Teams are defending against Rangers rush based offense

April 7, 2016, by

The Quick-Up breakout – AV’s bread and butter, not working this year.

Last season was an oddity for the Rangers. They didn’t maintain their solid possession game from the prior season, one which carried them to the Stanley Cup Final, but their scoring was up. It was tough to argue with the results, even if the process changed. The process change was subtle, it simply shifted the focus on using the tremendous team speed to generate chances off the rush.

It was something I broke down last season, as the Rangers appeared to have set plays for this. They had the stretch pass, the blue line to blue line pass, and the “Chris Kreider play.” They also forechecked in a manner designed to force a turnover at either blue line and turn the play the other way. It was magnificent to watch, as the team speed was put on full display.

Now, it seems the style of play has caught on to the rest of the league. Teams are anticipating the forecheck and breaking through, creating rush chances of their own. They are also anticipating the stretch passes that generate so many rushes.

The result is significantly fewer rush chances for, and higher rush chances against. Sean Tierney (who is a brilliant follow for those looking to understand stats. He explains it nicely with great visuals) broke this down very nicely for us in the below tweet.

What this shows us is last year’s rush chances for and rush chances against (left picture) against this year’s (right picture). To read the chart, the upper right quadrant, where the Rangers were last season, means a team generates a lot of rush chances and limits them against. The bottom left –where the Rangers are this year– is the exact opposite, allowing many rush chances against and not generating many for. For educational purposes, the bottom right is a high rate for both (fast paced games) and the top left is a low rate for both (slow paced games).

The Rangers went from averaging approximately 3.1 RSF/60 to 2.4 this year. On the surface that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that is also coming with an extreme drop in possession (49.5% CF to 47.2%) this year. Compounding the situation is the rise in RSA/60 from 2.4 to 2.8. That’s not a meteoric rise, but it’s something that adds to the multitude of issues facing the team this year. Simply put, the rush based offense isn’t working as well this year.

From the drop in rush effectiveness, we can infer that the Rangers are not only getting defended differently this year, but the opposition is shoving their own game down their throats. It’s rare when the Rangers are able to execute plays like this one from Keith Yandle.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, but there are three that stick out to me. First is that the Rangers are not as fast this year. I’m not just talking on-ice speed, I’m talking decision making speed. They’ve slowed down. Losing Carl Hagelin plays a role in this, but Viktor Stalberg is faster than any fourth line player the Rangers had last season.

Second is that the opposition, all 29 other teams, are getting faster. The game is evolving into a speed and skill game. The advantage the Rangers had last season with their speed is getting nullified. Seems simple, but often overlooked.

Third, and most critical, is that teams are defending against it and burning them in the process. Since I still can’t access archived games on the new NHL.tv*, the only gifs I have available are ones I’ve tweeted at some point or another.

*-How in the world could they botch the launch this badly? They couldn’t wait until the season was over to beta test it? They rushed it, and delivered crap. Just like the “enhanced stats” site.

I know this is Phil Kessel, and that he burned everyone in this game, but this is one prime example of how he uses the neutral zone to pick up speed. Ryan McDonagh isn’t caught flat-footed here, its just he can’t catch Kessel. This is how the speed game is being used against the Rangers.

Here’s a rush from the Panthers game against the Rangers. This one hit the post, but notice how the Rangers are unable to get back to join the play.

Those are just two examples of speed being used against the Rangers. It explains the big jump in rush chances against, from the chart from Sean above. I am unfortunately unable to get gifs of specific plays where the Rangers attempted one of their patented rush plays, but I can at least explain the difference in defense.

Reverse Breakout

For starters, when the Rangers are on the forecheck, teams understand the first man in will pressure the puck, and depending on puck location/play, the second will pressure the primary passing option, while the third will pressure the secondary passing option. Or at least that’s how it should be. In reality. the Rangers keep two guys around the blue line who read and react. Teams are now giving the puck carrier more options, which alleviates puck pressure and provides outlets. The reverse breakout works well for this, executed below (more on breakouts here).

In this gif, you see a 1-2-2 forecheck from Pittsburgh, where F1 pressures the puck carrier (D1), so he simply reverses back to D2, with three forward options on that side of the ice. Notice the Penguins only have one forechecker to cover three options for the Wild. The reverse breaks through a predictable forecheck.

