In June 2019, the New York Rangers made a blockbuster trade with the Winnipeg Jets. They dealt Neal Pionk and a 1st round draft-pick for Jacob Trouba. Coming off a career year, expectations for then 25-year-old Trouba were high. He was signed to a contract with an $8 million AAV and was depended on to be the Rangers number-one defenceman going into the regular season. Their goal in making the trade was to find the elite two-way defenceman they were missing since the departure of former captain Ryan McDonagh. Trouba put up a stat line of seven goals and 20 assists for 27 points on the season. Much lower than the career-high of 50 points he set with Winnipeg in 2018-19. Needless to say, Jacob Trouba struggled with the weight of the role thrust upon him. Making both the trade and contract look disappointing thus far for the Rangers.
Jacob Trouba’s Performance in 2019-20
In his very first game with the Rangers, Trouba recorded a goal and two assists against his former team. Immediately, Rangers fans began boasting about how successful the acquisition was. However, Trouba went on an 18-game goalless drought right after and struggled defensively.
Major Defensive Struggles
As demonstrated in the play above, Trouba doesn’t always read plays well and often makes faulty decisions without the puck. In this particular instance, rather than covering the middle of the ice and acknowledging the presence of Valteri Filppula, Trouba commits to Andreas Athanasiou (a player much faster than he is) and gets beat. As a result, the Red Wings have a 2-on-0 opportunity and score. Had Trouba positioned himself in the middle instead of aggressively pursuing Athanasiou, he would have made the cross-ice pass a tougher option, possibly preventing a goal, or at least giving Henrik Lundqvist a better chance at making the stop.
Biggest Defensive Issues
To best assess his neutral zone defence, studying his possession zone entries allowed per 60 minutes would be the way to go.
As shown by the “Entries Allowed” section of the chart above, Jacob Trouba struggled so much with preventing zone entries that it was almost as if he was helping opposing players enter the zone with the puck on their stick. According to a study conducted by Corey Sznajder, “a controlled zone entry results in more than twice as many unblocked shot attempts (Fenwicks) as an uncontrolled entry.” Essentially, this shows the importance of stopping clean zone entries, which Trouba most certainly did not do.
As for his penalty kill defence, it was on another tier of bad, even for the Rangers. He ranked dead last in the league amongst all skaters in both SHD-GAR (short-handed defence goals above replacement) and xSHD-GAR (expected short-handed defence goals above replacement). His performance at even strength was not much better either with an xGF% of 46.43.
Possibility of a Bounce-Back Season
Although he had a very rough first season with the Rangers, Jacob Trouba certainly has the potential to do much better. In addition to his own deficiencies this season, there was the factor of luck, or a lack thereof.
By comparing the difference between Trouba’s GF/60 to his xGF/60, it can be observed that Trouba rarely got the desired results on the goal-scoring opportunities that he created. Taking his high offensive skillset and lethal slapshot into consideration, such unfortunate results should not repeat themselves.
Taking previous seasons into account, improvement can also be expected of his overall level of play.
As portrayed above, Trouba was an excellent offensive defenseman from 2016-19 while still maintaining a mediocre defensive impact. Such offensive performance does not simply disappear. If he was able to do it before, there is a good chance the 26-year-old can do it again.
New Outside Factors
With the departure of former defensive coach Lindy Ruff, changes in the Rangers’ defensive system can be expected. In his place, the Rangers elected to hire former Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin. Considering how poorly the Rangers performed defensively under Ruff, it is safe to assume that there will be progress under Martin, who has a very accomplished track-record. With the introduction of a new playing style, Trouba could potentially be more comfortable and confident in his game and become the player Jeff Gorton gave $8 million to.
In addition, there is the possibility of Trouba getting a new defence partner next season. Considering the fact that his most common partners in 2019-20 were all below replacement level players in terms of GAR and xGAR (Brady Skjei, Libor Hajek, and Brendan Smith), being alongside a more defensively sound player could work wonders for him. With the weight of defensive responsibility lifted from his shoulders, Trouba could prosper and reignite his offensive prowess.
At the end of the day, a better defensive system and defence partner can only do so much. If Trouba wants to improve and be of more use to the Rangers, it will ultimately be up to him to reconstruct his game in a way that will be successful going forward.
*Thanks to NHL Moment, Corey Sznajder, and EvolvingHockey for the videos, research, charts, and stats used in this piece.