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."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Where did these Rangers come from?

So, there are really only two ways a hockey team can get resources to actually build their team, right? 1. Every season, each team gets draft picks - one per round. 2. Teams can just cold sign undrafted or otherwise unrestricted players. And that's it. Outside of those two methods, all you can do to gain players (or other picks) is trade. And when you trade, you have to give something up: players and/or picks that you already had. So, logically, any player on a team's roster can be traced back, through various trades and draft selections, to some set of that team's originally granted picks and/or unrestricted signings, which eventually led to that player being on the roster.

And so, theoretically, one could trace every single player on a team back to a big set of picks and signings which eventually led to their current roster. Theoretically. (For my purposes, I used the collective roster of everyone the Rangers have had on their official club roster at any point throughout these playoffs.)

Anyway, here's the full list of original pieces that went into the current Rangers' roster.

New York Rangers Draft Picks
1st-round picks: 1986, 1991, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015
2nd-round picks: 1992, 2006, 2008, 2009-compensatory*, 2011
3rd-round picks: 2004, 2010
4th-round picks: 1988, 1997, 2005
5th-round picks: 2015
6th-round picks: 2007
7th-round picks: 1992, 2000, 2014**, 2015***
8th-round picks: 1991

* Compensation for the sudden death of Alexei Cherepanov, the Rangers' 2007 1st-rounder, at age 19
** Pending some unknown condition
*** Pending: only if Ryan Callahan re-signs with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2014 off-season


Undrafted Player Signings
Dan Girardi, July 1 2006
Mike Busto, April 27 2007
Cam Talbot, March 30 2010
Blake Parlett, June 24 2011
Ryan Haggerty, March 12 2014

Unrestricted Free Agent Signings
Ray Ferraro, August 9 1995 (terms unknown)
Vladimir Malakhov, July 10 2000, 4 years / $3.5 million per
Mark Messier, July 13 2000, 2 years / $5 million per
Zdeno Ciger, July 17 2001, 1 year / $1 million
Scott Gomez, July 1 2007, 7 years / $7,357,143 per
Marian Gaborik, July 1 2009, 5 years / $7.5 million per
Brad Richards, July 2 2011, 9 years / $6,666,667 per
Anton Stralman, November 3 2011, 1 year / $0.9 million
Benoit Pouliot, July 5 2013, 1 year / $1.3 million
Dominic Moore, July 5 2013, 1 year / $1 million
Mats Zuccarello, July 30 2013, 1 year / $1.16 million

Of course, I have the full list of selections and transactions that turned the above list into our current players, but it's pretty long, and I haven't yet figured out a good way to visualize it. I've been trying to use Microsoft Word to make a giant flowchart, but that's only sort of working, and the text list is naturally unwieldy at best. Maybe I'll post it later? Anyway, the above list comprehensively covers 100% of the assets that eventually became the current Rangers. And now you know!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

What the fuck are the Canadiens talking about?

Let me start by saying I generally do not dislike the Montreal Canadiens. They're generally a likable group, playing a fast, whistle-to-whistle game. It's impossible not to love everything P.K. Subban does. And in their recent 2nd-round matchup against the Bruins, it was easy to feel like the good guys won, with Milan Lucic playing the role of "a bully scorned."

I will even go so far as to say the on-ice stuff, if you squint hard enough, has been pretty reasonable so far this series. Yes, Prust's hit on Stepan was unacceptably late, and referees Marc Joanette and Kevin Pollock have no imaginable excuses for missing it entirely, but even Prust has said publicly that the hit was late and that he deserves his suspension. Notwithstanding that hit, it hasn't been particularly one-sided: a few late or high hits here and there (Weaver's hit on Brassard in Game 1, Pouliot's hit on Emelin in Game 2), but nothing you wouldn't expect from a conference finals. That Weaver's hit was unpenalized and resulted in injury, and that Pouliot's was penalized and didn't, speaks more about inconsistent officiating and luck than it does about either of these teams.

(And lest anyone think I'm ignoring it, yes, linesman Scott Driscoll inexplicably manhandled Carcillo on his way to send him to the box, but Carcillo pushed back. Twice. And you just can't punch a cop. Even if he is being a dick to you. He's got a badge. And a gun. Et cetera. And if 10 games is excessive (it is), it's at least in part due to Carcillo's reputation for being a fuck. And in fairness, while he has been great for us this season, he has been a fuck in the past. So it's hard to see that call and not, on some level, kinda get it. (Carcillo is appealing the length, and I would hope it will be knocked down a bit, but it will likely remain long enough that we won't see him in the Blueshirt again.))

So, with the exception of Prust's hit, about which he seems legitimately contrite, the biggest extracurricular problems this series have come from the on-ice officiating crew (particularly that of Game 3, all of whom should be taken off of every remaining playoff game this season), and not from the Habs or the Rangers on the ice. With all of that said, with the appropriate capitulation to the opposing team, I am thus left with the question:

What the fuck are the Canadiens talking about?

This entire goddamn series so far, what the fuck are they talking about? Let's start with the Price injury in Game 1. Kreider comes in hard, gets slashed from behind, goes down, and collides with Price. On his way back, Price's skate catches the pipe and his knee bends in a way knees shouldn't bend. Here is a helpful reminder:



That sucks! And after the game, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien reacted appropriately, by making the other team look like bad guys and standing up for his guy, without saying anything too crazy. Specifically, he said, "I reviewed the incident and obviously it was accidental contact, but let's put it this way: He didn't make much effort to avoid the contact." Sure, fine, I guess. But then, as you know, it was discovered that Price was seriously injured and would miss the remainder of the series. And then we all got on a train headed to Crazytown!

