Get to Know the Rangers: The Defenseman Match-Ups

For the fourth time in five years the Washington Capitals face the New York Rangers in the playoffs. It's a familiar foe, but let's take a look at how John Tortorella is using his new-look lineup, continuing with the defensemen.

Earlier today we took a look at how John Tortorella utilizes his forwards, and how they've performed this year. Let's continue our review of the New York Rangers by evaluating how he's used his defensemen over the course of the year. Unlike with the forwards, the defensive corps for the Rangers is almost identical to the group that the Washington Capitals faced last year. The one newcomer is John Moore, a centerpiece of the deadline day trade when Marian Gaborik was shipped to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

First, let's take a look at the most common defensive pairings over the course of the season, and the last ten games (via Left Wing Lock):

Left Defenseman Right Defenseman Frequency
DAN GIRARDI RYAN MCDONAGH 22.15%
ANTON STRALMAN RYAN MCDONAGH 11.57%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO DAN GIRARDI 9.51%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO ANTON STRALMAN 8.62%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO MARC STAAL 6.61%
JOHN MOORE STEVE EMINGER 5.67%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO STEVE EMINGER 5.24%
DAN GIRARDI MARC STAAL 4.65%
ANTON STRALMAN MARC STAAL 4.50%

Just like last year, the Rangers rely heavily on their top two defensemen. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh play on the most frequent defensive pair, and one of them is also on the second and third most common defensive pair. Those three pairings represent almost half of the even strength ice time for the season. Half the time either Girardi or McDonagh is on the ice, and almost a quarter of the time both players are on the ice. If the Rangers were completely healthy, you could be sure that Marc Staal and either Michael Del Zotto or Anton Stralman would be the second pair Torts would rely on. Unfortunately for the Rangers, Staal hasn't played since taking a puck to the eye, so Torts has had to get creative with his defensive corps.

Since the trade deadline, the juggling seems to have stabilized a little bit, but McDonagh and/or Girardi are still on the ice for about half of the game:

Left Defenseman Right Defenseman Frequency
DAN GIRARDI RYAN MCDONAGH 23.74%
JOHN MOORE STEVE EMINGER 20.02%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO ANTON STRALMAN 18.63%
MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO DAN GIRARDI 15.86%
ANTON STRALMAN RYAN MCDONAGH 13.48%
DAN GIRARDI JOHN MOORE 2.13%
RYAN MCDONAGH STEVE EMINGER 1.68%

Girardi and McDonagh are still the pair that Torts relies on most, but it seems that John Moore and Steve Eminger have become a consistent third pair. Stralman and Del Zotto have become the default second pair, but are underwhelming in that role. In response, Torts has split Girardi and McDonagh to give help to Stralman and Del Zotto (presumably in more difficult situations). Girardi and McDonagh are a tough pair to beat, but after that the Caps should be able to make some plays. Given the ice time Girardi and McDonagh will get, it will be important to hit them and make them skate a lot. You know that Girardi and McDonagh will be hard-matched against Alex Ovechkin. If they continue to take some shifts with the second pair D, they'll also spend time against Troy Brouwer. Given that both of these guys are in a rare group of players with 19 goals and 100 hits, the Caps seem to have the personnel to take advantage of Girardi and McDonagh on the boards and on the score sheet.

Now that we know what the defensive pairs will be, let's take a look at how well the individual defensemen have performed, and add some context to their utilization (again, sortable columns because awesome):

NAME TOI/60 Corsi Rel QoC Corsi QoC Corsi Relative Corsi On On-Ice Sh% On-Ice Sv% PDO Off Zone Start % GF On/60 GA On/60
Dan Girardi 19.68 1.002 -0.125 -6.2 0.47 5.85 921 980 47.2 1.9 2.17
Ryan McDonagh 20.42 0.57 -0.302 5.7 7.16 7.69 925 1002 46.7 2.56 1.92
Marc Staal 19.72 0.32 0.114 -4.4 1.01 9.45 925 1020 58 2.75 2.17
Michael Del Zotto 18.14 -0.011 -1.079 -7.2 -0.74 8.01 940 1020 59.6 2.43 1.84
Anton Stralman 15.58 -0.435 -1.023 15.4 14.66 9.7 910 1007 57.7 3.2 2.29
Steve Eminger 12.18 -0.749 -1.671 -8.6 -1.59 5.91 972 1031 53.8 1.74 0.72
John Moore 12.37 -0.85 -1.642 0.7 -2.17 9.27 929 1022 50.7 2.34 2.01
Roman Hamrlik 11.02 -1.201 0.74 11.6 13.27 2.44 885 910 70.4 0.68 2.38
Matt Gilroy 9.35 -1.727 -1.092 -16.4 -6.84 0 958 958 72.2 0 1.28
Stu Bickel 5.43 -2.055 -0.188 -23.4 -19.34 5.26 912 964 40.5 0.69 2.07

