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The Rangers Are The San Antonio Spurs Of The NHL

It was Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh’s turn to play hero for the New York Rangers on Friday. Kreider’s goal to tie the game against the Washington Capitals with 1:41 left in regulation and McDonagh’s overtime winner saved the Rangers from elimination and sent the Eastern Conference semifinal back to Washington for Game 6 on Sunday.

The Rangers aren’t a bunch of scrappy underdogs, exactly. They reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. They won the Presidents’ Trophy this year by being the NHL’s best regular-season team. And they play in New York.

But they’re unusually well-balanced, running three or four lines deep with quality forwards and defensemen. They don’t have a superstar with the wattage of the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, however. What about their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist? He’s almost certainly the most popular Ranger, and he’s among the best goalies in the NHL. But Lundqvist started only 43 of the Rangers’ 82 regular-season games; he missed several weeks of action after being hit in the throat with a puck Jan. 31. Fortunately for the Blueshirts, Lundqvist’s backup, Cam Talbot, was just as effective.

Here’s one way to measure whether an NHL team is star-dominated, like the Capitals, or balanced, like the Rangers. Take what’s essentially each team’s first line — their top three forwards, top two defensemen and best goaltender — according to Hockey-Reference.com’s point shares (an all-in-one statistic that’s equivalent to wins above replacement) and divide the first line’s point shares by the total for all players on the team.

For the Capitals, the top forwards by point shares are Ovechkin (12.6), Nicklas Backstrom (8.1) and Marcus Johansson (5.4), the top defensemen are John Carlson (10.0) and Mike Green (8.6), and the top goalie is Braden Holtby (14.4), who’s been spectacular in both the regular season and the playoffs. Together, they accounted for 56 percent of the 104.7 point shares the Caps accumulated during the regular season. That’s a reasonably high figure.

For the Rangers, the top forwards are Rick Nash (11.4), Derek Stepan (7.0) and Derick Brassard (6.9), the top defensemen are McDonagh (7.3) and Kevin Klein (6.5), and the top goalie is Lundqvist (9.2). As good as they were, they were responsible for just 42 percent of the Rangers’ team point share total.

That’s a low figure. In fact, it’s the lowest for any Presidents’ Trophy winner1 in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68):

silver-datalab-rangers

So, by this measure, the Rangers are one of the most balanced great teams ever — the hockey equivalent of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs or the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons. The second-most-balanced team was the 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings, although they were something of an unusual case, with a combination of rising stars (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg) and waning ones (Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan).

The list of the most star-dominated teams will come as no surprise. It includes Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and the early 1970s Boston Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. (The 1973-74 Bruins have the top slot; 64 percent of their point shares come from their top line.) The 1993-94 Rangers, who won both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup, also had a top-heavy roster, with Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, neither the star-dominated nor the well-balanced Presidents’ Trophy winners have had all that high a success rate at turning regular-season success into a Stanley Cup. So they’ll have to find a few more heroes to survive against Washington and bring the Stanley Cup back to New York.

Footnotes

  1. The Presidents’ Trophy wasn’t officially created until the 1985-86 regular season. For seasons before that, I assigned it to the team with the most points in the regular season, giving it to the team with the most wins in the event of a tie.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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