NHL Analysis: The Tri-State Trio Battles In The East

Hockey in the New York Tri-State area has no shortage of excitement going right now, with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils are battling around the borderline of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s possible all three could make it, and it’s possible all three could miss. Although neither extreme is likely, it adds to the drama these final seventeen days of the regular season. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will compare all three teams in each phase of the game.

OFFENSE: The Islanders have been one of the league’s surprise teams, as they fight for relevance for the first time since their dynasty of the early 1980s. They’ve done with an offense that’s one of the NHL’s ten most prolific, and the best of the group is center John Tavarez. He’s an elite scorer and a very good passer. Tavarez gets support from forward Matt Moulson, with some complementary help coming from Brad Boyes passing the puck and Michael Grabner lighting the lamp. This team does a good job both generating shots and finishing.

It’s the Rangers who’ve had a lot of problems scoring goals, but the big caveat we have to note is that there is a significant discrepancy between the number of shots they get (6th in the NHL) and the number of goals they score (23rd). Remember, if this were a normal season, we’d only be at about the halfway point, and likely to dismiss this as a statistical fluke that would work itself out, and likely in favor of more goals being scored. That’s got to give Eastern Conference powers pause if they contemplate the Rangers as a first-round opponent.

It’s also an offense that’s undergone some changes. The team acquired Rick Nash from Columbus during the offseason and he’s a solid scorer. Then at last week’s trade deadline they shipped out last year’s main scorer, Marian Gaborik, also to Columbus, completing what amounted to a de facto trade. Derek Stepan and Brad Richards are good passers at the center spot, and Stepan can also score. Ryan Callahan has been an adequate scorer at forward, but is a prime example of a player who can significantly lift his game before this is over.

New Jersey lost Zach Parise in the offseason to Minnesota, and Ilya Kovalchuk has been down with a shoulder injury. Those were the two best offensive players on the team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last year, and their absence/injuries really shows. The Devils are below average at getting shots and even worse at converting. There’s nothing positive to speak of at center, where action has to flow from on most good offenses, and while Patrik Elias is a nice player, he’s better served in the complementary role he had last year. Kovalchuk’s expected back in a few days, but with the Devils already being in 10th in the East, that could be a few days too late.

DEFENSE: This segment starts with the Rangers, who are the one team in the Tri-City Trio that really excels at shutting down opponents. Due primarily to Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers are a top five team in goal prevention. Lundqvist has taken some heat for playoff losses, but don’t overlook the fact that if this year’s team gets in, it will be heavily on his shoulders, because the defense in front of him is mediocre. Some of it is due to injuries at the defenseman spot, but whatever the reason, the Rangers are below average at stopping shots, while being elite in stopping goals. That tells you something pretty good about the goalie.

New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur is a legend in the sport, with three championships to his name, plus a couple more trips to the Finals, including last year. I hold him in high regard, but that can’t stop us from pointing out the obvious—he’s just that not good anymore. His 90.8% save rate might sound good to basketball fans who correlate it to free-throw shooting, but in reality that ranks him at the bottom of regular NHL goalies. The defense is doing a great job limiting his exposure, and in any one-game shot I’d never bet against a proud veteran with Hall of Fame credentials—ask the Florida Panthers about last year’s Game 7 in the first round—but over the long haul, there’s no denying Brodeur’s significant decline.

If the Islanders don’t make the playoffs it will be because of their goaltending, and whenever they lose it will be because of it. Evgeni Nabokov’s save percentage is down there with Brodeur’s, and in this case, there’s no reason to think the Islander netminder could gut it up for one big game when it really mattered. The defense in front is decent, but not dominant enough to bail out a bad goalie.

5-ON-5/POWER PLAY: The Rangers and Islanders are the study in contrasts here. The Rangers have the most success in regular 5-on-5 play, while being subpar in both converting their own power plays and killing the oppositions. The Islanders aren’t very good in standard play and are mediocre killing penalties, but have excelled when they enjoy a man advantage. New Jersey just hasn’t played very well in any situation, which explains why at this writing, they are the one team of this group that would miss the playoffs.

I prefer the Rangers’ numbers when it comes to projecting long-term success, with the precondition that the team must improve its ability to kill penalties. But when your offensive is reliant on the power play to score, that places you at the mercy of how a game is officiated, and as the playoffs progress, it’s less likely that a good team will give you a lot of chances.

CONCLUSION: If you had never followed hockey before and looked at these teams’ basic statistical profiles, I’d suggest that you would say the Rangers have the best long-term potential, with the Islanders close behind and the Devils a very distant third.

If you do follow hockey and have some context, I’d say the Rangers’ edge becomes even wider—we can reasonably assume their offense will get better and there’s at least a decent chance the penalty kill will improve. And with that same context, I’m hesitant to dismiss the Devils, especially with Kovalchuk’s return imminent. But if anyone in the Tri-State area makes noise this spring, it’s going to be the Rangers. Now, it’s just a question of whether they earn the chance over these next 2 ½ weeks.