There was no team in the NHL that was better positioned at the trade deadline than the New York Rangers.
They had one of the league’s best records, had impact players at forward, defense, and goalie, with the latter position being manned by the likely Vezina Trophy winner and a major Hart Trophy contender in Igor Shesterkin.
Along with that they also had an enormous amount of salary cap space to address the very real flaws that existed on their roster, specifically relating to their scoring depth and complementary parts.
They did not waste that opportunity, acquiring Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun in a series of trades. It has been a completely different team since then, and all for the better.
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The biggest concern with the Rangers in the first half of the season is that a significant portion of their success was driven by the play of Shesterkin.
When he started, the Rangers won. When he did not start, they typically lost. And the wins were in large part his doing because the Rangers had some of the worst underlying numbers of any potential playoff team. They gave up a ton of shots, were typically out-chanced, and did not get much of anything from their bottom-six in terms of production.
In the 10 games since the trade deadline they have done a complete 180 in a lot of those areas. Let’s dive into a few key areas here and see the improvements and what they might mean.
They have mostly carried the play since the trade deadline
This is probably the biggest change for the Rangers. Not only have their underlying and possession numbers improved since the new additions were made, they have been among the best in the NHL over the past 10 games.
The table below looks at their performance over the past 30 games, broken down into 10-game stretches, in total shot attempts against (CA), shot attempt share (CF), scoring chances against, scoring chance share, high-danger scoring chances, high-danger scoring chance share, and expected goals (xGF).
Over the past 10 games since the trade deadline additions they have literally been one of the top-four teams in the league in every one of these categories as it relates to suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and outchancing their opponents.
Over the 20 games prior to that they ranged from middle of the pack to bottom of the league. Their wins were the result of goaltending, special teams, and their top-line players (Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad) being able to take over games. That sort of recipe can only take you so far. It might get you to the playoffs (and it was certainly doing that for the Rangers), but it will not make you a serious Stanley Cup contender.
Not just dependent on Shesterkin
Before the trade deadline the Rangers had two problems relating to their goalies: If Shesterkin did not have a save percentage of .920, or if he did not play, they had a losing record. In games where his save percentage was below .920, or in games started by Alexandar Georgiev (regardless of his performance), the Rangers’ record was only 14-17-4 prior to the deadline.
What stands out about the Rangers’ post-deadline performance is they are not only winning games and playing better defensively, this is all happening during what might be Shesterkin’s worst stretch of the season. Since the deadline New York’s team all situations save percentage is just .889, a mark that places them 23rd in the league during that stretch. They are still 7-2-1 in those games. No way they were winning games at that rate with that sort of goaltending in the first part of the season.
If the Rangers can maintain their overall play from the past 10 games, and get Shesterkin back on track (and he might be getting there with just one goal against in his past two starts) they would become a very scary team in the East, especially with their top-end talent at forward and with a bonafide No. 1 defender in Adam Fox.
Still a lingering concern or two to worry about
All of the above is great news, but there are two things to keep in mind.
Even with all of their overall improvements they are still not getting any production from their bottom-six. Vatrano and Copp have improved an already strong top-six and made it even more well rounded and dominant. The bottom-six has still been outscored 3-10 since the deadline, while Alexis Lafrenière (perhaps their biggest x-factor right now) has not recorded a single point in seven consecutive games (with only seven shots on goal in those games; including four games with zero shots on goal).
That needs to be better. At some point your third and fourth lines are going to have to contribute some offense, especially in the playoffs and especially if you want to beat teams like Tampa Bay, Carolina, or Florida.
The other thing to keep in mind is that over these past 10 games the Rangers have only played one team that is going to the playoffs: Pittsburgh. The good news: They have played Pittsburgh three times in that stretch and beaten them all three times, including one time rather convincingly (5-1). Two of those games, though, were the Rangers’ worst 5-on-5 games of this stretch and very much did rely on Shesterkin to win (the old recipe), just as they did in the two games prior to the deadline against Carolina and Tampa Bay. They beat those playoff teams, but goaltending largely swung them in their favor. Again, that is fine. But it can only take you so far.
The Rangers play Carolina two more times the rest of the way, including Tuesday night, and it will be interesting to see how they do in those matchups (as well as remaining games against Boston and Washington). Will they be able to control the pace of play better against a top Stanley Cup contender? Or will they go back to needing goaltending to get them through? If the improvement we have seen over the past 10 games is real and shows up against a top team, the Rangers might really be on to something here this season.