Nick Tarnasky.
Stempniak is a virtual lock, and given all reports about him and how well he played Monday night, I have to imagine Malone is as well. Mueller and Lombardi are both possible options at center, especially if Miller doesn't happen to make the cut. Even if Stepan were healthy, one of those 3 would almost certainly skate on opening night; quite possibly, two will. Failing that, Potulny and Tarnasky, like Mueller, are centers who have been back and forth between the NHL and AHL, but each is less likely to make the team: unlike Lombardi and Mueller, who are on 1-way deals with the Rangers, Tarnasky is on a 2-way deal, and Potulny is signed only to the Wolf Pack. Anyway, whichever two additional centers make it, plus the 8 mentioned above, plus Stempniak and Malone already makes 12. But, of course, that includes Stepan, and the Rangers will likely carry at least 13 forwards, so that still leaves 1-2 spots open for Glass, who is definitely a possibility, given the coach's past affections for him.

Prospects who were around last year, too (6): Ryan Bourque, Anthony Duclair, Ryan Haggerty, Marek Hrivik, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg.
In this space, you have heard about Bourque, Duclair, Hrivik, Kristo, and Lindberg multiple times in previous years in this space before, as well as a bit about Bourque and Kristo from their performances Monday night. Haggerty's a weird case whose name you may have heard without knowing why: we signed the 21-year-old on March 12 of this year, a week after the trade deadline, to an entry-level deal, beating other teams to him on the contingency that he'd spend the season on the Rangers' roster. That's right, 2013-'14 was technically Haggerty's rookie season. (Of course, he never played.) I'm excited to see some of Duclair, Hrivik, Lindberg, and Haggerty in the coming week or two, and I have to imagine each of these 6 guys has a similar long shot at the squad.

New prospects (2): Chris Bourque, Kevin Hayes.
We covered Bourque's off-season signing; Hayes's was a little different in that he was a Blackhawks draft pick in 2010 - their first-round pick, actually - but they never signed him. So, when his rights expired this off-season, we grabbed him up. I have to imagine that Hayes, a center, has a better chance of making the team than Bourque, but both are likely in the same boat as all 6 prospects in the previous category. Again, we're only one preseason game into camp; some of this is necessarily unclear.

Defensemen (14):

Rangers from last season (7): Conor Allen, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, John Moore, Marc Staal.
Did you guys remember that Dylan McIlrath played 2 games for us last season? I sure didn't. But I remembered that Conor Allen did! Cause I love me some Conor Allen, you guys. The other five guys on this list are pretty obvious locks to make the team, with Moore as a low-possibility exception, leaving only 1 regular roster spot (which will be filled by Dan Boyle, whom we'll list in a second). So the competition is really just for the 7th (and possibly 8th) defender(s). Allen no doubt has a better shot than McIlrath at that, but again, who knows?

"Veterans" who signed in the off-season (4): Dan Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Steven Kampfer, Michael Kostka.
Obviously, Boyle fills in the remaining top 6 spot. Hunwick, Kampfer, and Kostka are all possible depth options, but none appears to be impressing enough to give Moore an actual challenge for his spot; also, if we put stock in what we saw Monday night, I cannot imagine Kostka being a viable option, and the Hunwick-Kampfer pair apparently had a Corsi of -10. That's in one game, folks.

Prospects who were around last year, too (1): Tommy Hughes.
You may remember Hughes from last off-season. Weirdly, he's the only defenseman left at camp who was in the Rangers' system a year ago but who didn't play an NHL game last season. I'm excited to see him play later this week.

New prospects (2): Mat Bodie, Petr Zamorsky.
I missed both these signings in my AHL report, I don't know anything about these kids, and it would be irresponsible and useless to make guesses. We'll probably see them play hockey next week, though.

Goalies (4):

Rangers from last season (3): Henrik Lundqvist, Jason Missiaen, Cam Talbot.
Missiaen makes this list despite not yet having played an NHL game because he backed up Lundqvist a few times last season, and you should have heard of him by now. Regardless, if we thought the shot of a new defenseman making the team was bleak, the goalie situation makes Tommy Hughes's chances at the NHL look like Ernie Els's chances of making par at the putt-putt. (You guys I think I just made a golf joke. Is putt-putt a thing you call mini golf? Is Ernie Els a golfer? I think so, to both!) Lundqvist and Talbot will start the season on the roster, the other two guys won't. This is the easiest prediction in the world.

"Veterans" who signed in the off-season (1): Cedrick Desjardins.
Desjardins only has 9 NHL games' experience, all with Tampa, spread across 3 seasons in 4 years. But he's 28, so I think it's fair to put him in the "veterans" category instead of the prospects category. There's not much to say about him, as the goalie situation is set, but it may be worth noting that Wikipedia says his nickname is "Cedrick the Entertainer."

So that's the whole 43-man list left at camp. It's helpful to me, if not to you. After 3 nights off, the Rangers will play 3 preseason games in 5 nights, starting Friday night in Chicago and ending with a home-and-home against the Flyers Monday and Tuesday. In those 3 games, we should see everyone on the 43-man list that we didn't see Monday night at least once, except Stepan, of course. Some we will see more than that. After these games, on Wednesday, October 1, Vigneault plans to make the next round of cuts. So, until then, there's more sorta-hockey!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

It's hockey again!

