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January 20, 2012
Howe and Why
Rangers Face Likely Second-Half Fall-off

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider

The New York Rangers sit atop the NHL standings with 62 points through 44 games. It is a very impressive achievement, one that led owner James Dolan to address the media for the first time in years and boast that he feels the team is close to winning the Stanley Cup.

The Rangers certainly are in the Cup hunt, but a look at how they've reached their league-best point total indicates that they might not be able to sustain their streak of success and, in fact, are in line for a second-half slump. And they're not the only ones.

People are quick to point out the shortcomings of stats-based analysis, often dismissing it because it fails to include intangibles like chemistry, heart and clutch play -- things on which the Rangers thrive. But even if those things could be measured, they haven't proved to have any predictive power. Despite whatever perceived shortcomings stats may have, they forecast Colorado's second-half drop in 2009-10 and Dallas' in 2010-11. They also predicted this season's plunge in Minnesota, where the Wild have just one regulation win in their past 16 games despite a 20-7-2 start.

A handful of other teams have unsustainable underlying numbers and are due for second-half slumps -- although for the sake of their fans, hopefully far gentler ones. New York tops this list.

New York Rangers
First half: 58 points Projected second half: 46 points
Slump: 12 points

In our book, Hockey Prospectus 2011-12, we predicted the Rangers to finish fourth in the NHL, so No. 1 wouldn't be that far off. However, a lot of their success in the first half was driven by higher-than-expected percentages that will soon come down to Earth. Offensively, they were 26th in the league in shots per game but third in shooting percentage, improving from their customary 9.1 percent last season to 10.6 percent. Several Rangers are sniping at or near career-high rates, including Brad Richards, who is on pace for his first 30-goal season, and fellow veteran Marian Gaborik, who already has matched last season's goal total.

Although the Rangers are trending up from their awful start possession-wise, throughout the first half of the season, they controlled the play just 48.6 percent of the time in close games. The fact that they have the third-fewest giveaways and stand sixth in blocked shots may be a representation of their skill but also that they don't often have the puck in the first place, further highlighting their reliance on red-hot shooting percentages.

Defensively, the Rangers are being boosted by Henrik Lundqvist's absurd .937 save percentage -- 14 points higher than his already impressive career high. He's also stopped almost 91 percent of shots while down a man. Unless he's this season's Tim Thomas, the Rangers will have a tougher second half when he and backup Martin Biron, who is also setting a career high, begin to regress from .935 to last season's more typical .922.

Overall, the Rangers will be down 15 goals for and 15 goals against when the percentages regress, and that would lead to a 10-point drop in the standings. So what accounts for the other two points? Given that their puck luck could change, their 9-2-4 record in one-goal games figures to dip a little -- in this case, costing them at least one win.

While they've been a much-improved team the past 15 games or so, the Rangers aren't likely to hit the 100-point milestone until the season's final week.

Nashville Predators
First half: 48 points Projected second half: 40 points
Slump: 8 points

Radio personality Willy Daunic of Nashville 102.5 The Game calls me Buzzkill for a reason: I think the Predators are unlikely to hang on to their postseason position.

It's not the percentages that will kill the Predators; it's the players. They're 29th in close-game puck-possession metrics -- 45.1 percent and holding flat. They're 27th in shots per game and 22nd in shots against, and Pekka Rinne is suddenly appearing mortal since a lack of depth and injuries forced them to use a number of promising but untried defensemen like Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Teemu Laakso. Their first half was temporarily boosted by a great 12-5-4 record in one-goal games (they were sub-.500 last season), and some hot shooting gave them the league's second-best power play.

The level of success the Predators have achieved with marginal spending and a limited talent pool is admirable, but they could potentially find themselves as sellers at the trade deadline with head coach Barry Trotz's future finally in question this offseason.

Philadelphia Flyers
First half: 54 points Projected second half: 48 points
Slump: 6 points

After a massive offseason overhaul, the Flyers ended the first half third in the Eastern Conference, ranking fifth in shots per game and eighth in shots against. They look like potential world-beaters if their goaltending could come around.

Unfortunately, things aren't quite as rosy when you pop the hood.The Flyers are 5-5-1 since starting December with a seven-game winning streak, lead the league with 204 minor penalties per game, are a lucky 13-2-4 in one-goal games (like Nashville, they were sub-.500 last season), are 27th in faceoff percentage and, like the Rangers, have been boosted by a 10.5 percent team shooting percentage. Eight forwards completed the first half with 10 goals, including Wayne Simmonds, hot rookie Matt Read, James van Riemsdyk and Maxime Talbot, who already has surpassed last season's 82-game total of eight. Rookie Matt Read is shooting at a 14.0 percent clip, superstar Claude Giroux is at 17.5 percent and Scott Hartnell is at 17.6 percent -- way up from his career average of 11.1 percent.

Although they're playing solid hockey, the Flyers are not dominating possession like true elite teams, controlling the play just 51.3 percent of the time in close-game situations (but trending up). The hope here has to be that many of the points they stand to lose to regression will be made up with improving goaltending ... but it won't make up for all of them. It will be a tight race to earn the Atlantic Division postseason home seed.

Dallas Stars
First half: 47 points Projected second half: 42 points
Slump: 5 points

As 2010 ended, famed statistical analyst Gabriel Desjardins used a similar theory to argue that the last-place Devils (20 points) would outperform the second-place Stars (46 points) the balance of the season, and boy, was he right -- Dallas managed just 49 points (12 fewer than the Devils) and missed the postseason for the third straight spring.

Give new coach Glen Gulutzan credit for starting off 11-3 by getting the most out of journeyman role players. Eric Nystrom has set a career high in goals with 12 by shooting at a whopping 19.4 percent, and Michael Ryder has almost matched his full-season goal totals from the past two seasons (18) by shooting at 17.5 percent. Still, don't expect that to be enough for the Stars to scratch their way into eighth by season's end.

As a team, the Stars are struggling, ranking in 20th in shots per game and 27th in shots against per game, for a 48.6 percent close-game possession rate. Add a statistical regression from their fortunate 11-3-1 one-goal-game record, and the original preseason prediction of 23rd overall for the Stars could prove bang-on.

Another team to watch: Florida Panthers (minus-5 points)

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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staff member timoseppa
BP staff

Mitigating factors I like about the Rangers are the return of legit #1 defenseman Marc Staal - which I said all along, in regards to some of their lagging numbers - and the very young core of the roster. My midseason calculations have the Rangers as by far the youngest good team. You figure that even over the course of a season, a rookie/sophomore/third-year player could improve.

Anyone who considers the Blueshirts the favorite out of the East is really missing the boat on Boston, but what I really like about New York is their likely ability to be a contender for several years to come. I've been saying that all along (like in the books).

Jan 20, 2012 08:02 AM

I'm curious about the Rangers - what's the explanation for Brandon Dubinsky's poor start?

Jan 20, 2012 16:13 PM
rating: 0
staff member timoseppa
BP staff

Some of it's perception with Dubinsky. The dip in goals sticks out to the mainstream. Biggest factor in his usage is not just a drop from 3 to 2 minutes on the power play, but the fact that means he's not on the first unit. Last season, he was second among Rangers forwards in 5 on 4 time; this season, he's fifth. He's always been a below average PP performer and now his usage reflects that (driven by the increased forward talent on the team). Being on the second team has driven a poor PPP/60 worse.

Jan 22, 2012 07:34 AM

Love the article Rob. I look forward to the hatemail you'll receive from all these fanbases!

Jan 25, 2012 08:35 AM
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