The Quick-Up breakout

Beyond the forecheck, the Rangers rely on stretch passes and the quick-up breakout (pictured at the top, put down here as well so you don’t have to scroll) to generate their own scoring chances. This type of breakout draws attention to the boards for D1 and F2, but the purpose is to hit F3 hitting the neutral zone with speed. And that is the biggest difference in how the Rangers are being read like an open book. This is their primary breakout, and teams are gameplanning for it. They leave two defensemen back at the red line, cutting off F3 in the process.

The problem with this is two-fold. First, the Rangers are extremely predictable, and those defensemen the opposition leave back know the pass is coming. They can cut off the passing lane, simply play back enough that it’s a 1-on-2 rush, or both. We’ve seen this many times where the Rangers try this play, and are forced to dump the puck into the zone because they have no options.

The second is that the defense can predict the pass, pick it off, and start a rush the other way. While I don’t have specific plays –stupid NHL.tv– I at least remember a few instances where active defensemen read the play and transitioned to a forward just waiting at the blue line for a transition rush. Alain Vigneault is a great coach, but he’s becoming predictable.

Much like I theorized last year that the Rangers have transitioned to a rush-based attack to their success, that same attack style is a big detriment this season. The Rangers still score because their forwards are skilled and deep, but a predictable offense means a quick out in the playoffs. Adjustments need to be made. But will AV make them?

"Teams are defending against Rangers rush based offense", 5 out of 5 based on 7 ratings.
Categories : Hockey Tactics


  1. Jon says:

    Absolutely. I have to think the coaching staff is going to have something up their sleeve for round 1 and beyond. Last season the Rangers showed their hand early on in the season and it won a presidents trophy but the Rangers were predictable as you said. I think they have been keeping something under wraps and I’ve been saying it for a while now.
    AV said this group “deserved another kick at the can” together. I have to think they’ll give them a chance with something the league hasn’t seen and they won’t go in with the same breakout plays they’ve been using for years now.
    I kind of wish the Rangers would go back to the kind of “keep it simple, stupid” play they used 2 seasons ago. Good possession and limiting mistakes. Make the other team beat you instead of beating yourself.

    • Agentsmith says:

      Really? They haven’t adjusted a thing in three years. It’s AV’s biggest flaw

      • Walt says:

        Agree, the entire coaching staff has been poor in this area. I remember a play off game, maybe last season, where Pierre McGuire made a comment about how Hank was always going to his right with the puck, and the I believe it was the Caps, knew exactly what he was going to do, placed a forward there, and we would turn the puck over. The following period, someone must have heard the comment, told Hank to go to his left side with any pass, and it seemed to work.

        The question is, why did it take McGuire to say what he did, watching us for a period, for our staff to make an adjustment??

        • Roger Domal says:

          Always good to take coaching advice from Pierre. He of the 23-37-7 lifetime head coaching record.

          • Walt says:

            You miss the point, he picked up something, we adjusted, and played well, and won. I could care less who it came from, in this case he was right, enough said !!!!!!!!!!!

    • paulronty says:

      Just curious.What gives you the idea that the Rangers have been playing possum?

  2. SalMerc says:

    I think your analysis is spot on. My bigger concern is that playoff hockey often moves toward a possession game. I do not see us ready to get dirty in the corners to create chances. The third line does it poorly with E.Staal and Hayes. Watch for the game transition as the playoffs begin.

  3. roadrider says:

    Yes, predictability and the decline in team speed (Hags) have been two major issues for the Rangers this year. Another, which has been pointed out here, is the unsuitability of the man-to-man defensive scheme for the current Rangers’ defensive corp. Still another is the puck chasing on the PK. AV has done a great job overall in his tenure but he’s showing inflexibility, predictability and an inability or unwillingness to adjust. This was apparent in the playoffs last season and all this season.

    The Rangers, when they deign to fore check, do a good job of it. They should place less emphasis on the stretch passes and more on just getting the puck deep and cycling it. Will they? I have no idea/

  4. Roger Domal says:

    In the eye test, count how many times BOTH D need to touch the puck in order to get it out of the DZ. it’s amazing. Our wingers are also further down the boards than a year ago, leaving more space for fore checkers. Also, Hank is and always has been subpar with stick handling. M. Staal has been a culprit in the over stick handling department and G just makes poor decisions.