Happy preseason! There are over 60 people at training camp right now, so I'm not gonna list the whole...uh...list yet. The first round of cuts will come after Wednesday's prospects game, after which I'll go through whoever's left. Meanwhile, full camp rosters are available basically everywhere, if you're interested. For now, in this space, some very quick observations on tonight's loss to the pre-Devils.

Besides the obvious: that even if it's just the preseason, even when the game features ding-dongs like Steven Kampfer and Damon Severson, it always sucks to lose to the Devils because fuck the Devils.

First two lines: (notwithstanding Kreider and St. Louis) What everyone said about Danny Kristo and new prospect Kevin Hayes was nice and clear: they had some really nice offensive looks together, and they each took a dumb penalty. I really kinda liked the line as a whole, but it's also clear why people are saying they need more time to mature.

Matthew Lombardi was completely adequate: while he didn't do anything to impress me, he was in the right position most of the time, and I'd be willing to see him again.

The most exciting forward for me, though, was Ryan Malone, in whom I had very little hope going into tonight, as you know. I was, as they say, pleasantly surprised. He was unexpectedly fast throughout the night, and he kept putting his big body in front of the net, but that didn't get him caught out of position going the other way. If this is actually what he's capable of, then I might actually be interested in seeing him on the team. But, I mean, it was one game, so I'm not getting carried away.

Back two lines: (notwithstanding Hagelin) J.T. Miller, despite two assists on the board, was as inconsistent as ever, and in my opinion, he was outplayed tonight by a couple of people with no NHL experience competing for his spot.

The first was linemate Ryan Bourque, wearing #25 (wait, I thought we retired #25?), who made more standout plays than Miller. Had I never heard of either, Miller's performance would have been the forgettable one of the two prospects, and I'd like to see more of Bourque.

The second was center Chris Mueller, the one who played 9 games as a Star last season. Mueller repeatedly did very smart things with the puck, and if I had to decide based on one game, this team whose best centers are Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, and Dominic Moore would add Mueller to that list before they added Miller to it.

Beyond that were two forgettable fourth-line wings: Jesper Fast, quiet until his rocket of an equalizer in the 3rd, and Tanner Glass, who exceeded my expectations by not somehow setting the Jumbotron on fire (Glass was, as I said, forgettable, which means he was not egregiously bad).

Defense: (notwithstanding Staal and Moore) Dan Boyle was unsurprisingly very good. The question, of course, is whether or not he will be flagging by February. If he spends the whole season as good as he has been, he will be a great asset, at best a more consistent Stralman. He did some clever things with his stick and he was never a step behind, and he seemed to have the puck more than he didn't have it.

On the other end of the spectrum was Mike Kostka, whose numbers were good in 19 post-deadline games with the Bolts last season. Dude had a bad night. Surely he's better than he was tonight - he would almost have to be - but if we judge these players by their preseason performances, Kostka did some very bad things for his career development tonight. He got beaten on what seemed like every single puck battle, notwithstanding how few battles he was involved in because he kept getting beaten in races. Seriously, what a bad night.

I feel about Matt Hunwick exactly the same way I said I feel about Matthew Lombardi: I previously referred to both as "AHL moves," but both were notably adequate, to the point that I'd like to see both in further preseason games.

Hunwick's partner, up-and-down prospect Steven Kampfer (new to the Rangers this year), was as forgettable as Fast and Glass, doing nothing to help his case.

To summarize, here's what I thought of the 20 dressed Rangers tonight:

Already Rangers Last Season: Kreider, St. Louis, Hagelin, Miller, Staal, Moore, Lundqvist, Talbot

Impressive Additions: Malone, Boyle
Cautious Optimism about: Hayes, Kristo, Bourque, Mueller
I'd Need to See More of: Lombardi, Hunwick
Completely Forgettable: Glass, Fast, Kampfer
Really Awful: Kostka

Next preseason game isn't until Friday, but we have the mid-week cuts to look forward to, after which the camp list will likely be a bit more manageable.

I knew I missed hockey, but until watching the game tonight, I didn't really realize how much I missed hockey.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In with the new-ish

When we last left our intrepid team-builders, the Rangers had, if we over-simplify the situation a bit, saved $19.5 million by giving up Richards, Dorsett, Boyle, Falk, Pouliot, and Stralman. Significant losses, but justified. The naive fan might believe that this indicated a commitment, or at least an intention, to not overspend on players you don't need. To follow the model of absolutely every currently successful NHL team: identify your key pieces, spend the necessary money to commit to them, let the rest walk, and fill the space with the kids coming up through your system, who will develop next to great players on a winning team while costing you little enough that you can afford said great players.

Of course, Glen Sather, while quite possibly smarter than he was 5 years ago, doesn't appear ready to go all the way there. He has agreed to 9 NHL contracts since the off-season began, and they're a pretty healthy mix, spanning the gamut from "solid, inexpensive pickup" all the way to WAT.

Let's start with the restricted free agents. We already covered that Justin Falk was not qualified, but our other 4 NHL RFAs were. Recall that an RFA is not free to negotiate with other teams as long as his current team offers him a 1-year deal at his minimum qualifying offer (calculated based on his previous salary). The player has no negotiating power unless he qualifies for arbitration: a process in which a neutral third party determines a new qualifying offer value based on other NHL contracts of players comparable to him. Of course, the player and the team are free to come to any terms they choose, whether or not he qualifies for arbitration, but if the arbitration date is reached, they must abide by the arbitrator's decision. If the team doesn't want the player at his qualifying offer, he immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent (as in the case of Falk), and so remains for the rest of his career.