Once the injury was announced, Therrien, apparently unaware that microphones can remember things you said a whole day after you said them, reported to the press that "looking at the incident, you know, it's a reckless play. That's the truth. And Kreider, this is not the first time he's going at goalies, so you end up losing your best player." Look, dude, I get it. You lost a really valuable guy (not your best player, but when your backup is Peter Budaj, possibly your most valuable one). And making that a storyline is a really good way to get people's emotions high and distract the media from the 7-2 drubbing that was the only game result thus far. But seriously, one day ago you said it was "accidental contact." Those balls on sticks those people hold in front of your face at press conferences record this shit!

Anyway, on its own, this isn't that crazy - for all the above reasons, this is a smart move by Therrien. But it turns out that the train to Crazytown runs express, and you can't get off until you've actually reached Crazytown. After Game 2's loss, Therrien was complaining again, this time about the officiating, saying "You know what, to win a hockey game you need some breaks and we didn’t have any breaks yesterday. The Rangers got their breaks and they capitalized on their breaks. We didn't get some calls yesterday." Obviously merely counting penalties doesn't tell you the full story, but at a glance, the Canadiens had 4 power plays in Game 2 (they went 0 for 4) to the Rangers' 3 (1 for 3), and the Rangers' penalty list included one diving call.

Again, on its own, this isn't too meaningful, and the statement isn't too crazy. But rather than analyzing a game's worth of calls and non-calls, let's fast forward to Game 3, the game where Prust broke Stepan's jaw on a late hit and Carcillo got 10 games for shoving a linesman. 'Cause this is where the train crosses the county border from the Questionable Territories into the Lunatic Protectorate.

First, the Habs themselves get into it, by calling bullshit on Stepan's jaw being broken. Seriously. Because the Rangers hadn't yet announced Stepan's status as of yesterday (the surgery itself was last night), these ding-dongs decided that the "Stepan's jaw is broken" storyline was a lie. Speaking to the media, Danny Briere said that the Rangers' lack of report on Stepan means that the center's injury "seems a little fishy to [him]. It seems like a little bit of a game." (Vigneault's "fishy" report, incidentally, was "He's in the hospital right now recovering from surgery, so that's all I've got.") Brendan Gallagher (who, ironically, led the NHL in goalie interference penalties this season with 8, to Kreider's 2) doubled down with the clever diagnosis "He got up and he was yapping and yelling [after the play], so, I'm sure the jaw isn't hurting too much."

For the record, Stepan had a metal plate inserted into his jaw, and he will be unable to play tomorrow night. And for those of you with very slightly longer memories and a penchant for hypocrisy, after Price was injured in Game 1, he stayed in net to finish out the period. And when he was replaced, Therrien said it was due to the score. And the Canadiens didn't announce his status for Game 2 until a couple of hours before Game 2. I don't remember any Ranger claiming that Price's injury was fake there, when Therrien was doing what absolutely every professional sports coach does for absolutely every playoff injury, playing it close to the vest.

But Michel Therrien, captain of the Crazytown Express (do trains have captains?), was not about to be outdone by his players, and came to bat today with a strong showing of unprovoked threatening of an injured player! When asked by the French media about Brassard's possible return tomorrow night, Therrien acknowledged that Brass would likely be back, and then editorialized a bit, responding (in French), "We expect Derick Brassard to play and we know exactly where he's injured."

That's...like...a threat, right? There's no way that isn't a threat? Like, "yes, Brassard will be back [from the 3 games he missed after our guy's late hit], but don't worry, we will be targeting his injury"? Thinking this makes me feel like I'm being biased, but is there some non-disgusting way to interpret this that I'm not thinking of? I'm fully open to suggestions here.

Anyway, from there, it just gets weirder, with reports today that Therrien kicked (or tried to kick?) Ulf Samuelsson and later Glen Sather out of the Habs' practice at the Garden today, citing some "Gentlemen's Agreement" that team personnel never watches their playoff opponent's practice on an off-day (though it's allowed on a game day (?)). It appears the Rangers didn't know anything about this "Gentlemen's Agreement"? Is that possibly because it's a thing Therrien just made up? I honestly have no idea what is happening here.

So what is going on? Was the hockey itself not interesting enough for Coach Therrien's standards of a conference final series? Is he jealous of the better hockey being played in the Western Conference final, so he's trying to spice things up? What is going on? What the fuck are the Canadiens talking about?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Which roster is stronger?

So, this morning, my girlfriend's father emailed my girlfriend and me a copy of the 2013-'14 playoff roster (and basic stats) side-by-side with the 2011-'12 edition, accompanied with a simple question: "Which roster is stronger?" A normal person would have replied with a sentence or two to start a conversation. Instead, I wrote this.

Oh, wow. Great question. Strap in.

Let's start with an easier one: which team is better? I don't know how much of hockey's "advanced stats" you're familiar with, so here's some context. If you already know what "Corsi For Percentage" is, then please skip this paragraph. For our purposes, let's accept some basic things the "advanced hockey stat nerds" have been more or less statistically proving for a few years:
1) The best way to measure how "good" a team is is to measure its puck possession. Scoring goals (and not allowing goals) is how you win, but goals are sometimes fluky, and "how much you have the puck" is a better long-term indicator of likelihood to win than actual past goal differential. Put another way: scoring goals may or may not mean you're likely to keep scoring goals; having the puck is a pretty good indicator you're going to be scoring goals.
2) Measuring "how much you have the puck" is really hard given the stats the NHL tabulates. No one tracks actual zone time or possession time. So, we have to try to represent possession time with what we do have. And what we do have is shots on goal, shots blocked (meaning shots you take that the other guys block), and shots that miss the net. Adding these up gives us a crude but decent indicator of how much you have the puck: you can't be attempting shots without having the puck. In a just world, we would add these 3 things up and call them "shot attempts," but instead we call them "Corsi," to confuse everyone.
3) So, a really good simple dirty way to tell how good a team is is to compare its Corsi to its opponents' Corsi (in games against them). To make it easy to compare across different games, we represent it as a percentage: (our Corsi) divided by (our Corsi plus our opponents Corsi). We call that "Corsi For Percentage," or "CF%." All it means is: what percentage of the total shot attempts in the games were taken by our team? For example, in one game, I attempt 10 shots and you attempt 30 shots. My CF% for that game would be 25% and yours would be 75%. This is very simple, it works as a good stand-in for possession time, and so it works as a good indicator of how good a team is. As a rule of thumb, anything under 50% means "worse than their opponents," and above 50% means "better than their opponents."

