Analytics cast doubt about Reilly Smith’s fit with Rangers top line

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Calgary Flames
Brett Holmes-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brett Holmes-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers abstained from a wild free agency that saw plenty of top-six wingers change hands on expensive deals. Instead, Rangers general manager Chris Drury opted for a cheaper, short-term option, acquiring Reilly Smith in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

Smith, who arrives in New York with one year remaining and a cap hit of $3.75 million on his contract after Pittsburgh retained 25 percent, will look to slot into a top-six role and help the Blueshirts generate more offense at even strength.

Despite scoring the seventh-most goals in the NHL en-route to a franchise-best record and the Presidents’ Trophy, the Rangers were a below-average team at even strength in 2023-24.

It’s been a recurring critique in recent seasons that the Blueshirts are overly reliant on special teams and goaltending without getting enough consistent production at five-on-five. That rang true this season as the Rangers boasted the third-best power play and fifth-highest save percentage in the NHL but ranked 19th in goals and 22nd in expected goals-for percentage at 5v5 (per Natural Stat Trick).

The Rangers’ top line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and a medley of right wings have been an obvious culprit, particularly with Zibanejad mustering just eight 5v5 goals this past season, his lowest output since his inaugural season in New York in 2016-17.

Related: Rangers options to replace Erik Gustafsson

Reilly Smith may not be perfect Rangers fit with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is coming off a 13-goal season in Pittsburgh, his lowest output since 2014-15 when he was a 23-year-old with the Boston Bruins. Turning 33 this season, he’ll aim to bounce back after struggling to mesh with the Penguins’ offensive scheme and shooting just 8.6 percent.

All signs point to him sliding in next to Zibanejad and Kreider, particularly after the success that Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, and Alexis Lafreniere found together this past season. But the metrics for Smith the past few seasons don’t exactly indicate that it will be a guaranteed success.

The Penguins were stronger at 5v5 without him on the ice than they were with him, according to advanced charts from Hockey Viz.

Analytics aren’t everything, and the ones that attempt to calculate expected value are far from an exact science. Still, multiple sites concur that Smith isn’t a no-brainer to produce at even strength.

Smith ranked below League average in even-strength offense with 2.2 goals above replacement, placing him in the 39th percentile per Evolving Hockey. Last year may have seen a dip in production, but even in his prime seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, Smith ranked in the top 10 of 5v5 xGF% just twice in his six-year tenure, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Here’s where expected metrics get tricky — they don’t always correlate to actual success. Smith would have been the fourth-best Ranger at 5v5 xGF%, behind only Filip Chytil, Panarin, and — surprisingly — Jack Roslovic, whom Smith is replacing.

However, many of the Rangers outperformed their expected metrics on the stat sheet, even despite their even-strength struggles, so Smith’s actual goals-for percentage at 5v5 would’ve ranked 10th on the team, placing him behind players like Kaapo Kakko and Matt Rempe.

Smith should still be an upgrade to the top six. His goals above replacement per 60 minutes trumps that of Blake Wheeler, Roslovic, and Kakko, the three main options at top-line right wing for the Rangers last season. It likely doesn’t hurt to add a reliable 40-50 point scorer with 20-goal upside to the mix. It was only two seasons ago Smith scored 26 goals and finished with 56 points for the Golden Knights.

It remains to be seen if he can add the passing ability that Zibanejad cited during breakup day when asked what he’s looking for in a right wing partner, but he should at least provide a steady presence on the top line that the team has lacked in past seasons.

Still, it’s not the slam dunk fit that you might hope for in a “Cup or bust” season, and the metrics hint that the Blueshirts’ even-strength struggles might rear their ugly head once again.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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