Archive for Defense
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.
It’s become blatantly obvious at this point in the season that the Rangers’ blue line needs something of a tighten up, with the team bleeding shot attempts on a nightly basis stretching back beyond this current skid to when the team was winning a larger proportion of their games. Although the team’s defensive play has been slightly less hemorrhagic of late a consensus seems to have formed, gesturing towards the notion that the Rangers’ defensive corp is among their biggest concerns.
More statistically minded fans may have seen this coming during the Rangers’ win streak earlier in the season, but at this point most fans can see that the Rangers’ defense is not what it could (or should) be, especially with regards to the play of stalwart defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. With the Rangers having won only two of their last seven games the team needs to be looking ahead to solutions, and once again I have a modest proposal to make. This blog has already written in praise of Dylan McIlrath’s play and noted the future importance of Brady Skjei. Insofar as the Rangers are working with what they have the two young players are crucial to improving this blue line right now, not just down the road.
The Rangers embarrassing loss in Edmonton was the exclamation point for the embarrassing regression from the Rangers defense. Unfortunately it all centers on Dan Girardi. The veteran Rangers blueliner has become an absolute liability.
This issue is no longer about his already questionable decision making ability. Players can cover up their decision making through their athletic prowess (Chris Kreider), their effort (guys such as Brandon Prust) and their positional sense but Girardi’s awful play has become so apparent and it’s because he’s basically doing nothing right on the ice anymore and it’s got to the point where he needs to be removed from the line-up, even if it’s just for a game or two.
Girardi can’t skate well enough for Alain Vigneault’s system, he makes bad plays with the puck but his positional play has now never been worse. He’s far too often removed from the play in his own zone. To the point where he can’t even block a shot which has so often been his saving grace (because fan bases overrate heroic blocked shots like it was the Spartan’s last stand) and a key defense from his defenders (of which I used to be one).
We have arrived at a point in the season where the warts on the Rangers are no longer avoidable. The Rangers defense keep turning the puck over, they continue to show an inability to protect Henrik Lundqvist or even limit odd man rushes despite the warning signs being there from the very beginning of the season.
Sure, the Rangers still have a very healthy record and they keep winning games (disregarding the current three game losing streak) but this team isn’t about the regular season. This team is about going deep beyond April. If the bad habits can’t be ironed out now, they threaten to undermine the team when the season has meaning.
Is this overreacting to a handful of sloppy results? After all, before the Bruins loss last week, the Rangers were the only team in the league to be averaging under two goals per game against. The only team in the entire league. Clearly that was an impressive statistic but was that the by-product of Henrik Lundqvist’s unbelievable start to the season? The Rangers have conceded at least four goals in three of the last four games, not including the stinker laid down against the Flyers. Right before that stretch of goals conceded, the loss against Tampa Bay was also highlighted by a late, shorthanded goal caused through individual mistakes from the Rangers.
There are many reasons to hope Dan Boyle can get his game to the point where he sticks in the Rangers line-up in what appears to be his final season as an NHL defenseman. First of all, if Boyle improves it would surely bring with it a ripple effect on the Rangers blueline – his improved play would solidify the Rangers’ top six. It would also likely mean he’s helped influence an indifferent powerplay (despite just two PP assists only Keith Yandle averages more PP ice time among Rangers blueliners). It would also likely mean that the Rangers have continued to win games meaning management don’t prioritise changes to their experienced but at this point underwhelming (as a unit) blueline.
The most important reason to hope for a short term Dan Boyle resurgence however currently resides outside of the New York spotlight. It’s Brady Skjei. Not every young college alumni can Ryan McDonagh themselves to the NHL. Not every defenseman is ready after a few weeks of pro ice time and the Rangers should (and likely have) absolutely no interest in rushing their prized asset. Dan Boyle’s situation however massively influences the Rangers immediate attitude toward Skjei.
The Rangers are off to their best start in history, but yet there is that sneaking suspicion that all is not well in Rangerland. Both Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta have been forced to make highlight reel saves on a regular basis. Defensemen are getting burned to the outside, are getting caught out of position, and are hemorrhaging shots against at an alarming rate. When the SV% comes back down to Earth, and it will, the Rangers may find themselves losing games they should win.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a playoff team with elite goaltending and forward depth that is envied across the league. They are one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference right now, up there with Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Washington. Any of those four can come out of the East. Wild cards like Pittsburgh and the Islanders also make things interesting.
Since the East is going to be a dog fight, the Rangers need to do everything possible to improve their performance on the ice and give themselves the best chance at winning that elusive Stanley Cup. That includes improving upon their bottom-third score-adjusted possession rate.