Corsi On measures shots directed at the net by either team when a player is on the ice. Corsi Rel is the measure of a player's Corsi, relative to their teammates. It's the difference between their Corsi On and their Corsi Off. Corsi Rel QoC represents the Corsi Rel of the opponents the player faced over the course of the season. Zone start percentage is the percentage of non-neutral zone faceoffs a player is on the ice for in the offensive zone. On-Ice Sh% and On-Ice Sv% represent the shot percentage for the Rangers and save percentage for the Rangers, respectively, while the player is on ice. PDO is the sum of On-Ice Sh% and On-Ice Sv%, times one thousand. GF/60 and GA/60 represent the number of goals scored for the player's team and goals scored against the player's team for every 60 minutes a player is on ice, respectively.

For you more visual types, here's how it looks graphically (the X-axis is the player's offensive zone start %; the Y-axis is the players Corsi Rel QoX; blue bubbles represent a positive Corsi Rel, red bubbles represent a negative Corsi Rel; the size of the bubble correlates to how positive/negative that Corsi Rel is; the transparency of the bubble indicates the players' average time on ice per game at even strength):

Rangers_d_usage_medium

Unlike the forwards, who are all sporting solid Corsi numbers, the Rangers defense only had a couple regular defensemen that were strong Corsi players. Part of that is because only one pair (McDonagh/Girardi) were playing positive Corsi Rel QoC (not including the injured Staal), but that's not the whole story. McDonagh and Girardi unsurprisingly are facing the toughest minutes, and play them to a little better than a standstill. That has allowed some of the weaker defenders to accumulate strong Corsi numbers (Stralman, Roman Hamrlik), or simply tread water (Del Zotto, Steve Eminger). If McDonagh and Girardi weren't taking such tough minutes, it's unlikely the other Rangers defenders would have strong Corsi numbers. By looking at the Corsi, it appears as though the Rangers only have one strong defensive pair. That's an accurate conclusion, but it's not the pair with the strong Corsi numbers. After McDonagh/Girardi, the Rangers D can be exploited.

As between the two top pair D, McDonagh has had the stronger season. Girardi plays tougher minutes (though I doubt that .5 Corsi Rel QoC is hugely significant), McDonagh has the tougher zone starts (though, again, not hugely significant), but McDonagh has a positive GF/60 - GA/60 differential, while Girardi's is slightly negative. The more sheltered D, the ones that we'll expect to see on the ice, have all been able to develop positive goal differentials because McDonagh and Girardi have taken all the tough assignments, but those defenders are vulnerable. The Caps will need their secondary scorers to show up in a big way this series, as Ovechkin will be tasked with beating the Rangers' top pair all series.

Also unlike the forwards, the defensemen are all sporting more modest PDO numbers. None of the component numbers seem too far off, though it looks like Girardi has a bit of an unlucky On-Ice Sh%. McDonagh and Girardi have On-Ice Sv% that are lower than Lundqvist's season average, but considering the difficult assignments they face, that may not be a fluke.

As we saw earlier, the Rangers forwards do a great job of keeping the puck in their offensive zone. It's a good thing, because two of the three defensive pairs are vulnerable (if not complete liabilities). If the Caps forwards can spend some time in the offensive zone, they should be able to get some quality chances. Ovechkin will have to keep up his torrid pace because the Rangers aren't going to make it easy on him, making him consistently play against McDonagh and Girardi. The Caps need Ovechkin to remain dangerous (of course), and for the secondary scorers to take advantage of the less-talented Rangers defenders. But they also need their forecheckers to dole out some punishment at every chance (more of this, please). The additional wear-and-tear on a top-heavy blueline over the course of a long series could be the difference between the Caps continuing playing into the second round of the playoffs and hitting the links.

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