So, the first thing to measure is: which team is better? At 5-on-5, the 2011-'12 Rangers had a CF% of 47.7%. The 2013-'14 Rangers had a 5v5 CF% of 52.4%. That is a very significant improvement (for reference, the range tends to be from mid-to-lower-40s to mid-to-upper-50s for a team for the season). The stat "Fenwick" is like Corsi but it subtracts out the shots that were blocked. The Rangers' Fenwick For Percentage saw a similar increase: 2011-'12 had a 5v5 FF% of 49.4%; 2013-'14 had a 52.6%. Finally, the 2013-'14 Rangers' 5v5 shooting percentage (percent of shots on goal that go in) was an abysmal 6.66% - third-worst in the league. Meanwhile, the 2011-'12 squad shot at 8.30% 5-on-5, for 8th-best in the NHL. It's generally accepted and statistically supported that shooting percentage, except in a few rare cases, will regress to the mean over time, and is largely attributable to luck. So, there's an argument that the 2011-'12 team was luckier than this year's team, in terms of goals actually going in the net, which means their success was a little less based on skill than 2013-'14. All in all, yes, it's clear that the 2013-'14 team is better.

But that's not exactly what you meant, right? The interesting question is "is the new team better because of the new roster?" The alternative, I suppose, is "is it better because of improvements in the players who were on both squads?" Let's start by looking at the roster changes you sent:

2011-'12 F: Callahan, Gaborik, Anisimov, Fedotenko, Prust, Dubinsky, Mitchell, Rupp
2011-'12 D: Del Zotto, Bickel, Eminger

2013-'14 F: St. Louis, Brassard, Zuccarello, Pouliot, Carcillo, Moore, Nash, Dorsett
2013-'14 D: Klein, Moore, Diaz

(I am throwing out Miller and Fast because they played so little time compared to the rest of the list.)

At a glance, the lists look pretty even, with a slight advantage to 2013-'14 squad:
Scoring up front: The only pure scoring talent on the 2011'12 list is Gaborik, while this season boasts both St. Louis and Nash. Advantage: 2013-'14
Middle of the pack: Callahan, Anisimov, Fedotenko, Prust, and Dubinsky stack up pretty evenly with Brassard, Zuccarello, and Pouliot. 2011-'12 has more of those guys, and they hit more, but we know how good the Brass-Zucc-Pou line has looked. Advantage: Even
Guy who's better than everyone thinks he is: Dominic Moore is our new John Mitchell. Advantage: Even
Dumb idiots: 2013-'14 has 2. 2011-'12 has 1. Advantage: Even
Defensive scoring: Michael Del Zotto was sometimes an actual threat from the blue line, when he wasn't a liability. 2013-'14 has no equivalent. Advantage: 2011-'12.
Defensive actual defense: 2011-'12 boasts 3 occasional liabilities. 2013-'14 is 3 completely adequate guys. Advantage: 2013-'14
Net advantage: 2013-'14

But let's see how true that is by looking at the 5-on-5 CF% of each player on these lists. This is just like the team's 5v5 CF% calculation, but it only counts when that player is on the ice. Much like the team calculation, as a dumb rule of thumb, above 50% is good and below 50% is bad.

2011-'12
53.4 Mitchell
50.3 Dubinsky
48.4 Anisimov
47.9 Gaborik
46.8 Callahan
44.7 Prust
44.2 Fedotenko
41.4 Rupp

47.9 Bickel
47.2 Del Zotto
45.1 Eminger

2013-'14
55.1 Pouliot
54.2 Nash
53.8 Zuccarello
53.5 Brassard
51.9 St. Louis
50.5 Dorsett
48.2 Moore
47.5 Carcillo

58.0 Diaz
51.6 Moore
50.5 Klein

Wow! Those numbers are not even close. On the 2011-'12 squad, only Mitchell and Dubinsky had scores above 50; only the 2013-'14 squad, only Dominic Moore and Carcillo were below 50. To explain those numbers further, we can look at a statistic called "Zone Start Percentage." This measures what percentage of your shifts you start in the offensive zone. The lower the number, the more often you're on the ice in the defensive zone (which may, in some cases, explain why your score is lower). If your ZS% is high AND your CF% is low, then you're used in the offensive zone all the time but your opponents still attempt more shots than you whenever you're on the ice. That'd be really bad.

Dominic Moore's ZS% was 25.2% this season, meaning he started 3/4 of his shifts in the defensive zone. In that light, his 48.2% CF% doesn't sound so bad. Similarly, Carcillo's ZS% was 32.6. So, Moore and Carcillo may not have been dragging their team down as much as it seems. (On the flip side, this helps explain Diaz's high score - his ZS% was 75.6%.) Over on the 2011-'12 squad, Dubinsky's ZS% was 41.7%, and Mitchell's was 45.8%, meaning they both started more in the defensive zone than the offensive zone: their higher scores are not explained away by their zone starts; they really were that much better than the rest of their team.