Prior to July 1, the Rangers qualified all their NHL RFAs other than Falk: Derick Brassard at $3.7m, Mats Zuccarello at $1.15m, Chris Kreider at $850,000, and John Moore at $850,500. No complaints so far: all four of these players deserve at least 1-year deals at that value. Unsurprisingly, the 3 of the 4 that did qualify for arbitration (all of them except J.Mo) filed for it, thinking they could get more. In all 3 cases, arbitration was avoided, which is generally regarded as a good thing.

In fact, a lot of these deals went very well. The Rangers did exactly what they should have with Moore: because he had no leverage, they waited until they got everyone else locked up before eventually signing him to exactly his qualifying offer: 1 year at $850,000. That literally couldn't have gone better. Meanwhile, Sather got to work on the three arbitration-eligible RFAs. Kreider ultimately agreed to the Rangers' now-standard bridge contract: an entry-level forward who makes a big difference to the team gets a 2-year deal at $2-3 million per year as a good-faith trial before possibly signing a longer, bigger money deal. When Brandon Dubinsky's and Ryan Callahan's entry-level contracts ended in the off-season of 2009, Sather signed each to a 2-year deal: Dubi at $1.85m per year, Cally at $2.3m per. When Carl Hagelin's and Derek Stepan's entry-level deals expired in 2013, we signed two more 2-year deals: Hagelin at $2.25m per, and Stepan at $3.075m per. These deals are win-win: the player sees a meaningful upgrade from his qualifying offer and a solid commitment, and the Rangers don't get burned long-term on someone who might fizzle out. Kreider's new deal, 2 years at $2.475 million per year, is perfect.

Zuccarello, who led the team in points and posted a zone start-adjusted CF% of 53.3%, was obviously due for a raise over his qualifying offer, and probably not an insignificant one. So the Rangers came out ahead on this one, somehow getting Zucc to agree to only one year at $3.5 million. It's commonly accepted that Zuccarello was willing to take a smaller contract than he could have gotten elsewhere because he wants to stay in New York - indeed, before his return to the NHL, he had said that the Rangers were the only team he'd want to come back and play for. So... lucky us? Let's hope that bigger contracts given to worse players don't spoil that sentiment when we try to re-up him again next year?

Anyway, that's a whole lot of not bad. Let's move on to some decisions that may have been not good. Derick Brassard saw a huge raise and a long term, signing for 5 years at $5 million per year. On its own, that contract may not be too much over what it should be. But, remember in the last post, when we mused that the Rangers didn't want to commit $4 million a year for 5 years to Pouliot, because he was a 3rd-liner who may only have been as good as his linemates? And then when we offered Zuccarello one year? I'm not saying Brassard was necessarily less valuable than the other two guys, but how does he make bank while Zucc gets a year and Pouliot walks? It's inconsistent. Whether or not it pans out is anybody's guess: I'm curious to see how all three of those guys look this season. But it's weird.

Speaking of weird and inconsistent, let's dive into the only off-season changes we haven't covered yet: the signings of 6 new free agents to fill out the roster. We'll start with a contract that, like Brassard's, is problematic more by comparison than on its own: the signing of veteran defenseman Dan Boyle to a 2-year deal at $4.5 million per year. Boyle has been a very good defensemen in his career, most recently posting a CF% of 53.3% last season while burdened with a significantly less impressive partner (his pairing with Matt Irwin had a 51.9%, while Boyle away from Irwin had a 54.8% and Irwin away from Boyle had a 47.7%). To be sure, if Boyle has another season like he did last year, he'll be a real asset to the team.

But another thing that happened this off-season was Dan Boyle's 38th birthday. While that alone doesn't make this a bad move, it does draw a stark contrast to the contract we didn't sign with Anton Stralman for 5 years at the exact same annual value. Boyle's success has been more consistent than Stralman's, as he's been in the league for longer, but we've got Boyle from ages 38-40, as opposed to Stralman from 28-33. Again, signing one while letting the other walk is, at the very least, weird.

For completeness's sake, let's move on to the two guys I don't have opinions on: right wing Chris Mueller and defenseman Mike Kostka. Mueller attempted 15 shots in 80:24 across 9 games last season as a Star, and is probably a long shot to make the lineup. Kostka could turn out to be a 3rd-pair option, playing 19 games for the Lightning last season after being claimed off of waivers on February 23 and posting a 51.9% CF% in that time, almost a full percentage point above Tampa's average. We signed them both to 1-year trial value contracts: Mueller for $600,000 and Kostka for $650,000. Low risk, valid moves, and I'm excited to take a look at Kostka in the preseason. Let's move on.

We signed two other contracts for under a million bucks each this off-season, one of which made any sense. I am cautiously optimistic about our $900,000 deal for Lee Stempniak, a right wing the Penguins acquired at the trade deadline last season to address their badly lacking third line. It seemed to me at the time to be a smart move for the Pens, and I had the impression that it really had helped. But, a quick glance at Stempniak's WOWY shows that he brought almost every linemate down last season, so it's very possible that my observations were wrong. He's another one I'm excited to see in the preseason. At the other end of my intuition lives a $700,000 deal for coke dinosaur Ryan Malone. Malone had a catastrophic 2013-'14, including a cocaine-related arrest in April and a contract buyout in June. But the thing is: that is not the problem with Ryan Malone. The problem with Ryan Malone is that, even before the candy made him decidedly less than dandy, he was a 34-year-old dingus who hadn't played over 70 games in a season since he was a Penguin in 2007-'08 and whose zone start-adjusted CF% hadn't been above his team's average since 2010-'11. And 6'4" hockey players don't exactly get better after age 35. At $700,000, this is a relatively low risk deal, but it's hard to be excited about.

