Archive for Defense
The evolution of sports is an interesting beast. Forever embedded in the American (and Canadian) consciousness, competition and loyalty can breed life long interest and devotion. People spend countless hours over countless years watching their idols. The love of the sweater eventually outlives all the players you grew up watching and those who have long faded into oblivion. As players come and go, the game changes around them. Some embrace the evolution, some fail to evolve and their time within the game draws to a close.
The evolution tends to come in common themes. Players get bigger, faster, and more skilled. They are better trained, with their talented cultivated from younger and younger ages. The game itself develops more specialized roles for players and matchups and statistics become more prevalent. Trends emerge, science is tested and every team tries to gain that competitive advantage.
Evaluating defensemen has always been a tough proposition for teams. It’s a tough proposition for anyone, really. There is so much that goes into the position. Skating, positioning, reads, hockey IQ, passing, shooting, physicality. The list goes on and on. But unlike forwards, who also need these skills, success isn’t necessarily tied to on-ice production.
Plus/minus, hits, and blocked shots are the traditional ways of viewing defensive success. After all, if you’re not allowing goals, blocking shots, and delivering hits, then you are doing the things that a defenseman should be doing. It’s a fairly simple theory, but it also represents an antiquated view of the game. Much like how pitcher wins is viewed in baseball. These are stats that are kept, but not very useful ones.
The biggest topic of this offseason will be how the Rangers address their precarious cap situation. With minimal cap space and several key free agents to sign, the Rangers are in a tough spot. The club has some rookies ready to take the next step, but it isn’t enough to fill out a lineup. Nor is it enough to contend for a Stanley Cup.
The elephant in the room of the cap strapped Rangers is the $11.2 million in cap space committed to Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. It doesn’t take a great hockey mind to see that both were pretty terrible this year. We know it. The team knows it. The players know it. It’s just a simple fact. The big question is whether or not the team thinks this is a one-year blip on the radar or a sign of things to come.
Raphael Diaz was recalled by the Rangers yesterday, much to the chagrin of many fans, as Dylan McIlrath seemed to finally be getting a legitimate chance with Dan Girardi out of the lineup. The hope was fair, as McIlrath really had done everything he could to warrant a longer look with the team. Alas, he was limited in his playing time in Game Two, and only saw ice time late because Kevin Klein was in the box.
This led to the speculation of the Diaz recall, and to be fair, Diaz is an NHL defenseman. He’s another one of those guys, like Matt Hunwick, that floats under the radar because he isn’t flashy or physical. He just moves the puck up the ice and starts the breakout. Couple that with his skating ability –which is significantly better than McIlrath’s– and you have a guy that is exactly what the Rangers need.
Over the course of the season, we, along with many other folks, have beaten to death that the Rangers defense is not what it used to be. While we’ve addressed some of the root causes, we have not addressed what specifically changed from last year. The personnel is the same. The system is the same. So it’s fair to expect similar results.
As with anything in sports analysis, it is very rarely one thing. A culmination of factors can conspire to change something that once appeared static and reliable.
First, let’s take a look at age. The average age on the blue line is 29.7 years old. That is not a young group. Dan Boyle’s spritely 39 years obviously skews things a bit, but Ryan McDonagh and Dylan McIlrath are the only members of the defense significantly under 30 (Yandle is 29). Especially for the less mobile defenseman, there are a lot of miles on those bodies.
Pat’s post this morning inspired me. With this many off days in a row, we get a chance to digest what we’ve seen and rationally evaluate what the Rangers have for the stretch run. The forwards are a deep group and it should just be a matter of getting the right mixture out there, especially when Rick Nash returns. The defense, however, is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
The Rangers have three defensemen that are overall solid: Ryan McDonagh, Keith Yandle, and Kevin Klein. Klein peaked at 30 years old, which is all sorts of odd, but hey, you take it. After them, you have Dan Girardi (bad this year, but better of late), Marc Staal (horrible this year), and Dan Boyle (can’t skate, can still pass). It’s about maximizing what you can get out of these guys for the playoffs.
The Rangers will be without defenseman Kevin Klein for the foreseeable future with a broken thumb, and the injury came at the worst possible time. Klein has been arguably the Rangers’ best defenseman, and absolutely the best right-handed defenseman. Dylan McIlrath will get extended playing time, likely with Keith Yandle.
On paper, the drop-off from Klein to McIlrath shouldn’t be all that terrible. McIlrath actually has better possession numbers, but it’s a small sample. But from what we’ve seen, he’s been able to make the smart first pass out of the zone and manages his gap control very well, which helps hide his weaker skating.
The Rangers have a right-defense problem. Kevin Klein is solid and by far the best defenseman on that side. Aside from him, the Rangers aren’t really sure what they are getting on a nightly basis from Dan Boyle, Dan Girardi, and Dylan McIlrath. The cause of inconsistency varies by player, but inconsistency is still inconsistency.
Boyle is still a solid possession player and his presence opens things up on the powerplay. However he is old and he’s slowing down considerably. He got torched by a Caps player on Sunday to negate an icing, and has been slow to the puck relatively consistently all year. That’s by no fault of his own, he lost a step.
Girardi has had a terrible season, and a fractured kneecap probably isn’t helping matters. Injured or not, he’s been a liability on the ice. McIlrath’s inconsistencies are more easily explained, as he’s a rookie. He will make mistakes. But those mistakes will become fewer in number as he gets more playing time. He should be getting groomed for regular minutes next season as well.
It’s amazing how things change in a short period of time. Just last season the bedrock of the Rangers’ success was arguably their defensive depth from one to six. This season however we have seen the inconsistencies of Ryan McDonagh, the misuse of Keith Yandle and the relative regression of Marc Staal but especially Dan Girardi. Last season several people thought Kevin Klein was the organisation’s best trade option on the blueline if the Rangers were to strengthen elsewhere because he was dispensable.
Fast forward to this season and the Rangers have (as has been well documented) struggled to keep pucks out of their own net and most people assume, to maintain a mid to long term competitiveness, the Rangers will need to move Girardi and/or Staal to ease the cap problems. Not so much discussion on trading Kevin Klein any more hey?
Much of the focus of our frustrations this year has been on the defense. It’s been ranging from singling players out for poor play to overall team defense and poor execution. Part of this problem comes from deployment and a lack of willingness to move away from veterans that are struggling this season. That part lies with the coaching staff, particularly Ulf Samuelsson and Alain Vigneault.
When a team is protecting a lead, you expect the best defensive units to be on the ice. Likewise when the team is behind, you expect the best offensive players to be out on the ice. Luckily Micah McCurdy has put together a great site called hockeyviz.com, which takes the deployment and puts it into easy to understand visuals. First, let’s look at who AV puts out there in game situations.