But something smells in this analysis: if the numbers on the changeover players are that much worse, the numbers on the common players are probably worse also. Maybe the changed players aren't entirely to blame. So let's look at the 5-on-5 CF% numbers for the roster players who stuck around, from 2011-'12 to 2013-'14

Boyle 48.1 -> 46.9
Hagelin 52.6 -> 54.5
Richards 48.2 -> 54.1
Stepan 46.5 -> 53.1

Girardi 48.4 -> 49.9
McDonagh 49.0 -> 51.1
Stralman 48.3 -> 56.5
Staal 44.0 -> 54.4

(I'm eliminating Kreider here because I don't know what to do with him. He didn't play nearly enough in 2011-'12 for his numbers to be useful, but it doesn't seem fair to count him as a "roster change" for 2013-'14, since he was on the team in 2011-'12. So, I just left him out entirely.)

Remember, what we're trying to learn is how much each of these players is now bringing the team up, as compared to the roster change. Boyle's CF% went down (requisite with getting harder zone starts), so it wasn't him. Hagelin, Girardi, and McDonagh each improved a little bit, but probably not enough to make a huge difference - and, all three of their changes were aligned with getting significantly more offensive zone time. Hagelin's ZS% went from 51.9 to 62.1, Girardi's from 44.7 to 47.1, and McDonagh's from 43.1 to 48.3. Those are right in line with their CF% increases, so it's probably not them either.

That leaves Richards, Stepan, Stralman, and Staal. All 4 improved significantly, quite possibly pulling the rest of the team up with them. A look at Richards's ZS% shows an increase from 54.1% offensive in 2011-'12 to 66.4% in 2013-'14. That's a healthy boost, and it probably explains some, but not all, of Richards's CF% increase. The other 3, on the other hand, all saw harder zone starts in 2013'14 and nonetheless but up significantly better CF%. So, the team's improvement can certainly at least be attributed to an improvement in Stepan, Staal, and Stralman, and probably also, to a lesser degree, to Richards.

This brings up a question for me. Stralman and Staal are paired together this season, so I'd expect their numbers to be pretty similar. But, because we watch the games, we feel like Stralman is probably dragging Staal down, and Staal bringing Stralman up. This could help explain why they're both on this list. Are we right? To help find out, we can look at each player's 5-on-5 CF% when he's on the ice without the other one, compared to his CF% with. When we do that, we find a surprising result:

2011-'12
Staal without Stralman: 43.9%
Stralman without Staal: 49.0%
Together: 45.0%

2013-'13
Staal without Stralman: 48.6%
Stralman without Staal: 56.1%
Together: 56.2%

I did not see that coming, and I don't immediately know how to explain it. Regardless, the original point stands: improvement has come from within the retained players, in Stepan, Staal, and Stralman, and to a lesser extent Richards.

So, how much of the Rangers' improvement can be attributed to these 4 dudes, and how much to the roster changes? That's a harder question to answer, but we can make some smart guesses by comparing the individual players' CF% to the team's. If the player's individual CF% is higher than the team's, it stands to reason he is bringing the team up; otherwise, he is bringing the team down. So let's go back and look at the roster changes again, with the team average for that season inserted into the list.

2011-'12
53.4 Mitchell
50.3 Dubinsky
48.4 Anisimov
47.9 Gaborik
47.9 Bickel
47.7 Team Average
47.2 Del Zotto
46.8 Callahan
45.1 Eminger
44.7 Prust
44.2 Fedotenko
41.4 Rupp

2013-'14
58.0 Diaz
55.1 Pouliot
54.2 Nash
53.8 Zuccarello
53.5 Brassard
52.4 Team Average
51.6 J. Moore
51.9 St. Louis
50.5 Klein
50.5 Dorsett
48.2 D. Moore
47.5 Carcillo

Counting the players on each side of the line doesn't do us much good, but looking at who is on which side does. In 2011-'12, outside of Mitchell and Dubinsky (who were genuine assets, as we saw), the only 3 players bringing the team up were Anisimov, Gaborik, and Bickel. Guys whom we thought of as producers on that team - Del Zotto, Callahan, Prust, Fedotenko - are all below the line. In 2012-'13, the main names bringing the number down are Dorsett, Dominic Moore, and Carcillo. All 3 of those guys had ZS% below 35%, so we expect lower numbers. (To contrast, Rupp, Fedotenko, and Prust averaged a ZS% of 37.8; Dorsett, Moore, and Carcillo averaged 30.8).

St. Louis's number is weird, because it was generated mostly on a different team. Tampa Bay's 5-on-5 CF% this season was 51.0%, which St. Louis actually brought up. So it's hard to measure him against the Rangers' average meaningfully. That leaves only John Moore and Kevin Klein as the new roster guys bringing us down. Compare that to the list of guys bringing the 2011-'12 number down, and I think it's safe to conclude that 2013-'14's roster is better.

So, I'd conclude that the 2013-'14 team is definitely better than the 2011-'12, and that that's due in part to the improvement of Stepan, Staal, Stralman, and Richards, and in part to the improvement of the roster, which is itself on average better.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What It Means to Be a Fan (Or: The (A?) Melodramatic Post)

"Fan," short for fanatic: a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.

I don't know what I looked like from the outside as I watched the final minutes of Game 3 from one of my favorite local bars here in Pittsburgh. I am rarely self-aware enough to know what I look like from the outside at the best of times, and Monday night, as I watched my team slowly lose the 5th playoff game they'd played in 7 nights, despite dominating possession time, scoring chances, shots on goal, etc. and having the better goalie, was not the best of times.