On the other hand, I would pay double his salary if he takes a roster spot away from our next signing, the incomparable Tanner Glass. This news came to me on free agent day from a buddy of mine who is a Penguins fan, so I naturally assumed he was kidding. I think that, on some level, as a defense mechanism, I kind of still do. But CapGeek says that we signed Glass to 3 years at $1.45 million per year. Tanner fucking Glass. So I checked out of hockey for a while. 2 and a half months later, I still don't really have the words.

What concerns me, really, is that Glen Sather seems incapable of learning. Every off-season, he signs some big dumb guy because he's convinced that you still need one big dumb guy on your team, even though the teams that keep winning keep not having a big dumb guy, and our big dumb guy is always a bust. Donald Brashear. Derek Boogaard (the absolute tragedy of that situation notwithstanding). Arron Asham. The closest this has come to working was Dan Carcillo, who actually played well for us in his time, and who by the way we really could have kept around if we felt like we needed to fill this role, probably for significantly less money and term. Because the thing about Tanner Glass is that he's probably worse at hockey than all the guys I just mentioned. In fact, there's an argument to be made that he was the worst guy in the league last season, as he had the league's worst CF%-rel, or CF% compared to the rest of his team's CF%.

Now, to be fair, Glass was a Penguin, and the Penguins were kind of the exemplary uneven team: among the best top 6 in the league, among the worst bottom 6. So, of course, Glass's CF%-rel was going to be skewed down because it's relative to people like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But even taken on its own, Glass's zone start-adjusted CF% was a nearly unbelievable 39.7%. 39.7! Could you imagine? His (non-adjusted) CF% of 39.6% was 18th-worst in the entire NHL, and the only linemate he didn't make worse in more than 25 minutes all season was Taylor Pyatt. While you could certainly make a solid case that he's not the worst player in the league, by no reasonable measure is he at all good.

Remember when we traded away Derek Dorsett and his 1 year left at $1,633,333? Remember when we let Dan Carcillo leave for a professional tryout with the Penguins? Remember when we let Brian Boyle walk for a 3 year, $2 million/year deal with the Lightning? All those times this off-season we didn't spend the money on the adequate 4th-liner, figuring we might instead use that money elsewhere and give some kids a chance at the roster spots? Well, instead we're just gonna spend the money on an inadequate one.

Same money as Dominic Moore, plus an extra year?? Really??

Anyway, at long last, that brings us to the end of the list of off-season moves. The Rangers' first preseason game is Monday night. Hockey is pretty much back!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Off-season 2014: whom we lost and why

OK, let's get down to brass tacks. This team got worse this summer. But, weirdly, it didn't make too many bad decisions to get there. You know what might be fun? If we analyzed all those decisions, even though they're all in the past and we couldn't even have done anything about them in the first place anyway.

June 20, the Rangers bought out the remainder of Brad Richards's contract. This is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about: it was a good decision, and it made the team worse. Richards had 6 years left on his contract, which paid him $6.67 million per year, and this was the final chance the Rangers had to use a compliance buyout in the wake of the new CBA. Understand: this buyout was not a referendum on Richards, who, despite eventually losing an edge deep into the playoffs was exactly what the Rangers needed him to be for most of the season.

Richards finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% of 54.1%. He and Hagelin, his most frequent left wing, brought each other up comparably (Hagelin away from Richards was a 54.3%; Richie away from Hags was a 53.7%; together, they were a 54.5%), while he brought Callahan, his most frequent right wing, up significantly (Cally away from Richards was a 47.8%; Richards away from Callahan was 55.1%; together, they were a 52.9%).

There was virtually no way Richards could have played well enough to justify continuing to commit almost $7 million a year to him through age 40. He turned around and signed a 1 year, $2 million deal with Chicago, a deal I would have been very happy for the Rangers to sign, if it were legal to buy a guy out and then immediately re-sign him.

June 27, we traded Derek Dorsett, making $1,633,333 in the final year of his contract, to Vancouver for Anaheim's 3rd-round pick in this year's draft (with which we selected a center named Keegan Iverson). Dorsett was a reasonably effective 4th-liner at times this season, but this was a smart move. We don't need to be spending around a million and a half for a guy to essentially take up space on the 4th line - we have plenty of NHL-minimum kids we can bring up to fill that role instead. Take notes: that sentiment is going to come up again in the next post.

July 1, free agency opened, and the Rangers had 6 players with contracts expiring in unrestricted free agency: Brian Boyle, Dan Carcillo, Raphael Diaz, Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot, and Anton Stralman. Even with the buyout of Richards, major money tied up (and for the large part deserved) by Girardi, McDonagh, Nash, St. Louis, and Lundqvist; a few key restricted free agents (whom we'll get into in a bit); and only a year left on the contracts of Staal, Stepan, and Hagelin meant that we weren't going to be able to afford to re-sign all those dudes. This means that, like with Richards, the right decision (letting some of these guys walk) was going to make the team worse.

