SAN JOSE, Calif. – It’s been a slower start for the Rangers than almost anyone had expected, and as they approach the quarter-pole of the 2022-23 season, the Blueshirts find themselves on the fringes of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. With three quarters of the season left, it’s still early, of course. But to quote the great Yogi Berra out of context, “It gets late early out there.’’
It’s definitely too early to panic for Rangers fans, but is it too early to be concerned? It may not be.
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and in the salary cap era (since 2005-6) 76.8% of NHL teams (172 of 224) holding a playoff spot on U.S. Thanksgiving – based on percentage of potential points earned – end up making the playoffs. Last year, the Rangers were one of the eight teams in the East holding a playoff spot on Thanksgiving. Seven of those made the playoffs. Five of eight teams holding a playoff spot in the West at Thanksgiving made it, meaning 12 of the 16 teams (75%) across the league who were in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving reached the postseason.
At this point, we don’t know if the Rangers will be in a playoff spot on Thursday. After Saturday’s late game against the Sharks in San Jose, the Blueshirts have two more games before Thanksgiving, Tuesday in L.A. against the Kings, and Wednesday in Anaheim against the last-place Ducks, in the final game of the current road trip.
What we do know is that before Saturday’s faceoff, the Rangers had 20 points from their first 18 games, which is 55.6% of the maximum 36 points that were available to them. At that pace, they would finish the 82-game season with 91 points, which doesn’t seem like it would be enough to make the playoffs, given that last season, all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams had at least 100 points.
The Rangers’ take on their current position in the standings is that 20 points from 18 games is not who they are. They just haven’t played as well as they can this season.
“Right now… I don't think that we're at our potential yet,’’ forward Vincent Trocheck said. “It takes a little time to get there sometimes, whenever you have a new team. But I think we all have a lot of confidence in the group that we have, and we're just trying to reach that potential.’’
The thing is, the Rangers don’t have a new team. Trocheck is new, but he, Jimmy Vesey, Vitali Kravtsov and Ryan Carpenter are the only new guys. The rest of the team was all here last season when the Rangers won 52 games and had 110 points.
Those numbers were why expectations were high for the Rangers coming in. But defenseman K’Andre Miller said this season’s Rangers still have to prove themselves.
“I think we have, kind of, more to prove to ourselves,’’ he said. “We know what kind of team we can be.’’
Miller was asked if he was concerned with the fast starts of teams such as Boston (15-2 entering Saturday) and the Devils (15-3 after Saturday's 12th straight win) who are pulling away from the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, respectively, in the early going.
“There's not much you can do about other (teams’) scores,’’ he said. “There's going to be teams where they go on ‘heaters’ or different things like that. But I think it just staying within your game and focusing on yourself is the biggest key.’’
Miller, Trouba struggling
K'Andre Miller and his defense partner, captain Jacob Trouba, have had a tough season so far in terms of being on ice for goals-against. The duo, which gets the most ice time of any defense pair on the team, had been on ice for 16 goals against (vs. six goals for) in 5-on-5 play entering Saturday. In comparison, the Adam Fox-Ryan Lindgren partnership, which gets the second-most ice time, had been on for just six goals against at 5-on-5 (and eight for).
According to the analytics website Natural Stat Trick, the other numbers are actually relatively good. Using shots on goal, shot attempts, and scoring chances as a proxy for puck possession, Miller-Trouba have been on for 153 shots for and 113 against, and 133 scoring chances for versus 113 against. So the Rangers are outshooting and out-chancing opponents when Miller-Trouba are on the ice.
And coach Gerard Gallant said he’s pleased with how the two are playing.
“I guess the (goals scored) numbers aren't good, but I'm happy with them,’’ Gallant said. “I think they're playing well (and) they're doing their job… I'm happy with them overall.’’
“I think we know we can be better,’’ Miller said of himself and Trouba. “Obviously our numbers aren't showing the greatest description of our game, and how we both collectively think we've been playing, or how the coaching staff has been thinking we're playing. But… it's just kind of all about chances and bounces, and confidence.
“I think when bounces are going your way, it's easy to find those little things to like about your game, but also, in turn, when things aren't going your way, it's easy to pick out those little things that are, kind of, I guess, just statistics.’’