Archive for Hockey Tactics
So for the 4th time in 5 years, the Rangers will square off against the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In that time, the Rangers post-season record against the Caps is 8-11. Although there have been some key personnel changes on both sides, not to mention three different head coaches in DC, the song remains the same. The Rangers have the best goaltender in the world, while the Capitals have the best goal scorer in the world. That formula always makes for some edge-of-your-seat hockey.
This year will be no different. To no surprise, the Capitals are again a goal-scoring machine. They rank 4th in the league with 3.04 goals per game. They also rank 1st in the league in power play conversion (26.8%). Interestingly enough, they’ve reached those heights while simultaneously being one of the best shot blocking teams in the league (ranked 8th in the NHL). Of course, you already know blocking shots doesn’t stifle a team’s offensive ability 😉
So what does this mean for the Rangers?
With the Rangers finally clinching a playoff spot last night with their win over Carolina, the final game of the season against the Devils has lost some significance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tremendously grateful that the boys from Newark don’t get to play spoiler against us a week after we eliminated them from postseason contention. However, the game could be important when it comes to shuffling out the bottom of the Eastern Conference deck.
The Rangers, Islanders and Senators currently sit 6-8 in the East with 54 points. The Sens hold a game in hand on both the Rangers and Isles. At the moment, the Rangers hold the tiebreaker with 21 regulation wins to the Senators’ and Islanders’ 20. As we know, the Rangers only remaining opponent is New Jersey on Saturday, while the Isles only have lowly Buffalo remaining, and Ottawa has Philly and Boston. The final few games could have the bottom three spots in the conference shake out in a number of ways.
This got me thinking, out of the four possible opponents for the Blueshirts in the first round, is there really a preferred matchup? As the standings currently, well, stand, the Rangers could potentially matchup against Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, or slightly less likely Montreal. Let’s have a gander at how the Rangers match up against each one…
One of the biggest weaknesses the Rangers organization has faced the last several seasons has been a mediocre power play. Not since the 2009-10 season have the Rangers finished in the top half of the league in PP conversions. This season in particular, the Rangers power play was a disaster early on. With that said, there was quite a bit of turnover in the offseason, a truncated training camp and plenty of injuries. Just when the Rangers were looking to turn it around in mid-February, Rick Nash went down with an injury and missed four games.
Once Nash returned, not only have the Rangers been playing great 5-on-5 hockey, but the power play has improved as well. As Dave mentioned yesterday, prior to the Rangers win streak, they were sitting dead-last in the NHL with an 8% power play. Currently they are at 15.8% overall (22nd in the NHL), 17.6% at home (20th in the NHL) and have doubled their efficiency over the past seven games. As Dave reported, their 27% efficiency rate over this streak is good for second in the NHL.
But can all of that be attributed just to Rick Nash’s return? Here’s what I’ve noticed.
I know there is a small, but vocal contingent of the blogosphere that will trash Tortorella when the team isn’t performing well and leave him alone when the team wins. Some people just look at the scoreboard and develop a strong opinion about the man and that’s all there is to it. Part of being a sports fan I suppose. However, what we try to do on this site is dig a little deeper.
When you peel back the onion a bit, one of the things I have come to appreciate about Tortorella are the less publicized tactics he uses to help win hockey games. Last season he changed up the Rangers neutral zone forecheck on the penalty kill, which aimed to create short-handed chances. This year he’s developed a new breakout designed to beat neutral zone traps.
If you’ve been coming to this website for a while, hopefully you’ve been reading all of my hockey systems posts. To date, we have discussed forechecking, puck possession strategies, powerplay strategies, penalty killing and face-off tactics. We’ve also covered Tortorella’s systems and philosophies with great depth, which you can read about here.
The one aspect of a hockey system we really haven’t talked about much are defensive zone strategies. The three most common systems are the strong-side overload, zone coverage/box+1 and man-on-man coverage.
Unlike other aspects of a hockey system, defensive zone strategies are not really implemented in a “one size fits all” approach anymore. The game has evolved. More and more teams are using certain strategies for specific game situations.
Strong-Side Overload Read More→
One of the bigger stories during minicamp has been the position switch made by Marian Gaborik. Gaborik, a left-handed shot, has played the off-wing his entire career, until now. This season, Gaborik will at least start the year on the left side, with Derek Stepan as his center and Ryan Callahan as his right wing (the other top line is Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Rick Nash). Many –including myself– assumed it would be Nash playing on the left side, something he’s done in the past. But Gaborik on the left side offers some very important benefits.
Spreading out the defense
Torts decided to resist the urge of putting together a super line of Nash-Richards-Gaborik, which would surely draw the top defensive assignments from both the blue liners and top defensive forwards in league. By keeping one of the wingers off the line, and with another very competent center in Stepan, the Rangers will force teams to spread out their defensive assignments, making them more vulnerable to miscues. This is something we talked a lot about last year with Torts’ line juggling.