We re-signed Moore to a completely reasonable 2 years at $1.5m per, which is a great contract for his value. That's a fourth-liner you absolutely do want to spend a million and a half per year on. Moore maintained a CF% of 48.5% despite an offensive zone start percentage of 25.1%, ahead of only Brian Boyle (OZS 23.4%, CF 47.1%) on the squad. As far as bang for the buck goes, Moore was a great choice at this price.

Letting a free agent walk is always a gamble, because you never really know what you could have signed him to. That is, until some other team does a few hours later. For example, letting Boyle walk seemed like the right choice: he had a great playoffs and was reportedly looking for increased 3rd-line minutes. He, like Brandon Prust before him, seemed destined to be the fan favorite and meaningful contributor off to earn more than he was worth somewhere dumber with their money than we are. Then he signed a 3-year, $2 million/year deal with Tampa Bay.

That's a contract I could go either way on. It doesn't immediately sounds like overpayment. From a glance at their With-Or-Without-You stats (Boyle had a 5-on-5 CF% of 46.6% without Dominic Moore; D.Mo had a 50.0% without Boyler; and they had a 47.6% together), we can guess that, in terms of raw possession, Moore was more valuable to the team than Boyle. But Boyle's also a lot bigger than Moore, and we know that Boyle did face marginally tougher zone starts, so it's reasonable to say they're about equitable. Look: there's no telling whether or not Boyle would have accepted an identical contract from New York to the one he did from Tampa. Maybe he was just looking for a team where he'd fit on the third line. But by not offering it, the Rangers seemed to be making a statement I can kinda get behind: paying that kind of money, for 3 years, to just another 4th liner, simply wasn't in the budget. Again, take notes. This is going to come up again in the next post.

Letting Carcillo walk fit trivially into this thinking. He was actually pretty solid for us in the minutes he got last season, and I'm not saying good riddance like I have to every previous Sather "tough guy" experiment (Brashear, Asham, etc.), but he's totally replaceable. He's now on a professional tryout with the Penguins. LOL, as the kids say. Speaking of professional tryouts, Diaz is now on one with Calgary. I liked Diaz a lot in his few appearances as a Ranger, and I would have liked to see him back, but he was certainly nothing special on a team headed by Girardi, McDonagh, Staal, and Klein, with Conor Allen waiting in the wings, that would go on to re-sign John Moore and sign two more NHL defensemen this offseason, so I understand letting him go find a team where he'll get actual minutes.

That leaves Stralman and Pouliot, whose stories are actually pretty similar. Both players had inconsistent seasons, especially early on, when they were both really frustrating to watch (Pouliot for wasting his big body on stupid penalties, Stralman for being so slow that he was caught out of position more often than not). Nonetheless, they both really found their strides by the spring, aided by consistent partners (in Zuccarello and Brassard, and Staal, respectively), and both were recognized for very impressive playoff runs, leading to the expectation of big contracts in free agency.

Moreover, both had 2013-'14 possession numbers that run somewhat counter to my intuition having, as the anti-intellectual crowd likes to remind me to do so often, actually watched the games. Until looking at them, I assumed that Pouliot's numbers were brought up significantly by Zuccarello and Brassard. In fact, it turns out that all 3 of those guys had better numbers as a unit than by themselves, by about the same margins, suggesting that they all improved each other by about the same amount. Even more counterintuitive were Stralman's numbers compared to Staal's. Apart from Stralman, Staal posted a 2013-'14 CF% of 48.6%, while Staal apart from Stralman saw a 56.1%. Together, they were a 56.2%. While a lot of these other numbers are close enough to be explained away, that big a jump in Staal's possession when playing with Stralman, while Stralman's stayed almost identical with or without Staal, suggests that Stralman was pretty significantly making Staal look better, where my intuition would have said the exact opposite to about the same degree.

All of which adds up to me sitting on pretty much the same fence, when they each went on to sign 5-year deals at over $4m (Pouliot at $4m/yr with Edmonton; Stralman at $4.5m/yr with Tampa Bay). Locking up a guy like Stralman for his prime years (ages 28-33) really could turn out to be a great move at that price, and the Rangers will certainly be worse without him than with him. But, I'd definitely have some trepidation about that hefty a deal for a guy whose numbers just don't pass my smell test, accurate as they probably are. Certainly, in Pouliot's case, I wouldn't want to commit that much money for 5 years to a 3rd-liner who may only have been as good as he was because of his linemates. Yet again, take notes, because that idea, too, is going to come back in the next post.

Other than not sending a qualifying offer to Justin Falk (now with the Wild for 1 year at $700,000; the logic for letting him walk goes much like it did with Diaz), that's the full list of the Rangers' losses this off-season. All told, Carcillo and Diaz notwithstanding, we gave up Brad Richards, Derek Dorsett, Brian Boyle, Justin Falk, Benoit Pouliot, and Anton Stralman, and we (arguably) saved $19.5 million by doing it.

It's hard to immediately argue with that: though the loss of those 6 players hurts the Rangers, I wouldn't spend almost $20 million to get them back. $19.5 million is Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and a million bucks to spare. $19.5 million is Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and over a million left over. It's only $57,143 short of Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, and Ryan McDonagh put together. It is, if you left them Brandon Dubinsky and Nathan Horton, enough to afford every other Blue Jackets forward combined. The Rangers got worse through these losses, but it's hard to blame them.

So, what went so horribly, horribly wrong? CLIFFHANGER! (Spoiler alert: we spent too much money on shitty new contracts.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Oh hey is it hockey season or something?