    • Dave says:

      This is a major problem. The wings are flying the zone for the quick up, but it’s being defended. The D have nowhere to go with the puck.

      • paulronty says:

        You are both absolutely right on the money and this has been so obvious all year but the Rangers need to adapt to have success in the POs.

  5. Hatrick Swayze says:

    Unrelated, but wanted to share some thoughts I read from DobberHockey this AM:

    “It seems a foregone conclusion that Holtby wins the Vezina Trophy, but how many players have been more valuable to their team than Henrik Lunqvist? He leads the league in five-on-five save percentage, is second in adjusted save percentage, has faced the most total shots at 1928 – yes, even more than Craig Anderson, who is at 1881 – and with a week left in the regular season, has his team within the realm of possibility for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. This all done playing on a team that has given up more high-danger scoring chances per minute than OTTAWA. If that doesn’t put him in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, what’s the point of the award. “

    • Chris A says:

      Nice find Hatrick! Hank is having one of his very best seasons and very few people are recognizing it

      • SalMerc says:

        It would be nice to win these individual awards, but his name on Lord Stanley’s Cup would be even better!

      • Hatrick Swayze says:

        The other thing I read here, in a not so between the lines type way– our defensive zone is in complete disarray. Namely, “This all done playing on a team that has given up more high-danger scoring chances per minute than OTTAWA.”

        NYR d zone has strayed far from an NHL blueprint of shot suppression and limiting high danger attempts (aka keeping the puck to the outside) under the Tort’s watch. I was never a fan of the low zone collapse the way he would run it (talk about the shell), but AV has swung the pendulum much too far in the other direction.

        Coaching systems is a sliding scale. Set up a system with a defensive or offensive bias, by nature you can’t have both, and execute it better than 29 other teams execute their philosophy.

        In hindsight, it seems no coincidence that our peak may have been year 1 of the AV watch as Tort’s sound defensive structure/ player accountability was still very munch engrained in our core. AV came in to break some of the shackles and slide more to an offensive bias- wings higher in the d zone, as an example. The result was a stellar defensive schematic behind a budding offense. It carried us to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and was a hell of a ride. It seems, that each year since as our offense climbs, our defensive prowess has deteriorated to the point where we are today– hemorrhage-er of high danger scoring chances against.

        BSB has been all over this for some time now. Job well done, guys.

        Getting back to Hank, each year I find myself more and more in awe of what he does for us. For his sake and all of ours, I really really hope we can get a cup under his watch. Few things would make me happier.

        • paulronty says:

          Personally, I think this has been one of Hank’s best seasons ever. Our record is a reflection of his great play and Raanta’s too. en a very frustrating season for him but I have no doubt he will do all he possibly can to win in the playoffs.

    • Ray says:

      Sorry, this is absurd. One gets an award for having your team within the realm of possibility for home ice in round 1, for facing the most shots, being second in something.

      Yes, Hank is good, but consider — looking at the numbers, had the Rangers kept Talbot instead of Hank (not a possibility that actually existed, a pure hypothetical), it would have saved them seven million dollars and cost them seven goals. With that money, they could have kept Hagelin and still had more to do something else.

      Personally, I give the Vezina to Bishop or Schneider and give the Ranger MVP to McDonagh. I also think the Rangers greatly miss Talbot – not because he is as good or better than Hank, he appears not to be. However, the team of Allaire, Hank, and Talbot made Hank a more involved goaltender and a better puck handler. I can’t help think that the poor defense is partially related to poor goalie-defensemen communications.

      • Hatrick Swayze says:

        Ray, your logic is objectively flawed. The whole point of breaking down gaa and sv% is that not all shots are created equal. The Rangers have played very porously in front of Lundqvist this year. Thus not only has he faced more rubber outright than anyone else, he has also has faced more shots of high quality as NYR “given up more high-danger scoring chances per minute” than almost the entire league.

        So Talbot’s 7 goal differential isn’t apples to apples and has to be discounted. It is like comparing how much you spent on heating oil last year versus this year, without weather normalizing. I understand your point from a cap management standpoint, but we aren’t talking about GM of the year here. We are strictly talking on ice performance.

