Every season the injury bug bites a handful of franchises far too frequently, usually ruining any chance they may have had to be competitive. This season one of its favorite targets has been the New York Rangers. Somehow the resilient team has leveraged its well-stocked farm system and carefully chosen collection of role players not only to stay afloat, but to thrive.
Using GVT we can quantify the exact toll injuries have taken on the Broadway Blueshirts, figure out exactly how they've managed to excel and see if we can expect it to continue.
Category 2009-10 2010-11
Standings 21st 9th
Goals For 16th 14th
Goals Against 10th 5th
Power Play 13th 24th
Penalty Killing 7th 8th
Hits 2nd 1st
Blocked Shots 11th 3rd
Giveaways 28th 28th
Takeaways 10th 12th
Faceoffs 21st 28th
Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 raised more than a few eyebrows this summer when we confidently projected that the Rangers would be the NHL's most improved team. Everyone already knew that New York was a tough team, regularly among the league leaders in hits, and one of those shot-blocking, defensive teams whose consistently elite goaltending kept it in practically every game. But beyond the great Marian Gaborik, did the Rangers have enough puck-handling offensive talent to be legitimate contenders? Clearly, the answer is a resounding yes.
While their power play has understandably suffered from the absence of their top stars, incremental improvements at both ends of the ice have vaulted them from 21st in the league to the top 10. This achievement is particularly impressive when you use GVT to review a list of their key injuries, and the estimated impact they have had, based on their performance per game last season.
GP: Games Missed
ValO: Offensive Value Lost
ValD: Defensive Value Lost
Player GP ValO ValD
Vaclav Prospal 52 4.1 2.1
Marian Gaborik 14 3.1 0.8
Chris Drury 31 1.0 1.3
Ryan Callahan 20 0.4 0.9
Erik Christensen 15 0.7 0.5
Alexander Frolov 9 0.6 0.3
Brandon Dubinsky 5 0.3 0.3
Total 146 10.2 6.2
Ten fewer goals for and six more against is the net effect of the Rangers' injuries, which doesn't include Ruslan Fedotenko's insignificant brief absence, nor Derek Boogaard's, whose performance is so poor that it actually helps the club when practically anyone else dresses in his stead.
How have the Rangers not only coped with a 16-goal hit to their bottom line, but vaulted forward in the standings? In fairness, luck has been a big factor. For example, their overtime/shootout record improved from a league-worst 4-11 to a 8-3, which is critical for strong defensive teams that see more games tied at the end of regulation.
The breaks and bounces have also been in the Rangers' favor, to the tune of an extra 41 goals scored or prevented, based on their team shooting and save percentages. In short, while they've been getting their fair share of misfortune with injuries, they're getting an equal serving of good fortune with the bounces and breaks.
Rookies and Role Players
The gaps in their lineups have been filled not by big names, but by the previously unknown. For starters, the Rangers are blessed with three rookies who are contributing 10.7 of the lost 16.4 goals all by themselves: Mats Zuccarello (4.2), Derek Stepan (4.1) and Michael Sauer (2.4). While both the NHL and AHL may be littered with the legacy of Glen Sather's horrible contracts, you at least have to give the Rangers GM credit for stocking the system with quality young talent.
The rest of the void has been filled by last season's bench players stepping up into top-line roles, most notably the giant Brian Boyle, who has responded to a doubling of ice time by leading the Rangers in goal scoring and going from a negative GVT last season to tying Gaborik for second-best on the team. That's an 8.2 GVT bonus right there, earning him fourth place on our recent list of this season's biggest surprises.
If Gaborik and Boyle are second in GVT among Rangers skaters, who is first? Dan Girardi, who is already 2.8 GVT ahead of where we expected, and just five points back of his career high. In fact, Girardi stepped so nicely into a first-line role that the Rangers felt free to deal away veteran Michal Rozsival, whose own substantial improvement made it possible to get the extra help they needed up front and on the power play in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes for Wojtek Wolski.
Generally the absence of a team's marquee talent is felt most on special teams, and while that's certainly true of the Rangers' power play, their penalty killing is better than ever. They're first in short-handed goals with nine thanks in large part to Brandon Prust, who has already bagged three. Prust, a well-chosen throw-in acquired from the Calgary Flames in last year's Olli Jokinen trade, has had his ice-time doubled and has consequently already more than doubled his career scoring totals and exceeded GVT expectations by 1.7 goals.
The Renewed Rangers -- Cup Threat?
Now that the Rangers have slowly returned to almost full strength, with only Alexander Frolov and Chris Drury standing to miss any more significant action, are they this season's Cinderella story and legitimate threats for the Stanley Cup?
Given how well their rookies and role players have stepped up, the Rangers may not necessarily be a more dangerous team when using their returning veterans instead. And because studies have shown that the outcome of overtime and shootouts are essentially random, and that luck influences up to 74 percent of shooting and save percentages, history suggests that the Rangers are in for a tough ride when those numbers regress to the mean.
In other words, don't fit the Rangers for that glass slipper just yet.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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