...and then I put up this show, and then we had this comedy festival, and then I was in Italy, and so... Huh? Oh, hi! I didn't see you there! Come in, come in. I guess you're here to talk about hockey, huh? What's that? The Traverse City Tournament starts today?? How can that be?? Isn't it... [checks calendar]... oh. Oh, jeez. It's the middle of September. Damn. I guess it's time for me to come out of my "the Rangers signed Tanner Glass to a 3-year deal so I don't like hockey anymore" hole and take a look at who the fuck is on the Rangers this season. Spoiler Alert: We got worse.

To save us all time, let's start by blowing through the "AHL" moves as quickly as we can. We'll define an "AHL" move as a move concerning a player who played fewer than 10 NHL games last season.

We'll start with the only 2 guys on the AHL list who played any NHL time at all last season. Darroll Powe played 8:33 for us in one game in October, during which he attempted one shot and the Devils scored twice. Arron Asham played in 3 games in October and 3 in December for a total of 44:53. In that time (of which all but 1:03 was even strength), he attempted 2 shots, was on the ice for 5 goals against, and tallied 14 penalty minutes (for a DIQ of .312). Both's contracts expired this offseason, and the Rangers rightly did not care and let them both enter unrestricted free agency. Powe has since signed a contract with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL, and Asham remains a free agent.

Next up: more contract expiration. You will recognize some of these names, but you shouldn't care about any. Stu Bickel (remember Stu Bickel?) and Micheal Haley, along with defensemen Danny Syvret and Aaron Johnson and goalie David LeNeveu (that guy you kept seeing on the bench during the playoffs because Talbot was hurt), saw their contracts expire and not be renewed. Bickel is now with the Wild on a 1-year $600,000 deal, Haley is with the Sharks for 1 year at $600,000, and Johnson is a Senator on a 1-year $800,000 deal. LeNeveu and Syvret remain free agents.

The Rangers also had 7 AHL contracts ending in restricted free agency this off-season, meaning the players could not go sign with any other team as long as the Rangers offered them the their minimum 1-year qualifying contracts. They chose not to qualify forwards Kyle Beach, Kyle Jean, or Jason Wilson, or goalie Scott Stajcer. Jean and Wilson are now in the ECHL (Jean with the Greenville Road Warriors and Wilson with the Florida Everblades), Beach is on a tryout with EC Salzburg of the Austrian Hockey League, and Stajcer remains a free agent. On the other hand, we did qualify, and ultimately re-sign, 3 names you may recognize from last pre-season. Forward Ryan Bourque, qualified at $687,500, signed a 2-year deal at $562,500. Forward Danny Kristo accepted his qualifying offer of $826,875, and goalie Jason Missiaen accepted his, $715,000.

All told, this adds up to a loss of 11 bodies. So, July also brought in some replacements: new contracts signed with 6 players, 2 who played 1 NHL game each last season, and 4 who didn't play any. We signed goalie Cedrick Desjardins, who made 11 saves in 13 shots in his 18:02 for the Lightning, to 2 years at $600,000 each, and we signed defenseman Matt Hunwick, who attempted 3 even strength shots in 17:27 total with Colorado, to 1 year at $600,000. On top of that, we added defenseman Steven Kampfer (1 year at $550,000) and centers Chris Bourque (1 year at $600,000), Nick Tarnasky (2 years at $575,000 each), and Matthew Lombardi (2 years at $800,000). Yes, Chris Bourque is Ryan's brother, so the Rangers are now runaway champions of the "collect Ray Bourque's sons" sweepstakes.

I guess maybe I should stop here and then make a new post about the players you've actually heard of. So, next up: other people. Because brevity is the soul of whatever?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Qualifying Offer Day

So I didn't get my shit together to post my "here's a look at the roster right now" post or my "here's why we bought out Brad Richards" post, whatever, it's 2014, you all know how to use CapGeek. This summer, we are liable to see the Rangers make a bunch of moves we don't necessarily like. Some of them, like not re-signing Brian Boyle, will be the right move even though we don't like them. Some, like, not re-signing Dominic Moore, will be incomprehensibly bad ideas. But with the 2014-'15 season set to start tomorrow with the annual Free Agent Frenzy tradition of "listen to Canadian radio at the office instead of doing work all day," teams have until the end of today (5:00 PM Eastern) to qualify any restricted free agents on their roster.

As a reminder, a player with insufficient NHL experience whose contract is ending does not enter boring, normal free agency (in which he can sign with any team with no restrictions), he enters restricted free agency: his current team has the right to try to sign him to an extension first. The nature of that restriction is: based on the player's current salary, a minimum "qualifying offer" is calculated. Before the following season starts, the team has the right to "qualify" the player by offering him a contract at the value of that qualifying offer. If the team does so, regardless of whether or not the player accepts the offer, no other team may offer the player a contract when the following season begins.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the player must accept the contract. If he has enough NHL experience, he qualifies for arbitration, which means that he (or, in rare cases, the team) can appeal to a neutral board that the qualifying offer is unjust. The board can then assign a new, "fair" contract value, which essentially then becomes the new "qualifying offer." Or, a thing that basically never happens can happen, and another team can submit an "offer sheet" to the player: a contract they'd be willing to pay, which the original team has first right to match, but if they don't, the player goes to the new team, which then owes the old team draft picks. Don't worry about this: GMs never do it for some reason.

