Adapt or die.
That’s a quote from the movie Moneyball. Although that direct quote references including stats in analysis, it applies here to Alain Vigneault. AV has run the same hybrid overload/man coverage system in New York since his arrival in 2013. It seemed to work initially, but each season we’ve seen diminishing results.
At first it seemed to be a personnel issue. The Rangers weren’t mobile on defense, and it was certainly getting exploited regularly. This offseason changed things, as Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith replaced Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. More playing time for Brady Skjei should have also led to positive results. But they haven’t. The defense is still a train wreck.
When the personnel changes and the results are the same, it makes sense to start looking at the coaching. However Jeff Beukeboom was shown the door. Ulf Samuelsson left. Both were coaching the defense, and now the Rangers have Lindy Ruff in that spot. Different personnel, different coaches, same result.
With two variables seemingly returning the same results, there is only one logical explanation left. The system is the problem. That’s the only variable left in this equation.
To understand the issue, we must first understand the system. There are two aspects to AV’s system – the first is the defensive zone play, and the second is the neutral zone play. The Rangers certainly struggle in both aspects.
Covering the neutral zone first, AV tries to force turnovers just inside the blue line, which plays into his counter attacking system. There are two aspects here, and both come between the blue line and the top of the circles, the “High Risk Area”. The first is in offensive zone entries, in which the Rangers make dangerous passes in that high risk area.
— David Shapiro (@BlueSeatBlogs) November 1, 2017
We can use the Vegas game to show how a bad pass in that area can spring a team for a breakaway. The only way to really avoid plays like this is to play more dump and chase hockey. I’m not a big fan of that style, so I’m comfortable with the risk here.
The other area is in preventing zone entries. The Rangers try to force turnovers in that high risk area, which in turn helps them begin odd man rushes the other way. It’s great when it works. But when it doesn’t, the result is a mini odd man rush.
That is something highlighted in the above goal against Vegas. Steven Kampfer, who himself is not the best defenseman, was deked out of his shoes by Alex Tuch. Kampfer’s traditional role is to force Tuch to the outside. However there is a quick move to try to force a turnover, and he got burned.
The fix here is two-fold. Press Tuch early, before he gains the blue line, and force that turnover before he can gain speed. Kampfer was already on his heels when Tuch burned him in the high risk area. The second is to recognize that Tuch has the zone and speed, and commit to forcing him to the outside and behind/around the net. It prevents the cut back to the middle, which is what happened on this goal.
Neutral zone play is critical, but can be fixed by some minor tweaks in timing and recognition. That can be player based, but is also a hard-wiring issue for the players if they’ve been programmed to allow the entry and then press. That’s a variable that is tough to account for, but it does exist.
This is the area that draws the most publicity and criticism, and for good reason. Too many times we see defensemen chasing to the blue line or covering the same man. Too many times we see three guys behind the net and no one covering the slot. Too many times we see guys in behind the defense and other plays that are direct results of lacking a head on a swivel.
AV has the Rangers playing a hybrid overload/man system in the defensive zone. This is designed to overload the half-boards and create turnovers. Depending on puck location, certain players will switch to man coverage, specifically D1 and D2, to create more pressure. This is why you sometimes see defensemen pressuring a forward at the blue line.
This worked like a charm in 2013-2014 (or so we thought – a lot of it was masked by Henrik Lundqvist). We’ve seen diminishing results since, though, as a combination of factors have contributed to the Swiss cheese defense. Be it personnel, deployment, or just NHL evolution, the system doesn’t work anymore.
Perhaps the solution is simple – just eliminate the man coverage and stick with straight zone in the defensive zone. The weakness of the overload is that it opens the weak side pass at the point, and if the positioning is off the high slot can become open. It’s certainly better than the back door or the slot being open, which is what’s happening now.
The major positive is that the players stop thinking about where they need to be and just react and are programmed properly. Overload is a very standard defensive zone system that you’re taught. There’s an adjustment period, but there would be less thinking –which adds to the time to cover the proper man– and more high danger areas covered.
The roster has changed. The assistant coaches have changed. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the system. Even John Tortorella adapted in Columbus. It’s time for AV to do the same."It's time to change the defensive system",