        Getting back to Lundqvists performance…. he’s been special this year behind a very ordinary team. If you put another goalie behind our NYRs this year, we are likely much lower in the standings. Of course there is no way of knowing, but these metrics give us a great idea of normalizing performance league wide. I don’t understand how anyone can argue the importance of Henrik Lundqvist to the New York Rangers this year.

        • Eddie!Eddie!Eddie! says:

          Brilliantly said Hatrick. Hank has had his sub-standard games or even brief stretches of games, but he’s been mostly terrific. That gives me a great deal of confidence going into the playoffs. He’s our most important asset. If he plays as he should, we have a great chance again to make a deep run.

        • Ray says:

          We are never comparing apples to apples admittedly. However, your argument is that this comparison is unfair because the Rangers simply don’t have the stellar blue line that Edmonton has. Reality is that Edmonton is terrible — and they have been principally terrible because their blue line is so bad.

          We can’t know how Talbot would have responded psychologically to replacing Hank as the Ranger starting goaltender. The fan revolt would have put pressure on Cam that few could weather. However, the notion that comparing Lundqvist and Talbot’s respective performances this year by looking at Save % and GAA is somehow unfair to Hank is ludicrous.

          • Hatrick Swayze says:

            Ray, oddly enough if you use War on Ice and run a graph, team shots against on the X axis, with team goals against on the Y axis, the results are quite telling regarding our above discussion.

            Upper left is bad (many goals, few shots)
            Bottom right is good (few goals, many shots)

            NYR bubble is closest to the bottom right corner.
            EDM bubble is closest to the top right corner.

            The two are on a vertical axis, meaning they’ve faced near the same number of shots (between 1900-2000) but the Rangers have collectively allowed about 45 less goals (125 vs 175). EDM is tops in the league for goals allowed.

            I understand that Raanta and Nilsson skew the data, but as far as the sniff test goes you can’t simply replace one goalie for another and expect rates (GAA, SV%) to translate. Each goalie makes saves the other one wouldn’t.

            ….All of that said, I really take issue with your closing sentence- “However, the notion that comparing Lundqvist and Talbot’s respective performances this year by looking at Save % and GAA is somehow unfair to Hank is ludicrous.” I am not at all in anyway shape or form arguing that comparing goalie metrics is unfair in establishing a pecking order of dominance at the position. Actually quite the opposite. I am advocating that if you break those metrics down even further, you really do get a sense of who excels at the position when compare to his peers. The fork in the road where we stray, so to speak, is where you take one goalies save percentage earned over a season playing in front of an entirely different cast of players, systems, etc and claim that if he faced an entire season’s worth of the other goalies outright shot numbers, he would only yield 7 more goals.

            Would Brodeur have the same career numbers if he weren’t playing in front of the NJD trap for so many years? If he would, then all the more credit to him…..

            • Ray says:

              Hatrick, I’m not questioning that the playing field is not level — consider Corey Crawford .926 save %, 2.32 GAA; Hank .921 save %, 2.46 GAA; Talbot .917 save %, 2.55 GAA.

              To use these numbers at face value to assert that Crawford is better than Lundqvist is not fair. Chicago has a better defense than the Rangers do and we have to compensate for that.

              However, by the same token, it seems reasonable to believe that these numbers are even more unfair to Talbot since the defense in front of him is atrocious. And the numbers from Raanta and Nilsson support this, since the Rangers have survived with a different tender and Edmonton has not. So I agree that the numbers are not entirely fair, just that they would seem to favor Hank.

              I chose to use the numbers at face value —
              GAA says Talbot gives up one extra goal every eleven games, while save % says one extra goal every 250 shots (really 298 if you don’t round off).

              With a tender playing about 65 games and facing 2000 shots, that puts us in the 6-8 goal range.

              Honestly, considering the respective teams, the numbers don’t clearly indicate that Lundqvist is better than Talbot at all. However, I’ve looked at descriptions of many Oiler games and frankly don’t believe Talbot has been near Hank’s equal this year.

  6. Mythdoc says:

    NHLtv is an abomination, without a doubt.

  7. Eddie!Eddie!Eddie! says:

    This just in…..

    Hayes back in for Lindberg. Feel bad for the kid, but it’s a numbers game right now. AV simply said, I like the third line with Hayes on it, and by extension, he’s saying he like the 4th line as it is. So that’s that. No surprise.