If a team does not make a restricted free agent a qualifying offer before the start of the following season (July 1), or if the team at any point withdraws the offer (like if an arbitrator raises it), the player becomes an unrestricted free agent (and can sign freely with anyone). So, the first 2014-'15 decisions have to be in by the end of the day today: any qualifying offers must be made for our restricted free agents, before they become unrestricted (and probably go sign elsewhere for more). Here's who's on the table, listed along with their qualifying offers (not including the 7 current AHL players in our system who are restricted free agents):

Forwards (3): Derick Brassard ($3.7m), Mats Zuccarello ($1.15m), Chris Kreider ($850,000)

Defensemen (2): Justin Falk ($1,023,750), John Moore ($850,500)

Zuccarello, Brassard, and Falk all qualify for arbitration, while Kreider and Moore don't. Conventional wisdom, of course, is that despite their restriction, both Zuccarello and Kreider will be seeing decent raises (even though we could theoretically force Kreider's hand at the $850,000 level), so that will certainly start with them getting qualifying offers today. I would expect that Falk will not get one and will thus be free to walk (skate?) to another team. I'm guessing we will offer qualifying offers but not raises to Brassard and Moore? Hard to say.

So, by 5:00 PM Eastern today, we'll find out which of those 5 players received qualifying offers from the Rangers. Then, tomorrow, Free Agent Frenzy!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Eulogy

This morning was the Rangers' breakup day, and I figure if they are over it enough to have that conversation, I can probably get my shit together to do the same. So let's talk about the New York Rangers' 88th season.

Saturday, I was walking through downtown Pittsburgh and I saw a dude in a Penguins hat. My immediate thought was, "yesterday, you were the team we knocked out in the second round, and we were one of the two teams in the Final. Today, we are two of the 29 teams that do not have the Stanley Cup." It was not a good moment for me, though it's easy to understand: the goal is always to win the Stanley Cup, and you're supposed to be disappointed when you don't. But with 29 teams in the league (the Islanders don't really count for these purposes), odds are that you're on pace to be disappointed 28 out of every 29 years you're a hockey fan. So is that really the right attitude to have?

Obviously, it depends. This season, the Columbus Blue Jackets were, by many reckonings, a meaningful team for the first time in their history. As a Blue Jackets fan, of course you wanted to get through your first-round series, but I can't imagine you being fundamentally disappointed in your season, far from the Cup though it was. Meanwhile in San Jose, Sharks fans over the last few seasons have been ready to jump off of basically any available ledge, despite some consistently very good hockey over that stretch, thanks to a handful of short stretches of losses in April and May. So how are we supposed to feel as Ranger fans right now?

The 2013-'14 team was great, likable, and exciting. The team came out of the gate 2-6 with a brand new coaching staff, was battling to get out of last place in the league's worst division in December, and ended up winning the Eastern Conference, going through in sequence its recent Winter Classic rival, the universally accepted best team in its division (after being down 3 games to 1), and the team that beat the best team in the conference, and putting us in our first Stanley Cup Final since 1994. In that Final, the Rangers went up against the obviously superior team that had won the obviously superior conference and went down in 5. So why are we heartbroken? Bizarrely, the sad, bitter Flyers fan Puck Daddy found to write the 2013-'14 Rangers' hate-eulogy more or less nails it: we're heartbroken because it could have gone differently.

The Kings were the better possession team all season long, the deeper, scarier team, and the media and Vegas consensus. And they ultimately won, as they probably should have. But the games weren't one-sided like they were supposed to be. Through the first three games (all of which, I don't have to remind you, the Kings won), when the teams were skating 5-on-5 and the score was close, the Kings only attempted 3 more shots total than the Rangers, 108-105 (each individual game was similarly close). The three games in LA (all of which, again, the Kings won) were overtime decisions (the first time a Stanley Cup Final has ever had that many overtimes in that few games). The Rangers led in the series for 111:04 to the Kings' 69:34, and they were the first team in Stanley Cup Final history to lead for over 100 minutes through the first 4 games without at least being up 3-1 in the series. And there were plentiful obviously botched calls that led directly to Kings victories: notably the missed goalie interference on the goal that sent Game 2 to overtime, the missed delay of game immediately before that game's OT winner, and the backwards tripping call that went against the victim (Zuccarello) instead of the perpetrator (Muzzin) which gave the Kings the Power Play goal that sent Game 5 to overtime as well.

Which is not to blame the officiating for the results - awful officiating is increasingly just a factor of the game, and anyway you can't blame the officials when the obviously better team wins. Rather, the point is: there was hope. Through much of the series, the Rangers went toe-to-toe with the eventual Cup champions, and we just kept on being That One Bounce after That One Bounce from greatness. That's why the team has so much to be proud of and why we as fans have so much to be excited about, but it's also why it's so painful - despite ending 4 games to 1, this series was very, very close. And the games were very, very good. If nothing else, we should be excited that the team we like was a part of those hockey games.

It's hard to talk about individual performances without talking about the future, which I'm sure I'll be doing soon enough, but let's try to hit a few.

