Sometimes defensemen don’t even have to look back. When the puck gets past them, they know the outcome. For blueliners fortunate enough to play in front of quality goaltending, they know their netminder has their back. A mistake won’t end up in the back of the net. For everyone else, confidence is delicate. A turnover on their own blueline can quickly turn into a goal. Suddenly, everyone is playing tight.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have had the luxury of playing in front of one of the best goaltenders in the world in Henrik Lundqvist. The top Blueshirt pairing consistently have matched up against opposing teams best forwards. They consume the most ice time of the defense corp. And as Lundqvist’s success has gone, so it has for number 27 and 5 in blue.
When examining goaltender performance in relation to defense statistically, it becomes a little chicken-and-the-egg. Are the goaltender’s poor numbers a result of bad defense? Or is bad goaltending bringing down the play of the defensemen?
Anyone who has played on the back-end knows that having confidence in your keeper is important. I believe that players respond differently when they feel like they have a safety net behind them in goal. That being said, how a Rangers team, and particularly a top pairing like McDonagh and Girardi, would lose confidence so quickly in a goalie who has given them so much success is hard to understand. I don’t think that is the case, but it is still interesting to consider when looking at their performance in front of Lundqvist versus the back-up.
To compare the defensive performance of the Rangers’ most used defensemen over the past three years, I focused on the time they spent on the ice with Henrik Lundqvist versus the back-up. I used goals allowed per 20 minutes in 5v5 situations as the metric. The graph below illustrates the difference in 5v5 GA20 for each blueliner when playing in front of Lundqvist versus the back-up. For example, Marc Staal has been on the ice for 0.589 less goals per 20 minutes when playing in front of Lundqvist compared to playing in front of Talbot this season.
The 2012-13 numbers are skewed a bit since the lockout created very few opportunities for anyone outside of Henrik to play, but the trend over the three seasons is still apparent. In 2011-12, all five mainstay defensemen had better 5v5 GA20 numbers playing in front of the King than the back-up. In 2012-13, the top pairing of Girardi and McDonagh, which is the key duo since they play the toughest opponents and see the most ice time, played significantly better in front of Henrik. This season, the opposite is true. Girardi and McDonagh are on the ice for less goals allowed per 20 minutes when they play in front of Talbot.
How can we explain the difference in Girardi and McDonagh’s on ice goals against numbers? As the table below confirms, more 5v5 goals per 20 minutes are being scored with the Rangers top d-pairing on the ice this season than last year. What is also interesting is the difference in corsi percentage between the two seasons. If McDonagh and Girardi are playing the same top minutes, facing the same tough opponents, a remaining difference this season could be the amount of time they spend defending the goal. Put simply, when McDonagh and Girardi were on the ice in games Lundqvist played last season, the Rangers, as a team, were more often attacking their opponent with greater shot attempts for than against. This season, opponents are outchancing the Rangers, and perhaps, as a result, more goals are being scored.
Whether it is a difference in the number of blocked shots or shot distance (as I examined in a previous article) or the play of the defenseman, the point is that no matter what statistic is used, the Rangers are not getting the world-class goaltending that their fans are used to seeing. The chicken-and-the-egg debate can decide if it is a result of the actual goaltending or the defensive play or some combination (as is always the case). But one final chart below demonstrates that across the board, with the exception of Staal, the Rangers defense is on the ice for more goals allowed per 20 minutes this season than in any of the previous two seasons.
Goaltending in the NHL is about consistency. As is play from the blueline. If Henrik is going to take an avalanche of blame for his play this season, the extreme regression of shutdown pairing Girardi and McDonagh’s on-ice goals against numbers must be considered as well. Cam Talbot may be the hot goalie this week, but playing in front of Henrik Lundqvist is a luxury that the Rangers should never forget.