Hockey will be back soon and finally we can start talking about the systems and strategies of this great game we all know and love. One of the most critical – and contested – aspects of the Rangers system in 2012 was their power play.
For the sake of brevity, I will just say last year’s mediocre power play was not due to coaching decisions or their umbrella formation (seen above). The problem was a lack of execution based on limited personnel. Penalty killers could key in on one guy and knew the others either wouldn’t sense open ice (hockey IQ) or put a quality shot on net.
So how can Nash help the Rangers improve?
Last week we took an early look at the Rangers potential top 6 line combinations. I think the majority of us agree some iteration of Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan will comprise our top 2 scoring lines. With that said, the Rangers bottom six is a bit less certain.
The assumption is Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham will fill those roles. However, three of those six have never played for John Tortorella before and we all know how Torts utilizes his 4th line…
Ultimately, it comes down to skating, work effort and a team first attitude. If any of these guys prove to be a liability in any of those facets of the game, they will be replaced by someone from Hartford.
On to the line combos…
Today, we’re going to take a break from CBA talk and look down the road to training camp and beyond. Call me hopeful, but this suit thinks the NHL will play a partial season. With this in mind, perhaps no other aspect of a training camp, preseason, or regular season roster is more critiqued & analyzed by fans than line combinations, especially how Torts generates line combos.
Creating line combos is everyone’s chance to play armchair coach. It doesn’t matter what team you follow or which coach stands behind your bench. Every fan wants to dream up lines and see them produce. For the Rangers, this will be the first time John Tortorella will have a top 6 that won’t be a revolving door.
In his first few seasons as coach, Torts lacked a top flight center. As a result, Torts was left to choose from average Joes for the first line such as Erik Christensen, Ollie Jokinen and Brandon Dubinsky, to name a few. Once Brad Richards came aboard and Derek Stepan emerged, the Rangers center position stabilized. Of course, then they lacked a premiere scorer on the left side of the ice. From 2009-2011, guys best suited for bottom 6 minutes like Avery, Fedotenko, Chris Higgins and Wojtek Wolski all had stints in a top 6 role.
With a 2013 season hopefully around the corner, Torts could finally have balanced scoring throughout the lineup. Here’s an early look at what opening night line combinations could look like…
With this week’s blockbuster trade, many are now wondering just how far the Rangers will go with the addition of Rick Nash. While it’s still way too early to be penciling us in as front-runners to win the Cup, one thing we can do is look at how the Rangers might change from an x’s & o’s or “systems” perspective.
Fortunately for John Tortorella, adding Nash doesn’t necessarily require a complete strategic overhaul the way acquiring Jagr once did. Nash will fit like a glove in our current team template. Why? Because Nash’s offense is versatile. He’s not a one trick pony.
Nash can score off the forecheck, he can score off the rush, he make plays cycling off the half wall, and he can jam the crease with that 6’4 frame of his. Guys like this are tailor-made for John Tortorella’s aggressive 2-1-2 forechecking system, which requires skaters to hunt for the puck down low and create offense below the dots. This is not a sit back and clog up the neutral zone type team. Their identity is built around skating and effort above all else.
Of course, 5-on-5 forechecking is just one aspect of a hockey system, so we will also look at how adding Nash might cause Torts to tweak other aspects of our system like the power play and our propensity to block shots.
Defensive Zone Strategy
This past post-season the media made a lot of fuss about the Rangers defensive zone strategy, which required our players to collapse around the net and block a lot of shots. What got lost in their slanted coverage is that in today’s NHL, more and more offensive teams are adopting this style of play. Point in case, during the 2001-02 season 9 teams blocked over a 1,000 shots. Last season 27 teams blocked over 1,000 shots, and the other 3 teams were pretty damn close.
With that said, now that we have two legit scoring lines, you may see the Rangers tweak their d-zone strategy, at least for our top 6 players. Rather than play a low zone collapse (as seen above), the Rangers will probably station 1 or 2 wingers closer to the opposing defensemen at the blueline for a chance to create more odd-man rushes.
By no means will this team be cherry picking in the neutral zone, as the Pavel Bure’s of the world once did, but I would expect our skilled forwards to be more aggressive than last season. Also, our bottom 6 players will likely still play more conservatively. They will be tasked to defend homeplate at all costs, as they should.
Obviously it is going to take some time for the Rangers to come together and all get on the same page. Hopefully fans show a little more patience than they did last fall, when all but myself and Dave it seemed didn’t want Tortorella fired. Give it a chance. When it all comes together, it’s going to be great hockey.