Not much has gone right for the New York Rangers this season.
Overall, the team is probably not where it wants to be in the standings and seems to have regressed from the late season progress it made a year ago.
The season itself has been full of drama and surprising storylines, from the Tony DeAngelo saga, to Artemi Panarin‘s leave of absence, to some key injuries (Filip Chytil and Jacob Trouba), to the lack of an immediate impact from recent top-two picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. Some of those are more understandable and easier to accept than others. Kakko and Lafreniere, for example, are both still only 19 years old. There is a learning curve there and you have to expect some growing pains. You also can not do anything about injuries. Sometimes you just have bad luck.
All of it has added up to a tough start in a season that began with a lot of promise.
But perhaps the most damaging development to the team’s success has been the absolutely stunning scoring slump that top center Mika Zibanejad is suffering through.
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After he was held of the scoresheet in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, he remains stuck on two goals and only six total points through the first 19 games of the season.
This is a player that scored 41 goals in only 57 games a year ago. A player that since joining the Rangers has blossomed into one of the most productive centers in the league, scoring 98 goals between 2017-18 and 2019-20. Only 12 players in the league scored more goals during that stretch, and when you break it down to a goals per game level he actually cracked the top-10.
And now? He can not buy a goal. He has zero even-strength goals (scoring a power play and shorthanded goal) and is currently mired in one of the worst goal-scoring slumps of his Rangers career.
If you break each of his seasons with the Rangers down to 19-game segments, there has only been one stretch in those four-plus years that was this bad, and that came in early March of 2017, his very first year with the team.
So what’s happening here?
Anytime a scorer goes through a slump like this the first question you should ask yourself is simply: Are they still taking shots? Are they still creating?
Every player, regardless of their skill level, is going to eventually hit an extended slump where the puck does not go in the net, and nobody ever completely avoids that. When top-line players hit those slumps we tend to come down on them much harder than second-and third-line players because we expect those top players to score, and score often. And when they don’t, we tend to think they’re not doing anything. This is where the “eye-test” can mislead you, because it lends yourself to confirmation bias. This player is not scoring, so I do not see them doing anything.
You sometimes see what you want to see.
This is where the numbers can tell you something. And when we dig into Zibanejad it paints two very different pictures.
Overall, his ability to generate shots this season is almost identical to what it has been in recent years in all situations.
This year he is averaging 8.9 shots on goal per 60 minutes, 16.2 total shot attempts, and 7.96 scoring chances in all situations. All of them are among the Rangers’ leaders.
During the 2017-20 seasons, when he was a top-10 goal scorer, those numbers were 9.34, 15.8, and 7.99 respectively. Nearly identical, and it should be a promising sign for offense.
The two biggest issues
So why isn’t the puck going in the net?
The first is that his shot and scoring chance generation has plummeted during 5-on-5 play, dropping all the way down to 5.82 shots on goal per 60 minutes, 9.1 shot attempts, and only 4.3 scoring chances.
Between 2017-20 those numbers were 8.18 shots on goal, 13.5 attempts, and 7.28 chances. He is not anywhere near as effective at 5-on-5 despite mostly playing next to the same players (typically Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider).
But the biggest factor here is the simple fact he is getting crushed by the percentages. As of Sunday he has scored only 3.5 percent of shots on goal this season. For a player that typically scores on more than 12 percent of his shots, that is a stunning fall. During his time with the Rangers that is the lowest percentage he has experienced over any 19-game stretch, and only the second time he has ever had a stretch dip below 5 percent. It is almost unheard of for him to drop below 7 percent.
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There is an element of luck at play any time a player this talented, generating this many shots, sees their percentages drop that much. The biggest thing you can ask of a goal scorer is to consistently get shots and consistently get chances. Sometimes they will score goals in bunches, as Zibanejad did in the second half of the 2019-20 season. Sometimes they go weeks where nothing seems to go in the net. That is happening right now.
His 5-on-5 play is something to worry about. But even with that, he has still generated enough shot volume and scoring chances, especially on the power play, that he should have more goals than this. That is why I am inclined to point to “bad luck” as a major factor here. His season looks a lot different right now with a 10-12 percent shooting percentage and six or seven goals.
The Rangers need to be patient. He needs to keep shooting. If those two things happen, some of those pucks are going to start finding their way in.
[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.