This past week the NHL Board of Governors met to get an update on the league’s plans for the 2020-21 season. While we didn’t get any decisions – and there’s a lot to be figured out and agreed upon in the interim – Gary Bettman’s position appears to be a 48-56 game schedule that would allow the NHL to wrap up the season in enough time to realign to a normal October start for 2021-22.
The question then, is does this help or hurt the Rangers in their quest to return to the playoffs, or does it really not matter?
Precautions against COVID-19, along with travel restrictions across the US/Canada border, look likely to drive some sort of geographical realignment to allow games to be played with more ease. The most obvious example, will be the seven Canadian franchises playing in a single division north of the border, with the remaining 24 US teams then being placed into three of their own divisions. Now it’s certainly possibly that the league opts for smaller 4 team groupings, but for now lets stick with eight.
For an 8 team division, the Rangers would seemingly be most geographically aligned with: Islanders, Devils, Bruins, Flyers which would account for five of the teams. Then for the remaining three candidates you’re likely looking at the Sabres, Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes as options. I’ll go with the Sabres, Penguins and Capitals for the sake of this exercise.
This 2021 Metro Division would look a lot like last year’s, with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets making way for the inclusion of the Sabres and Bruins. The Bruins of course have been a periennial contender in recent years, and have been a tough opponent for the Rangers with New York going 2-3-1 over the past two seasons after going 5-1-0 the previous two. The Sabres split the season series 1-1 last year, but trail the Rangers 2-6-0 over the past three years. As for the teams they replace, the Blue Jackets have a 7-3-1 record over the Rangers in the last three seasons – though one of those wins was in the Shootout and another in OT, while the Hurricanes are a dismal 3-9-0 over the same period.
In conclusion, the change of teams will likely have only modest if any material effect on the division’s competitiveness from a Rangers’ perspective.
Of course the division itself will remain a challenge, and the Metropolitan has been the most or amongst the most competitive groups since it was formed back in 2013. Last season, the Metropolitan averaged 0.7 more points per team in projected standings than the next best which was the 7 team Central Division. There were 10.5 and 10.6 points better PER TEAM against the Pacific and Atlantic divisions respectively.
Despite finishing 7th in the Metropolitan, the Rangers would have been 5th in the Atlantic and Central and 4th in the Pacific on points per game percentage.
But does strength of the Division really play that much into the success of the Rangers in 2020-21? Well yes, especially if the playoffs too become more Division based. Under the current format, only the top three teams in each division project to go to the playoffs, and a maximum of five can go through from a single division. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see an adjusted model for this season, but if not, then the Rangers will be facing an uphill battle.
Not to mention that the team also is carrying $13M in dead cap space this season or aroun 15.75% of the allowable cap space. It’s not coincidental that the Rangers project to be one of the youngest teams in the league this coming season, and they are almost forced to do that given big payouts to Kevin Shattenkirk and Henrik Lundqvist. More importantly, that $13M represents 2-3 established performers who could address gaps in the team’s make-up.
So even without looking at a shortened schedule, the team is already at a disadvantage.
With up to 41% of the season schedule possibly being cut, the Rangers also face a shorter window to achieving success. As we’ve seen over several years, an 82 game schedule tends to weed out the weaker teams by making them perform over a six month period. Teams that get off to hot starts more often than not fade, while those who perhaps struggle for consistency have time to get their act together.
Not so much so in a 48 game season, where a team could hit a 20-25 game purple patch and establish their season. Last year Tampa projected to earn 117 points to lead the league, or rougly 35 games over .500 point wise. An equivalent pace for 48 games would put a team at around 20 games over .500, and if you project it further down to the second wildcard spot – 96 points in the East last season, it drops down to just 8 games over .500 – or 6 games in the West for perspective.
At 6-8 games over .500 across a 48 game schedule, many more teams are likely to be competitive and that means more pressure on individual games over the closing portions of the season. That makes it more fun for fans, with fewer teams eliminated, but also puts higher weight on individual games.
There’s probably room for a handful of teams to make the playoffs based on a hot-streak similar to what the Rangers did in February last year when they went 11-4-0 to pull themselves back into playoff contention. Of course, that streak also started in game 51 on the season, so they’d need to figure out how to do it a bit earlier if they were to benefit from their improved play.
The shorter season also inevitably gives less time for teams to adjust mid-season. Instead of 17-20 games at the end of the year following the trade deadline, we might see more like 10-12. Trades might be more apt to be made a month out from the cut-off, to give players and coaches enough time to adjust. Perhaps there’ll be more teams stay the course, and perhaps others that are more willing to give up on players if they start slowly.
For the Rangers there might be a bit of an advantage here. With very few changes having been made, the team is largely the same as the one that ended the season. This is more a known quantity, and they have shown they can win against all types of opposition when they get their game going. For the regular season, the team probably has enough offensive and goaltending to overcome their defensive and physicality limitations.
It could also help the transition of the 2021 class, headlined by Alexis Lafreniere, but also possibly extending to the likes of Vitali Kravtsov, Morgan Barron, K’Andre Miller and perhaps even Tarmo Reunanen. With other players in the spotlight, the media and fans will be more focused on the top guys than the younger players, removing some of that initial pressure to perform.
As to the playoffs, it seems a tougher lift for the Rangers. Suppose they go on a hot streak, and make the playoffs. They do still have vulnerabilities on defense and the ability to make the opposition pay a price, and that will likely limit their opportunities. The team also remains relatively inexperienced. We should forget that mainstays Igor Shesterkin, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren all made their NHL debuts last year, and there are several others who are only 2-3 years into their careers. While youth can power you to wins, it also can make mistakes that veteran teams don’t always make.
It’s hard to predict where the Rangers will land this year, I do think that if you’re going to take a shortened season, then a year in which you have so much dead cap space and a young roster is probably the best time to do it. Perhaps, like last year, the team can string together a good month and get them into the playoffs for a chance to do more.