What I know is that when I looked up after the game ended, I saw two friends of mine, Pens fans both, staring down the table at me with pity on their faces, because I looked so goddamn distraught it was depressing them, even in the midst of their team's win. I'm not sure what that means, but I think it's safe to say that it probably puts me in the "excessive and single-minded zeal" category.

Being a fanatic is a double-edged sword. It means we get real emotional highs and lows from every game, which is why we do it. Doubly so in the Second Season. But that passion can also get in the way of our actual understanding of the sport we love to watch. It clouds our judgment. So it's a balancing act: how do I get to get up and scream and completely deflate with my team, without it making me so wrong that I'm crying "cheap shot" any time the opposition comes within 3 feet of my team captain?

So it's with attempted self-awareness that I make the statement: through 3 games in this series, despite being down 2 games to 1, I believed that the Rangers were the better team. Going into the series, I believed that the Rangers, being a better possession team than the Penguins, would ultimately have an easier time of them than they did of the Flyers, who beat them up for 2 weeks. I believed that Game 1 was a real triumph over a bad schedule, and was ultimately an evenly matched game. I believed that following that game, the Rangers would only get better. I believed that Game 2 was a disappointing bump in the road, a game the Rangers would respond to at home the following night. I believed that Game 3's result was a fluke. I believed that if you offered Dan Bylsma the opportunity to play Game 3 four more times to finish out the series, he would reject the offer, because more often than not, if the game goes like that, the Rangers win. I don't know how true these things were, but as a fan, I believed them.

Rationally, I have felt very positive about these Rangers this season. They had the puck more often than their opponents, and they turned that into success more often than not. They finished the regular season with a FF% of 53.6% and a CF% of 53.2%, both good for 6th overall in the league, behind only fantastic teams (Bruins, Kings, Sharks, Blackhawks) and the New Jersey Devils, which I have no good explanation for. Their PDO was 98.7, a tie for 5th-worst in the NHL, suggesting that their results had room to go up from there. All of which ultimately resulted in a team that finished in 2nd place in its division (and that ranked 3rd in its conference in goal differential), and with me feeling relatively good about its chances.

And so, because Ranger fans, having been treated to the Stanley Cup at the literal once-in-a-lifetime rate of once in the last 73 (going on 74!) seasons, do not know how to feel good about their team, I've found myself defending the Rangers to Ranger fans a lot this season.

"No, John Tortorella was not a better coach just because he was an angrier coach. Yes, 'score goals' is a better coaching strategy than 'block shots.' No, losing in Game 7 of the Finals doesn't mean you don't have 'what it takes.'"

"Yes, Rick Nash is a better hockey player than Brandon Dubinsky. Yes, 10 times out of 10. Yes, even if he has never thrown a Gatorade cooler."

"No, Ryan Callahan is not worth 6 million dollars 6 years from now with a no-trade clause. No, not even for his Heart. No, 'intangibles' are not a real thing."

"Please stop spelling Brad Richards's name with a dollar sign like he's Microsoft and you're a 15-year-old in the 90's."

And so on. Sports narratives like these appeal to our fandom. They make big story lines out of what are often just statistical aberrations. And that's why they're so, so prevalent despite being so, so wrong. None of this is ground-breaking. Everyone rational already understands this, and everyone else is hopeless. So what's my point?

My point is: tonight, all that went away. Watching tonight's game, I felt like all of the Ranger fans I've been calling wrong all season. Like Al Trautwig said post-game, "I cannot believe how badly the Rangers played tonight." This Game 4 loss looked to me like so many other losses always seem to look to so many other Ranger fans.

Tonight, I watched the Penguins out-possess the Rangers like crazy in "as close to a must-win [as it gets]," despite holding the lead. Tonight, I threw around words like "gutless," and I just wanted to see the Rangers throw around their damn bodies. Tonight, I wanted Ryan Callahan to take the place of Martin St. Louis, and I speculated about Ryan McDonagh still being injured from Burrows's cheap shot. After a Flyers series I spent dismissing the "can't win a playoff game when they're up" "statistic" as small sample size garbage, tonight I feel like the Rangers are a team that "just don't have what it takes to win when it counts."

(Exception: The Ranger-fans-booing-Rick-Nash thing. Guys. Seriously. The dude leads the league in shots on goal in the playoffs. He leads the Rangers in Corsi differential, Fenwick differential, and shot differential. He is, basically, the only forward consistently doing his job. Guys, you are watching a game in which your team only directed 38 shots anywhere toward the net, and you are booing the guy who was single-handedly responsible for 29% of them. What are you doing.)

The Rangers picked a very bad time to play their worst game in months (and yes, this game was significantly worse than Game 6 of the Flyers series, by every reasonable measure). And while that doesn't mean it's any more rational to fire Vigneault and go hire Barry Melrose or to buy out Rick Nash at the end of the season than it was 6 hours ago, it's still important, and it still fucking blows. The Rangers were awful tonight, to a man, to a degree that would sound exaggerated if I heard anyone else describe it the way I would describe it. As a fan, I watched this game and I believe that the Rangers' effort and desperation were not where they needed to be. I believe that, results notwithstanding, the Rangers are in very serious trouble if this is how they look through 60 minutes of a game like this one. I don't know how true those things are, but as a fan, I believe them.

The numbers don't tell a much better story than the emotions tonight. Despite trailing for all but the first 2:31 of the game, the Rangers never even had the damn puck tonight, posting a Shots For Percentage of 35.7%, a Fenwick For Percentage of 35.2%, and a Corsi For Percentage of 36.5%. Those numbers wouldn't be great if they were the team that had led all game; as it stands, they're atrocious. Oh, and the Rangers haven't scored a power play goal in over 66 minutes of power play time - more than an entire game's worth. That's plainly, objectively awful.

