The Rangers are at a crossroads. Specifically Alain Vigneault, Ulf Samuelsson, and Scott Arniel are at a crossroads. They will not change deployment. They cannot change the roster. The only thing left for them to change is the system in which the Rangers play. Change it to something that is not only easy to learn, but easy for an aging team –specifically aging blue liners that can’t skate anymore– to adapt on limited notice.
There are three areas the Rangers’ coaching staff needs to make adjustments to get the most out of their team. They aren’t major tweaks. Just minor ones that are easy to implement and easier for skilled/veteran players to adapt to. These areas that need adjustments are the penalty kill, defensive zone coverage, and breakouts.
We’ve discussed the penalty kill a few times on the blog (here and here). The diagnosis is simple: They allow too many high quality shots because they are allowing the cross ice pass. That pass has set up countless goals, a pair of which are highlighted in the second post, in addition to the one above.
As Suit noted in his post a few weeks ago, the Rangers play a diamond force hybrid PK, which is basically a man/zone system. D1 and F2 play man, F1 and D2 play zone. As players age, they are unable to move and react because their bodies slow down, thus any system that has man coverage as a primary coverage strategy will be less effective.
A simple fix is a box/diamond hybrid. But I’m with Suit that the best fix is a wedge+1 (all three detailed here). The wedge+1, pictured above, is similar to the diamond force, but easier to execute. The main difference is that three players remain low in a triangle formation, while a forward pressures the puck carrier. It’s the same premise that the Rangers want to force the issue, but this is far easier to execute and limits the cross ice pass options.
Defensive Zone Coverage
This is a horse we may have beaten to death a bit, but it’s very clear that the Rangers simply cannot keep up with the hybrid overload/man coverage scheme that AV runs. This is very similar to the penalty kill, as it requires quick thinking, quicker decision making, a continuous knowledge of outlets for the offense, and most importantly knowing when it’s your turn to play man coverage.
This is a very complicated system, but this team pulled it off the previous two years, albeit not with great consistency. What has changed this season is simple: The Rangers are older and slower, and the NHL is moving towards a speed game. Those factors mean the Rangers are now getting hurt by dead weight in this system, and the guys who can play it simply can’t cover enough.
The solution is again very simple. Switch to a hybrid overload/zone defense. Not much changes for the Rangers. They would still overload the strong side, as pictured above. You can see that the weak side point becomes open here, which is the obvious weakness and trade-off for playing the overload. It creates pressure, like the current system, so that’s what you’re expecting.
When switching to zone, one adjustment Suit has brought up (and I agree) is to have the box expand to challenge point shots. This way we are not collapsing wingers too low, which what we saw at various points during the Torts years.
Now the bug difference between a overload/zone hybrid and man, is that it eliminates the complicated shifts, and gives up the outside shot. When the puck is back along the boards, shift back to the overload. Many teams (Kings, Pens to name a few) deploy this strategy to great success. It’s simple, aggressive in the right spots, and limits exposure of players that can’t quite skate anymore.
Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the games we’ve been watching is that the Rangers don’t break out anymore. They simply chip the puck up the glass at the first sign of pressure. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen them do this with no pressure at all. The premise here is that they chip the puck past the first wave of pressure on the forecheck, and then use their speed to pick up the puck through the neutral zone. This worked very well last year.
There are so many reasons why it’s not working this year, but I’m going to focus on the fact that it’s not even remotely close to a controlled breakout. This is the equivalent of dump and chase hockey, which we don’t even have the type of wingers to play that way anymore.
Honestly the fix here is even simpler than the ones mentioned above. Just go back to Hockey 101. If you don’t have an outlet, cycle it back to your safety net, which should be your defensive partner. I have no idea why the safety net shifted from “keep possession” to “give the puck up.”
The Rangers are struggling in three aspects of the game. And while deployment and roster construction are still issues, they are issues that will not get addressed until next season. Since that is the case, the coaching staff –in which most of the on-ice troubles can be pinned– need to make adjustments. This is what they are paid to do. This is their job. These are the three areas that, if fixed, might make the Rangers a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. Because if they don’t make adjustments, and they continue to play as is, this team is done in the first round, no matter the opponent.