    Girardi listed as day to day with an upper body injury. Won’t play tonight. Not sure if he will play Saturday, per AV. That sounds reasonably encouraging, but I’m not sure that report is all that different than what we heard about Zuc last year, so who knows?

    Tremendous opportunity for both McIlrath and Skjei in a game that should have a playoff feel to it.

    Hank in goal again. I would guess Raanta would play Saturday, but who knows? Hank might prefer the work and it might depend on playoff positioning possibilities (trying saying that three times fast!).

    • Fotiu is God says:

      Right on, brother Eddie.

      I’m hitching onto your Amish wagon of positivity and promise. (I don’t have to wear overalls and a straw hat, though, right?)

      Start The Finn on Saturday against the half Swede Red and White.

      And let’s see McIlrath and Skjei eat some big minutes–without punishing for inevitable mistakes–between now and Sunday.

    • Chris A says:

      Lindberg’s time will come next year when Dom Moore leaves. As for this year, he’s great depth and his mere presence help pushes the other 12 forwards to play better.

  8. Alec says:

    To quote that great tactician Roddy Piper, “By the time you figure out the answers, I’m changing the questions.”

  9. Eddie!Eddie!Eddie! says:

    First of all Dave, my congratulations. This is a brilliantly researched article and you make some very compelling points. If there was an NHL award for best blog analysis, this article would be right up there among the best I’ve read.

    I come at this probably a little bit differently than some of you. No question, many of you drill down and see the game in a different way than I do. I’ve always been a big picture guy. I’ve coached (baseball) at the highest amateur levels. I’ve been in lockerrooms, interviewed countless players, coaches and GMs. One of my mentors is an all time HOFer. So, while I’ve never coached or obviously played on the pro level, I feel as if I’ve “mind-melded” with many. Doesn’t make me any more or less smart, and in fact, I would say that many of you see the game in a far more sophisticated way than I ever have or ever could. Which is why I love this blog and learn so much from it.

    So with that disclaimer aside, here’s a few things I’ve learned about coaches and systems….

    1) Let’s start with the notion of “predictability”. I’ll never forget interviewing Bill Parcells, who, even though he had won a Super Bowl, was under fire for being too “predictable” after a two consecutive non-playoff seasons and then a first round ousting. The writers were all saying, why don’t you throw more? You run the same plays over and over again…blah blah blah. He wins a big game he wasn’t supposed to win and he jibes back “I just want you all to know that we were still very predictable today….maybe not AS predictable, but still very predictable.” Of course he said it with that Cheshire Cat grin of his that made you realize the guy does know what he’s doing. What he was saying is, the “adjustments” that were needed were about players executing better, not necessarily changing the scheme. Which leads us to…

    2) Schemes and adjustments–Obviously, every coach has to adjust. That’s pretty common. There are game adjustments to be made every game. Heck, many of you have taken AV to task for tinkering with his lineup too much, so certainly, he’s proven he isn’t locked in. I’ve talked to some GMs and coaches about this, and the message is pretty consistent. One said to me, “there are many, many approaches to success. There’s no one approach to take to achieve results. With talent, you can win in many different ways. Yes, schemes matter, but ultimately, it’s players BUYING IN to your scheme and EXECUTING it that matters most.”

    Some examples. Mouse Davis introduced the Run and Shoot offense. Worked great…when it was executed well. Looked like a train wreck when it wasn’t.

    Buddy Ryan introduced the 46 defense. Worked brilliantly for the ’85 Bears because the players executed it to perfection. Other coaches tried to copy the same scheme, and it wasn’t as successful.

    Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick devised a game plan to beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV that now resides in the HOF. But how much of that was the game plan, vs. the ability of the players to EXECUTE the game plan?

    In my coaching days, one day we were playing a vastly superior opponent with first place on the line. I decided the best way to beat them was to shift gears. We bunted, played small ball, put pressure on their suspect defense. Threw them off balance. It worked….but it had more to do with the players having the ABILITY to EXECUTE the plan, not so much the plan itself. Also, we had a lengthy period of time to practice and put this plan into place. No way I would have attempted it without that. And in fact, I never did it again, because it would have been a bad fit for the future players I coached.