-- Everyone is wrong about Rick Nash, who was a force these whole playoffs despite not finding the back of the net too often. His relative Corsi For Percentage (that's the one that approximates possession by measuring shot attempt differential, comparing a player to the rest of his own team) this second season was +5.0%, good for 4th on the team behind Klein, Pouliot, and Brassard, all three of whom played fewer minutes and were used for easier zone starts than Nash, who attempted 317 shots in his 327.6 minutes. In fact, only 4 Ranger forwards were used for more defensive starts than Nash: Kreider and the fourth line. While Corsi doesn't tell us everything, Nash was likely the Rangers' most valuable puck possessor in these playoffs, and having the puck is a super good way to win hockey. Rick Nash is awesome, and possibly the single most promising thing about this playoff run was when Coach Vigneault answered the media's questions about Nash's lack of scoring with "our stats tell us he's been our most valuable player, so I'm not worried."

-- On the other hand, despite a very strong rebound in the regular season and acting as de facto captain in the wake of Callahan's departure, Brad Richards may well find his "overpaid and overrated" narrative to be far truer than Nash's. Seeing similar production to Nash (5 goals to Nash's 3, with the same 7 assists), Richards's possession numbers are far uglier. Despite seeing 58.7% of his playoff zone starts in the offensive zone (more than any Ranger forward except Pouliot, whose CF% we noted was very good), Richards clocked a relative CF% of -4.4%, ahead of only two Ranger forwards: Brian Boyle and Carl Hagelin, whose numbers are quite expectedly low, as they were the team's #1 penalty killing pair all playoff long. At a cursory glance, if Nash was our most valuable puck possessor based on his Corsi and zone starts, it's possible that Richards was our worst.

-- What am I going to do with Anton Stralman? If Richards took up the mantle Callahan left behind, Stralman took up Del Zotto's, that of the "most frustrating defenseman." He was certainly the guy I was most likely to yell at (...my TV because of) this season. The turnover guy. But as you've heard everyone in the media say for 2 months, Stralman and Staal became an extremely reliable pair for this team. In fact, a glance at their usage tells us that these two, not McDonagh and Girardi, were the pair the coach went to when he needed reliable defense. Stralman started only 39.8% of his playoff zone starts in the offensive zone (Staal started only 37.1%), to McDonagh's 50.0% and Girardi's 50.7%. Nonetheless, Stralman's relative CF% was positive (+2.5%), meaning he was actually above average for the Rangers, despite being used in such defensive situations. His Corsi differential was better than Staal's, McDonagh's, and Girardi's. And as you'll recall, Stralman's possession numbers in the regular season indicated that he may have been bringing Staal up, not the other way around. As I've said, Corsi doesn't tell us everything, and this doesn't exactly pass the smell test with flying colors (synesthesia?), but it may indicate that Stralman was a lot more valuable for us than we think.

-- Meanwhile, the most depressing news Ranger fans heard today came from the mouth of Dan Girardi, who told us that he wasn't really injured during these playoffs. I, for one, had just kind of assumed he was skating with 3 broken ribs and 4 dislocated shoulders or something. Sure, he had some high-profile gaffes, and those are always going to make us a little harsher on the rest of what a player does. But those gaffes really seemed like they were generally surrounded by otherwise mediocre-to-bad play. Girardi's relative CF% in the playoffs was an abominable -7.9%, 2nd to last on the team (ahead of only Carl "I will kill all of the penalties because I am basically Barry Allen" Hagelin), despite his above average zone starts. This from a guy only 2 years removed from being an All-Star, whose regular season this year was generally pretty reliable, boasting a modestly positive CF% paired with a modestly defensive zone start percentage. Girardi might not win "worst," but he wins "most disappointing" by a mile. Defensemen are supposed to deteriorate later than forwards, and G is only 30, so... I don't know. Let's just assume this was a 2-month blip so that we can continue to sleep at night.

-- Believe the hype: Henrik Lundqvist really is that good. When the King signed his new contract, it was reasonably clear that spending as much as $8.5 million for 39-year-old Henrik Lundqvist was the price we were willing to pay for the right to only pay $8.5 million for 32-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. So far, so good, as the "lone name above the marquee" (the term coined by Larry Brooks has continued to be an appropriate one) showed us a really special playoff performance, allowing 54 goals on 737 shots in the playoffs (.927), including only 8 goals on 224 shots (.964) in potential elimination games for the Rangers. "Blameless" doesn't begin to cover Lundqvist's play this second season, and while Justin Williams certainly earned his trophy, I can't imagine anyone would have been too surprised if Hank had become the 6th player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe without winning the Cup.

Lundqvist not lifting the Cup this season is all the way depressing, people.



All the way depressing.



And I guess that's the takeaway for tonight: be depressed by this. Wallow. I won't go back into why getting unreasonably emotionally invested in a team is great, but it fucking well is. This team that we've been watching all our lives, this likable roster full of Marty St. Louis and Dominic Moore and Henrik Lundqvist and Mats Zuccarello, these guys did something really special this season, and then they ultimately fell short of their goal. Be proud. Be inconsolable. Let yourself feel all those silly emotions brought on by a series of games you had nothing to do with: that's why we watch. And in a league with 29 teams vying for the Cup every year, seasons like these don't come around too regularly.

And if you get the chance, spend a little time thinking about the actual hockey we got to witness! Great, meaningful, June hockey! Hockey we'd have watched and loved even if the Rangers hadn't been involved! Hockey is the fucking best, you guys! These were great goddamn hockey games!

And if that doesn't do it for you, within the next couple of weeks, we start making roster decisions to build next year's contender: you can always start in early on your delusional hopes for 2014-'15 being the year that 1994 stops having to "last a lifetime."