So now, my team is coming back to the city where I live. In all likelihood, I am going to once again pay way too much money for the privilege of seeing them live. And now, thanks to tonight's debacle of a "contest," I'm approaching it with the dread of what now feels (to my irrational, fanatical heart, at least) likelier than not: that, just like I did 6 years ago, I'll be sitting in the Penguins' home arena (which was a different arena last time), watching Game 5 of the Rangers-Penguins second-round playoff series end in a handshake line that sends the Penguins to the conference finals and the Rangers home for the summer. Some things just don't change. And maybe for certain teams, that's what it means to be a fan.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On captain swapping

This one time (this afternoon) I sent an email full of my thoughts on the Callahan/St. Louis trade to, like, 75% of my readership? Anyway, here they are, because isn't that why I still have this thing?

Scattered thoughts:

-- No doubt, St. Louis is legitimately great, even at this age. 61 points in 62 games so far this season, and most of that was without Stamkos. He's a 38-year-old, small, scrappy forward, so it's hard to imagine that lasting for too much longer, but his deal ends at the end of next season. I would absolutely sign a 2-year, $5.625-mil deal with St. Louis right now. The Rangers get significantly better with this deal.

-- It is very hard to see Ryan Callahan go. He's my first player-I-have-a-jersey-of loss since Adam Graves became a Shark. Thus really finally ends the "Duballahan" years of lovable, tough, "3rd-line" forwards brought up in our system that made the franchise respectable again.

-- With that said, the 6 years at $6 million offer was already a bit of an overpayment for what Callahan brings. Callahan's camp reportedly came all the way down to 6 years at $6.25 million, but would not budge on the no-movement clause. It's very hard to justify paying a 34-year-old Ryan Callahan north of $6 million dollars and not even being able to trade or re-assign him.

-- So, given that we won't have Callahan 3 months from now anyway, trading him straight-up for a year and change of an elite talent like St. Louis seems like a no-brainer. It sucks, and it's very hard on the fans and players - Staal said they all kind of expected a contract with Callahan to get done, and Brassard said the locker room was "not good" today. (Here's hoping the professional athletes can shake that off.) But, for the team, it seems like the obvious right thing to do - in a straight-up trade, the team gets better in the short term and has less potentially bad commitment in the long term.

-- That said, we gave up too much in this trade. In addition to Callahan, we gave up our 2014 1st-rounder and a 2015 2nd-rounder which, if we win 2 playoff rounds this season, becomes another 1st-rounder. Tampa only loses picks back if Callahan re-signs with them, which he will not (more on that later). That's a lot of draft pick to give up to briefly upgrade Callahan to St. Louis, even though it is an upgrade. If the Rangers win the Cup this season or next, obviously those picks become worth it. But, given that we're worse than at least 2 teams in our conference, which is the shitty conference, it's hard to immediately justify giving up potentially two first-rounders for this upgrade.

-- Ultimately, I think the Rangers were between a rock and a hard place: either have Ryan Callahan for too much money on a no-movement clause through age 35, or give up these high picks? In Sather's position, I'm not totally sure I'd do either - I'd probably just keep Callahan for now and let him walk in July - but given the relative age of a lot of our best players right now, I definitely understand why Sather did what he did.

-- Callahan will not re-sign with Tampa or sign back with us at this point. He will probably go to Buffalo, who will probably give him 7 years at $7 million with a no-movement clause, or something. And never win anything, because that team is awful.

-- It is a lot less likely now that we will buy out Richards. And that's okay for now - he's been very solid this year. That contract is going to be hurting us a lot by 2020, but we already knew that. If the contract sounds crazy-long to you (and it is), remember that it ends at the same time Callahan's proposed 6-year deal would have ended.

-- Not sure who wears the 'C'. If it were up to me, I'd give it to Girardi or Lundqvist. It will likely go to Staal or Richards.

-- The last time the New York Rangers traded their active captain was June 30, 2003, when they traded Mark Messier to the San Jose Sharks for "future considerations." Those future considerations became the Sharks' 4th-rounder in 2004 (the draft that happened just before the season-long lockout). The pick ended up being the 127th overall in that draft, which the Rangers used to pick... say it with me now... Ryan Callahan.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I made up a new statistic

I call it the Detrimental Idiot Quotient, or DIQ. It measures what a waste of space a big dumb idiot is by comparing the penalty time a dude incurs to his total ice time. It's my favorite kind of statistic in that it is totally unitless: it compares a measurement of time to another measurement of time, so it's merely a ratio. DIQ is calculated by dividing Penalties In Minutes by Time On Ice (in minutes). So a DIQ of 1.000 would mean that a player incurred one penalty minute for every minute he played.

For example, Sunday night, when the Rangers took the Flyers all the way to school and back, Dan Girardi took a 2-minute interference penalty in the first period, and he logged a total of 22:09 on the night, so Girardi's DIQ for the night would be 0.090. Most players, who were not penalized, had a DIQ of 0.000. Meanwhile, Luke Schenn had a fight in the second along with a roughing and a 10-minute misconduct in the 3rd, for a total of 17 PIM in a game in which he played 16:31, for a DIQ of 1.029. As you can see, any DIQ over 1 is a really big DIQ.

Back of the napkin: league average PIM/game among the 30 NHL teams so far this season is, oddly, exactly what it was throughout 2013: 11.09. (Just trust me, I looked it up and have since lost the page.) Split over 18 skaters, that's a league-wide average of 0.616 PIM/game. Of course, average TOI/game must be (close enough to) 16.667 (300 man-minutes, 18 skaters). So, the league average DIQ should be 0.037: on average, an NHL skater earns 0.037 penalty minutes per minute of ice time. Anything over this is an above average DIQ.

