Fixing neutral zone play will be key in Rangers resurgence

Neutral Zone

Modern Hockey Neutral Zone

Forget what you think you know about hockey zones. The game continues to evolve at a rapid pace and one of the areas that have changed drastically over the last several years is the neutral zone. Traditionally, the neutral zone has been referred to as the area of ice between both bluelines. However, with the evolution of today’s game, most coaches believe the ‘neutral zone’ is now the area between the defensive blueline and just above the offensive face-off circles.

The area you see highlighted in yellow is the most dangerous part of this modernized neutral zone and it is in this area where many coaches have designed more sophisticated ways of defending o-zone entries. The expectation in today’s game is that all forwards, regardless whether they’re 1st or 4th liners, need to backcheck hard and try to force turnovers. The old saying, ‘good defense leads to offense,’ increasingly rings true in this part of the ice.

With less time to make plays inside of the offensive zone blueline, rather than try to force a play, more teams are dumping or chipping the puck in deep when covered tight in this area or are carrying the puck through this dangerous area. Just last year, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who has always preached a high-end skill game, admitted he adjusted his systems to incorporate more chip and chase due to the retirement of several skilled personnel (i.e. Lidstrom, Rafalski).

So what does this have to do with the Rangers?

While there are many factors contributing towards the Rangers inconsistency this season, in my opinion, one of the key areas AV needs to address is our play in this high-risk patch of ice. Far too often our guys are trying to make lateral ‘low percentage plays’ upon entering the zone. The result of which tends to be a turnover that inevitably leads to an odd man rush and the puck in the back of our net.

Now we can certainly point fingers at Hank for continuously failing to come up with those big saves — go ahead, you’ll hear no argument from me — but the fact of the matter is, turnovers are happening at dangerous ice way too much. This needs to be fixed if we’re going to have any shot at the playoffs and beyond.

When the enemy’s defensemen are playing a tight gap, our players should either be dumping the puck in deep, driving to the net, or throwing pucks at the keeper from any angle. However, for some reason we’re not seeing the adjustment despite AV’s condemnation for plays like these. If you look back at some of the goal breakdowns this season, ‘turnover’ is a consistent theme.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Here we see Brassard coughing the puck up in this high-risk area against Winnipeg, which of course led to a goal.

Here you have the proverbial nail in the coffin goal from Ryan Johansen recently against Columbus. Same issue. High-risk area play. Poor execution. Goal.

Get it deep eh?

Get it deep eh?

This one should be fresh in everyone’s minds from Friday night. MDZ chose to make a play in the direction of the red arrow, despite the Islanders playing man-on-man defense up high. McD was also guilty of this play. No bueno. Goals.

If you really want a lesson, go re-watch Brassard’s gaffe in Dallas, the Thanksgiving week massacre against the Lightning and Bruins or December’s loss to Winnipeg. It’s the same story over and over again.

Now, I’m not saying AV needs to blow things up or even get away from the framework of his overload system, but a subtle adjustment between the blueline and the face-off circles might help limit the amount of odd man rushes the King has to face on a nightly basis.

At this point we all know an uptempo, offensive style, isn’t something we can consistently execute with this current roster. According to the ‘hockey insiders’ supposedly no one wants MDZ and trading Girardi makes little sense to me with the lack of right-handed minute eater defensemen available.

Reconstructing this roster seems unlikely for the time being. Instead, some system adjustments are the safer bet for improved consistency and less blowouts. The next move is on AV.