    AV has made a conscious effort to double down on rest and recovery this season. Therefore, making significant systemic adjustments in-season probably isn’t practical.

    AV has said this a lot, and I agree with it. He keeps mentioning the execution being off. I think that is far, far more the issue than the scheme itself.

    Think about how many coaches change their schemes mid-season. Did Torts change when he was here? No. In fact, he forced everyone to adapt to his shot block first mentality….even those ill suited to it like Gabork. He didn’t change. Keenan changed personnel and matchups, but rarely changed his schemes. It’s hard to do, espevcially in a sport like hockey which is essentially an every other day six month grind. Come playoff time, there is more time to game plan for the opponent and make whatever adjustments are reasonable.

    One last point. I know it was mentioned here that we aren’t as good as we were two years ago, and certainly there are metrics to support that. But keep in mind the big picture. Two years ago, we had 96 pts. This year, we have 99, with two games left to play. In addition, comparing how the teams finished, the back half of 2013-14 we had a record of 25-12-4, or 54 pts. This year, in a supposedly down season, we are 23-12-4, or 50 pts, with two games left to play. The process may be different, but the results, which are all that count, are essentially the same. So again, I ask, is the issue the scheme? Or the execution of said scheme?

    • Ray says:

      Nice comments, Eddie.

      Two additions of sorts. There is a difficulty in coaching that you allude to which we often forget. Success requires getting the players to buy into your scheme. Achieving that requires a coach with conviction. People who can project that conviction who are not perhaps a little stubborn are exceedingly rare. It may be that AV is too rigid in his approach – but most coaches are because it is just too hard to pull off the combo of conviction and flexibility.

      Concerning your reference to the 2013-2014 Rangers, you are making the error of citing what actually happened instead of accepting our sanitized memory of it. That team got to the SC finals and was therefore a great team and must have had a great season – we don’t have to go back and look at the numbers.

      Of course, that team didn’t gel until after the trade deadline and the 96 pts were the result of a strong finish. My own speculation (not necessarily correct) was that without Talbot, that team misses the playoffs. Talbot had a great W-L record. Replace him with an average backup and the Rangers approach the trade deadline solidly out of playoff position instead of borderline. Does Sather pull the trigger on the MSL trade as he actually did? Or does he make the deal with San Jose to get prospects for Callahan and write off the season? Except in NYC, I’m sure its the latter. But in New York, maybe he rolls the dice anyway, the Rangers rally and squeak into the playoffs, and history repeats itself.

  10. Eddie!Eddie!Eddie! says:


    Outstanding reply.

    On your first paragraph, absolutely correct. Every coach I’ve ever met, interviewed, learned from, etc all possess one trait in common….a very, very strong belief in their philosophy and the choices they make. (Or more simply put…stubborn!). When I coached, I was stubborn too. I had my way, we did it the way I believe in. We won a lot of championships and some years we fell short. I didn’t feel smarter when we won or dumber when we lost. I prepared the players the same. When we won, they executed. When we didn’t, we either didn’t execute well enough or we just got beat by a better team. That’s usually the way it is on every level. I’ve never understood this “AV is too stubborn” approach.

    On the second paragraph, I’m assuming you are being a bit sarcastic and actually agreeing with my point. I’d be willing to bet if we went back to this blog two years ago, I doubt very many people would have thought we’d have made it to the Cup Finals. We could have very easily have gone on in the first round, right? The execution was brilliant when it mattered in post season, and let’s face it, we got a little lucky too. Just like most teams that go deep. We are in pretty much the same place again. Where we go from here…TBD.

    As for Talbot, certainly he contributed in 2013-14, but he played a far bigger role last year than he did two years ago.

    All really great points.

    • Ray says:

      Yes and no on Talbot. He played a bigger role on last year’s team, but that team was so good that they had a large margin for error and could have made the playoffs with a far lesser contribution than Talbot made. OTOH, the previous team squeaked in (only 6 points to spare and that with a
      12-5-2 finish) and Talbot’s smaller contribution was more vital.

      We forget, but whether to trade Cally for prospects or MSL was not a no-brainer. The team did not look like a contender at all.

  11. amy says:

    last night’s game the rangers looked uninspired like they didn’t want to get hurt let’s figure they don’t want to play Pittsburgh and Washington right off the bat face Florida and whomever after that