Why did I make up this statistic? (It wasn't actually to make a bunch of DIQ size jokes. That was secondary. But worth it.) I wanted to put into perspective last night's stat line belonging to colossal waste of colossal space Tom Sestito, and I was not disappointed. Last night, Sestito earned a DIQ of 1620.000, nearly 44,000 times the league average.

What a DIQ!

Monday, December 2, 2013

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOALie controversy

Like so many T-shirts in Times Square, I heart New York. I heart New York for a whole lot of reasons, and a lot of them are dumb, but one of the not-dumb ones is that the city is the omnipresent cultural trendsetter. Everything comes from New York. Clothes, theatre, music, food - whatever's trendy in the US started being trendy in New York. So it's always satisfying and intriguing to see the rare cultural phenomenon which spreads over the continent before it hits the city. Well, modern anthropologists such as myself are in luck, as a trend that has been sweeping NHL fan bases for years has finally touched down in Manhattan: the Goalie Controversy.

Though arguments over which of your team's netminders is better have been a part of hockey for a long time, it seems like recently you can't go a few months without some team being in some crisis between the pipes, real or imagined. Of course, the best-known Goalie Controversy in recent memory was resolved over the summer, when Canucks fans were either relieved or appalled to learn that one of their two very good goalies, Cory Schneider, had been traded to a Devils team desperate for a goalie under 40 (or at least one who probably hasn't fucked his wife's sister), leaving room for their other very good goalie, Roberto Luongo. But there's been no shortage of other goalie arguments around the league over the last few years: Fleury vs Vokoun, Bernier vs Reimer, Halak vs Price, Halak vs Elliott, every man for himself in Philly... they run the gamut from "our team has no good goaltending prospects" to "our team has two good goalies and we, the fans, have decided to irrationally hate one of them," and they're always a hot topic of discussion, where "discussion" means hockey fans pretending to be psychologists and ignoring statisticians.

The recipe for a Goalie Controversy is not so different from that of most other invented sports narratives: take a narrow enough window of time that the sample within it fits some very specific trend, add an emotionally charged description of that trend, and then claim it applies to the subject at large. Season with a dash of the phrase "head case," and you've got yourself a Goalie Controversy! For example, in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury (career save percentage .910, playoff save percentage .903) is a head case, but knows what it takes to win the big games, while Tomas Vokoun (career .917, playoff .928) couldn't win when it counts.

And that recipe has finally landed on Broadway. This season, the Rangers finally did away with their charming, gorgeous-eyed, terrible backup in Martin Biron, leaving room for young stud Cam Talbot to finally get some NHL starts. The kid has played very, very well, and the new coach isn't afraid to actually use his backup, which has led some fans to question the heartiness of the Kingdom. This came to something of a head this morning, when it became clear that Talbot would start for the second game in a row. So this is where I tell you why you're worried, why it's fine, and what this might actually mean.

Why you're worried
First of all, Talbot is playing a lot more than we're used to during the reign of the King. In his first 5 full seasons, Lundqvist never played fewer than 68 regular season games (playing 70 twice, 72 once, and 73 once), and after a brief reprieve in 2011-12, in which he played only 62, he returned in the lockout-shortened season to play 43 of 48 (on pace for another 73). This season, including tonight, he'll have started only 19 of 28, on pace for a career-low (in full seasons) 56 games. That's low for any starter, but it's extremely low for Lundqvist.

And the games he's played haven't gone too well. Lundqvist is posting an 8-11 record on the season, compared to Talbot's 6-1. Looking at those records, it'd be easy for you to conclude that Talbot is playing better hockey right now. And you wouldn't necessarily be wrong: the King has allowed 46 goals on 553 shots (.917), while Talbot has allowed only 11 on 198 (.944). Lundqvist isn't at the top of his game right now, and Talbot certainly appears to be. Searching for extra-hockey explanations, it's easy to find some: the Queen (which is what I assume Mrs. Lundqvist is called) recently gave birth to the Prince (which is what I assume their child is called), so maybe he's distracted. It's a contract year, and the Rangers' future with Lundqvist is not yet clear. Maybe he needs to play 70+ games a season to feel good enough about himself to play his best. Maybe the new coaching staff doesn't fit with him. And so on.

Why it's fine
That's all bullshit. We don't have to get into why win-loss record is a terrible way to judge a player, since it's something a whole team does. When the disparity is that strong (Talbot is 6-1!), it's easy to start feeling like it's one guy's fault, but that's nuts. Also, Talbot's opponents have been the Canucks, the Predators, the Canadiens, the Blue Jackets, the Islanders, the Red Wings, and the Flyers - of those, only Detroit and Montreal are playoff teams right now. Yes, Talbot's .944 is very impressive, but he's only faced about 36% of the shots Lundqvist has, and from generally subpar teams. Come talk to me when that save percentage stays consistent over another dozen games against teams like the Bruins, Penguins, Ducks, Sharks, and Blues. Until then, there is no question who the starter on this team is.

And here's the thing, you guys: it's a good thing when you have a reliable backup so your starter doesn't have to play so much. Remember that reprieve season I told you about, 2011-12, when Lundqvist only played 62 regular season games? It was the best season of his career. He posted a .930 save percentage, averaged fewer than 2 goals allowed per game, and won the Vezina. I'm not saying more rest is the only ingredient for that kind of success, but it sure as hell isn't going to hurt.

