Archive for Defense
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.
Over the weekend, Alain Vigneault spoke with Dan Boyle, and said that he would be getting more time off as a healthy scratch throughout the season. The reasoning is that the Rangers have a fairly condensed schedule, with 17 back-to-backs and about ten (I think) three-in-fours. While Boyle is better defensively than he receives credit, he is also 39 years old coming off a long season.
There’s also the factor of getting Dylan McIlrath playing time, which in the long-run is equally important. McIlrath has made tremendous strides in his game over the past year, and has gone from “bust” territory to serviceable defenseman. The Rangers invested a lot of time and effort into his development, and it appears to finally be paying dividends.
When Kevin Klein was confirmed to be starting alongside Keith Yandle at the end of the preseason, I theorized that the two could be a solid duo. Klein has a heavy shot, looks to shoot often, and does a fairly good job of putting himself in a position to shoot. Yandle, on the other hand, is one of the best passers in the game, and makes many subtle plays to draw attention before dishing for a chance.
We started seeing this last night, as Klein scored the Rangers second of the game off a feed from Yandle, GIF’d above. From this play, we see Klein enter the zone at the high slot, then drift to the left circle. As Klein moves to the left circle –while the play is on the far side of the ice– Yandle moves from the left point across the blue line to support the play on the right point. From here, Yandle draws two Hawks to him with a fake shot as Klein angles himself towards Yandle to accept a pass. Yandle sees this, and feeds it right in his wheel house. Klein buried it.
This is a guest post received from Pat Keogh, who reached out to me yesterday with this idea. It was something I touched on via Twitter, and Patrick does a great job summing it up. Be sure to follow him on Twitter here.
The Philadelphia Flyers placed defenseman Andrew MacDonald on waivers this week, sparking some discussion on Twitter due to the size of his contract and his reputation as a reliable, shot blocking, “stay at home” defenseman. Rangers fans in particular may have found amusement in a close rival making this kind of roster move, but also perhaps frustration, given the similarities between Andrew MacDonald and Rangers stalwart Dan Girardi. At the same time as Girardi detractors can seem overly critical, apologists for the defenseman often ephemeral qualities such as “grit” or “heart”. A closer look at the stats helps clarify the comparison, which may bear more similarities than some Rangers fans would like.
Below are graphs of Girardi and MacDonald’s respective WOWY (With Or Without You) CF% numbers, including CF% as well as zone start adjusted CF%. While many of MacDonald’s teammates demonstrate a larger share of the shot attempts taken on ice without MacDonald, the same could be said for a greater proportion of Girardi’s teammates. Here we see the comparison is actually less flattering for Dan Girardi than for Andrew MacDonald.