The New York Rangers entered the 2022-23 season with lofty expectations, coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference final, but they have yet to deliver on them. Through 28 games, they are fifth in the Metropolitan Division and do not occupy a playoff spot.
On the surface, things look rather concerning for the Rangers. In the last few weeks, they have suffered bad losses to teams taking up residence in the NHL's basement like the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, and Anaheim Ducks.
After finishing second in goals against in the 2021-22 season, the Rangers are currently 17th in that same category this year. Combine that with the fact that some key players aren't scoring at the same rate as last season, and it adds up to a middling record.
All of that leads to the question, "What is wrong with the Rangers?"
As it turns out, not much. In fact, the Rangers are actually better than last season in some areas, and their underlying numbers suggest they are a very good team that has been the victim of bad luck so far.
Let's start with one big change from last season. Throughout the 2021-22 campaign, I doubted the Rangers because their five-on-five possession numbers were awful. Their five-on-five expected goals share was just 47.04%, according to Natural Stat Trick. That ranked 24th in the NHL, and they were looking up at the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Seattle Kraken in that category.
This season, the Rangers have controlled 52.69% of the expected goals at five-on-five, which is 11th in the league and puts them in the same neighborhood as the Vegas Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Basically, the Rangers' process this season is much better than it was in 2021-22, but it has led to worse results. The three biggest factors leading to that disconnect are poor shooting luck, the fact that Igor Shesterkin isn't playing like the best goalie ever to strap on a pair of pads, and the Rangers' poor record in extra time.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers have generated 96.52 expected goals in all situations, but they have only found the back of the net 87 times. That -9.52 differential is the fifth biggest underperformance in the NHL, but can that be attributed to the Rangers taking a high volume of low-danger shots? It cannot.
The Rangers rank second in the NHL with 397 high-danger scoring chances. The puck just isn't going into the net. As a team, the Rangers are shooting 9.27% on the year, which is 24th in the league. They have too much talent for that not to improve over the course of 82 games.
As far as individual performances go, Artemi Panarin, Alexis Lafrenière, and Chris Kreider are all pacing below their goal totals from 2021-22. Kreider scored 52 goals last season, which was 24 more than his previous career high, so it's not particularly surprising to see him pacing closer to 38 goals this year. However, the other two players should be due for some positive regression.
Panarin is tracking for 17 or 18 goals this season after notching 22 last year, but he hasn't been playing any worse. His 8.6% shooting percentage is just well below his career average of 14.0%, and he has just one goal in his last 18 games. Throughout that drought, Panarin has taken three or more shots on goal 10 times. I doubt he remains this cold.
Lafrenière is another player who appears to be incredibly snake-bitten. He is pacing for four fewer goals than the 19 he scored last season, and that is despite his shot count going up. In 2021-22, Lafrenière averaged 1.39 shots per game. This season, he is right at 2.0 shots per game. Just like Panarin, Lafrenière's shooting percentage of 8.9% is much lower than you would expect. In each of his two previous seasons, Lafrenière has shot over 17.0%.
It should also be noted that defensemen Jacob Trouba and K'Andre Miller have combined for zero goals on 126 shots. Those two aren't exactly known for filling the back of the net, but they did total 18 goals between them a year ago. The law of averages should correct their woes as well.
On the defensive end of the ice, the Rangers have been around average this season, and they have taken a slight step back from 2021-22. They were 11th in total expected goals against last year, and they are 20th in that same category this year, per Natural Stat Trick. However, the offense has more than made up for any deficiencies on the back end.
The biggest problem the Rangers have in their own zone is that Shesterkin has almost looked mortal at times. Last season, Shesterkin posted a GAA of 2.07, a save percentage of 93.5%, and 44.83 goals saved above average. He was utterly dominant and an easy choice for the Vezina Trophy.
In 2022-23, Shesterkin hasn't been bad by any stretch, but he just hasn't been in another stratosphere from the rest of the league. In 20 games played, Shesterkin has a GAA of 2.58, a .913 save percentage, and 5.10 goals saved above average. Those numbers are all clearly worse than last season, but they are more than good enough to make a deep playoff run.
Finally, the Rangers have gone to overtime or a shootout six times this season. They are 1-5 in those games, which came down to a glorified skills competition. If the Rangers had won just two more of those games, they would be in second place in the Metro Division. That's how slim the margins are in the modern NHL.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing in New York this season, and that's understandable. When a team enters the year with Stanley Cup expectations, a mediocre start leads to frustration at all levels.
That said, there are plenty of indications that the Rangers are one of the NHL's better teams and they should be higher in the standings. If they can stay the course and continue doing what they're doing on a nightly basis, the Rangers should eventually look like the contender we all expected.