What this might actually mean
There's no doubt that the King remains one of the best goalies in the league. But his numbers, while still good enough that basically any NHL team would want him (.917 is nothing to be embarrassed about), are not quite as superhuman as we're used to. To be sure, he's not playing his best hockey right now. And that is okay! It is December! He is likelier to remain very, very good for the next few seasons than he is to settle into mediocrity.

But. This offseason, his contract will expire, as will those of some other key Rangers. Lundqvist would be the hottest free agent goalie in a very long time, and he will likely command a 7- or 8-year deal at around $10 million per year. Conventional wisdom to date has been that, as one of the few elite goalies in the NHL, he'd be worth that (even if 5 years from now, depending on the cap, it could start to look ugly), and that the Rangers should do their best to get it settled before he hits the open market. But, if the King is starting to look only very, very good, then that becomes a more interesting question. The going rate for a very good goalie is a sight less than $80 million. Even if he has been the face of the franchise for almost a decade, even if he's often been the only reason the team has been respectable, let alone competitive - would Lundqvist really be worth $10 million a year for 8 years, in an offseason in which we have to sign Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi, if he's only very, very good?

It's way too early in the season to be asking that question, of course, and so the question isn't really the point. The point is that even if you are concerned about the King's "meager" .917 so far this season, you still shouldn't be asking whether or not he's about to be replaced by Cam Talbot; you should be asking whom we're signing next summer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Unfounded Trade Plan: Go!

Last night, after the Rangers' almost-but-not-quite-enough loss to yet another superior team from the superior conference, I went out dumpster-diving, and I found an old, beat-up rumor mill. I took it home, cleaned it up, and guess what: it's still got juice! So, I'm trying the old thing out today. Let's see if it still works!

Of course, imaginary fan-created trade proposals are dumb, and this one will be no different. Generally they're dumb because, for some reason, no fan of any sports team is comfortable with the idea that you have to give up good assets to get good assets. Sure, once in a while, you trade Scott Gomez and two assholes for 4 pieces including Ryan McDonagh and the guy you can trade for Brandon Prust. But usually, your plans to trade your team's 4th line left wing, 7th defenseman, and 20-year-old AHL goalie for Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury because "the Penguins have goalie troubles" probably aren't going to pan out.

Now, with that said, here is my brilliant proposal to trade our 4th line left wing and 7th defenseman.

No, wait, where are you going? Hear me out. For the first time in a while, the Rangers have some possibly vestigial pieces that might actually have some value.

When Rick Nash returns (which, by the way, really should not be on Tuesday to face the Big Bad Bruins in his first game back, please, regardless of how few goals we scored this weekend), he'll likely end up replacing Zuccarello on the Stepan line, sending Zucc down to replace either Miller or Pouliot at Moore's side (at least, that's what I'd do). Miller and Pouliot are playing similar hockey right now, showing occasional flashes of offensive brilliance while spending the majority of their time oscillating between mediocrity and defensive liability. So all things being equal, I'd be just as happy to sit one as the other.

But many things are not equal. Pouliot is a 27-year-old who has been on 5 NHL teams and 2 AHL teams since entering the league in 2006, his stint with the Rangers being his fourth "fresh start" in as many calendar years. Miller is a 20-year-old Rangers first-rounder fewer than 50 games into his career, fresh off of leading Team USA in both assists and points on its way to Gold in the World Juniors less than a year ago. Pouliot's on a 1-year, $1.3 million contract; Miller's is 2 years at less than $900,000 apiece, after which he remains a restricted free agent. It is far easier to invest a roster spot and its requisite patience for defensive lapses in Miller than in Pouliot. And with Powe, Pyatt, and Mashinter all capable of rotating in reliably in case of injury, Pouliot isn't the kind of guy worth carrying around to be a regular scratch. Like a backup goalie, you want your 13th forwards to be low-risk, even if they're relatively low-reward.

Meanwhile, back at the blue line, an interesting thing occurred. Michael Del Zotto, who is whatever the opposite of a fan favorite is, and who saw quite a bit of questionable (and indeed questioned) ice time under Coach Tortorella, was a healthy scratch on Saturday night, making way for Justin Falk, who Wikipedia informs me shares my birthday. Falk, nothing special, nonetheless played solidly enough to remain in the lineup the following night. I'm not saying we've seen the last of Del Zotto in Broadway Blue, but it's clear that, with Staal and Stralman as Vigneault's "offensive pair" (and I can't believe I'm saying this, but Stralman's actually been pretty good lately), it's clear that the Rangers can get by just fine without DZ to round out the bottom pair. Even if he should be on the ice instead of Falk, if your top 5 D-men are McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Stralman, and Moore, do you really need to pay him $2.55 million to do it? Like Pouliot, Del Zotto is the kind of player you don't keep around if you're not giving him good minutes - better to pay less for someone with lower highs and higher lows.

Understand: Del Zotto and Pouliot are not without their up sides, and on a team with a slightly different makeup, it would likely be worth keeping them around. But that's really the point: you have to give up value to get value in a trade, and these are two guys that might not be doing much for the Rangers, but who might have meaningful value for some other team. Not for a team with its shit together, mind you - which basically rules out everyone in the West that isn't from Tennessee or Alberta - but for a team that, for whatever reason, is willing to take some risks with some "enigmatic" pieces with high potential, and who might give up a single consistent resource in return. That's not so crazy, is it?

Right, so. Here's my proposal: offer Del Zotto and Pouliot to Philadelphia for Wayne Simmonds.

Eh? If they say no, maybe let them upgrade a lower pick one round as well, or possibly even throw one in? Am I crazy to think a team like Philly would go for a move like this? Am I crazy to think it would benefit the Rangers, not insignificantly? It sounds plausible to me. So, let's throw it in the mill and see what comes out.