Hockey Tactics

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.

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  • Great post. Great game inside the game look.

    This seems like a simple adjustment, and based on the screenshot of the Islanders game above, the obviously play is a shot on goal with forwards crashing the net, or a dump down low.

    Why that pass is forced makes no sense, and hasn’t been a mistake this team has made in the past. Why so careless now?

  • Torts tried his safe is death system when he got here. It didn’t work, and he adjusted. AV is a good coach, he will adjust.

    • I didn’t get to read this post the other day but here I am now. My question to you is this. With 2 defenseman at the blue line and in the case of that Islander game where the 2 forwards were up high playing man coverage and pressuring the two Dmen. Would it hurt to have say F1 leave his position and come up behind those 2 defenders (forwards) to support the D and a slick pass behind them can lead to a scoring chance. ie SOG or a backdoor pass. If the pass gets behind them you have a numerical advantage. If not then just send the puck deep. Once Staal comes back. The Rangers should start looking more aggressively into making a move sooner than later. They need a Dman that is calm with the puck and can make the opposition respect his shot. When the Rangers play the Habs, I see them paying much attention to PK Subban and rightfully so. He’s got a Howitzer but that leaves forwards alone in deep outnumbering NY Ranger defenders. That to me is an important element missing from the Rangers game. Opponents don’t respect our defense at all making it tougher on the forwards in deep at even strength and on the PP. Thoughts? I would love to have Moulson for what he does down near the goal line but a 3rd line RW like Stempniak is a must

    • And didn’t Torts try to open things up a little bit at the start of last season with the addition of Nash on the Richards-Gaborik line? When the season started and the Rangers lost games to Boston, Pittsburgh, and Montreal each twice by scores of 6-3 and 3-0. Torts got a few “Torts” like players such as Clowe, Brassard, Dorsett, and a slick skating defenseman in John Moore. At which point he went back to what he knew worked from years past. That was his D first mentality and aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck. Offense from defense by creating turnovers! After the deadline and the acquisition of some reinforcements, the Rangers went on a roll to secure the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference. Torts added the “strong side Overload” when the puck was against the boards rather than allowing teams to take shots from the perimeter all over the zone.
      My point is that Torts tried to create more offense and less time inside their own zone blocking shots all game but the Rangers weren’t built for “Run n Gun” games. Torts is a great hockey mind and I miss him as coach but AV needs to make some modifications to his strategy as to fit the personnel he currently has. Right now the Pens aside no one is running away with the 2nd and 3rd spot in the division or the 2 wild card spots. The Rangers need to go into a game believing in what AV is selling and get this team to compete on a nightly basis. I have said it before that this might be where they turn a corner. It has to start now before a division foe does. NJ, Philly, Car, CBJ, and even the Islanders are all playing their best hockey of the season. We have to get there as well. Nash, Stepan, Brassard, Hagelin, and Richards have to be difference makers every shift of every game. The time for this team is now because this team will look very different next season if AV has his way.
      I know we have only 2 right handed D but if the deal is right to a Western Conference team. I think you have to explore your options. A top 6 righty wouldn’t hurt either.

  • Any system requires players understand and look at the risk/reward of certain plays. That speaks to the intelligence (hockey-sense) of the players. In the MDZ example above (red-arrow), a player with their head up does NOT make that pass. Sometimes we blame the coach and the system, but the players need to “see the ice”. Our team (sometimes) lacks that creative intelligence that makes someone zig instead of zag. True of defending as well.

    • The problem is always two-fold: Knowing what you have on the roster and execution of the system. AV needs to adjust for his roster, but the roster needs to begin executing as well.

  • Great post. Now can you do one that tries to figure out what the hell is wrong with Nash? I mean holy shiskebobs has the guy been terrible all year.

    I understand the problems the teams has adjusting to a new system, not really having the right personnel to run the system efficiently, being small and soft but wouldn’t you agree that if Nash, and Hank to an extent, played to their capabilities this season would be much different?

    • Honestly, I don’t think their struggles are really related to coaching or systems, maybe a little bit for Hank. I just think mentally they’re just not where they should be. Call it lack of confidence. Unable to find the zone. Whatever. Their focus just doesn’t seem there. They need a little kick in the ass perhaps.

      • The “system” might have been an earlier-in-the-season thing though I’m not sure that they are totally comfortable in it or if its even what they will use going forward but as I’ve said before, Nash has been invisible. If its due to the concussion is worrisome and if its not its even more worrisome…

        And yes, maybe a big kick in the rear. Do you think that leadership is an issue? Do they have that voice in the locker-room?

          • Which raised another question, is Cally enough? Seems like they need a proven veteran voice (or two), Cally can’t be THE ONLY voice in the locker-room…

    • I know you were asked this question before and maybe more than once but I value your opinion on Hockey opps very much. (Football not so much Lol). What do you think would get the greatest results from the Rangers perspective in a trade. 1- A top line Winger preferably a righty but I think Moulson(3mil cap hit) would work wonders back in NY on a line with Nash & Stepan and could be had for draft picks since the Sabres are rebuilding. 2- A 3rd line RW, an energy guy that doesn’t give up on a play. ie Lee Stempniak. 3- A mobile defenseman (again preferably a righty shot with a blast from the point. I don’t know who is out there to be had on the blue line with a right handed shot but the hard shot and puck moving defenseman is needed. A guy that can make a good first pass to beat the forecheck and not turn the puck over right before or after the defensive blueline on breakouts. I also like Zack Smith as well and Ottawa has not been the defensive team they have been the past 2 seasons so a d maybe gets that done.

  • You kinda need some of those been-there, done-that guys, and who qualifies as such aside from Richards? who by the way wont even be here next year…

    • I agree with you 100% bro but as many players on this team that lack SCF experience. Most of the players on the Rangers have played over 30 playoff games the last 2 seasons. They know what it takes to get there going as far as 2 wins from getting to the big dance. Call me crazy but this NY Ranger team has the skill to contend for a cup this season. The East isn’t anything the Rangers fear playing. Winning the cup against the winner from the Western Conference is another story but the Rangers are hitting their stride at the right time.

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