The evolution of defense and the philosophical change that is needed by the Rangers

ryan mcdonagh

Evaluating defensemen has always been a tough proposition for teams. It’s a tough proposition for anyone, really. There is so much that goes into the position. Skating, positioning, reads, hockey IQ, passing, shooting, physicality. The list goes on and on. But unlike forwards, who also need these skills, success isn’t necessarily tied to on-ice production.

Plus/minus, hits, and blocked shots are the traditional ways of viewing defensive success. After all, if you’re not allowing goals, blocking shots, and delivering hits, then you are doing the things that a defenseman should be doing. It’s a fairly simple theory, but it also represents an antiquated view of the game. Much like how pitcher wins is viewed in baseball. These are stats that are kept, but not very useful ones.

The major change to the way defense is viewed goes beyond defensive zone play. Hockey is evolving into a transition game, quickly and seamlessly moving from defense to offense and catching the opposition off-guard. This leads to the newer theory that the best defense is a good offense, and the less you’re in your own zone, the better.

The new theory easily explains why hits and blocked shots are not necessarily useful stats anymore. If you are hitting people or blocking shots, your team doesn’t have the puck. And if your team does have the puck and you’re hitting people and blocking shots, then there are bigger issues in your game.

The issues with plus/minus are a little more detailed, because plus/minus isn’t indicative of 5v5 play. Empty netters and short handed goals against count as minuses. Here’s how “defensive hole” Keith Yandle and “defensive defenseman” Dan Girardi stack up at 5v5:

  • Dan Girardi – 49 GF, 38 GA = +11
  • Keith Yandle – 51 GF, 40 GA = +11

But Girardi was a +18. Yandle a -4. Girardi doesn’t play on the powerplay or when the Rangers need a goal late. Yandle does, thus he gets more minuses. While this illustrates the flaw of plus/minus, it doesn’t help to show that the newer theory regarding transition hockey is where the game is shifting.

The most important pass in the transition game is the first pass. It’s like a quarterback in football: You need to move the play in order to get scoring chances. If that first pass isn’t crisp, then it leads to turnovers, failed subsequent passes, and more time in te defensive zone. The more time in the defensive zone, the fewer the scoring chances.

When watching the Rangers throughout the season, it’s tough to get the impression that they transitioned well. More often than not, their defensemen would flip the puck to the neutral zone, out of harms way. This resulted in one of two plays:

  • The opposition regaining possession in the neutral zone and starting up the offense again. This is a turnover.
  • A failed breakout attempt, resulting in a dump-in or a failed zone entry. This isn’t a turnover, but it’s not exactly a great play either.

Now let’s look at a team like Washington that dresses a blue line that includes John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt. All pretty solid puck movers.

Then there’s St. Louis, who dresses Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko. San Jose has Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brenden Dillon.

When you look at the Rangers, do they have a blue line that really compares to these puck movers? Keith Yandle, sure. Ryan McDonagh too. But after that, the pickings are slim. Kevin Klein is probably their next best, but he’s not exactly known for his puck moving. It wasn’t until Brady Skjei came that the Rangers even had three guys that could move the puck up the ice efficiently.

And therein lies the philosophical change alluded to after the Rangers were eliminated in embarrassing fashion. To get better, to truly compete, the Rangers need to embrace the need to improve on that first pass. The philosophy change starts at the top with Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. Giving Alain Vigneault the players needed to improve this hole is the first step.

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  • Interesting comment and I agree that transition and puck moving D’s are needed. However before we get to techie lets acknowledge that there is a very fine line that gets a team to the cup therefore you can have a perfect scenario on your back end but it doesn’t mean you’ll get to the cup finals or out of the second round. The rangers don’t need to change in a philosophy buy adding more McDonagh/Yandle types. They get caught the most and look at their gap control. How many times have you seen either step up to intercept a pass in the Nzone or deliver a hit in the Nzone. Pretty non existent. They are great at getting back after getting caught on a pinch but thats not how you want to play. The best guy most consistent in all zones is Klein.The D’s back in and are puck chasers. They allow forwards to gain position in front of the net and there are no consequences except when Dylan M is around. Everyone says McD is the best D man but they are using your theory. He is not complete because he doesn’t play the man well at the net. He usually, like Eric S, is in the paint. I understand the new philosophy but you got to clean up the lack of being this one dimensional Dman. I agree flipping the puck into the Nzone is an unforced turnover but realize they do it to relieve pressure and get off the ice. Because our forecheck is non existent we allow teams to get out easily. We have terrible gap control in the middle so other teams zoom through the Nzone and we back in at our blue line all the way to the paint. Its more about performance than a philosophy from the back end. WE don’t defend any lines. Now there’s a philosophy. Maybe its a poor philosophy/execution in the other zones. I do agree the more time in your end the more bad things happen. To say the rangers need a philosophical change in their d man is overstating the obvious. We need D men that can play in all zones have some snarl as well as Paul Coffey skill set.. Even with the perfect philosophy on the back end if the fwds don’t do their job we don’t succeed. Seemed like the coaches put their eggs in one basket. So tired of hearing we want to play fast!. They seemed to rely upon breaking out unopposed, flying through the N zone and carry the puck to the shooting area. Too bad the other team on the ice wasn’t like us.

    • Great, great analysis of the problem with the D. Bloggers like Dave & others think the game is changing to a transition game, but in reality it has always been a transition game. Back in the day,before many here were born it was called, “headmaning the puck.” What has changed is the speed of the game. Guys like Doug Harvey & Pierre Pilote were the kings of headmaning the puck and they were on the slow side. Guys like Orr & Coffey were great skaters & played like forwards & they could skate the puck up ice, which you still see today in guys like Karlsson & Yandle. But if you get a whole D full of offensive ypes you won’t win because in the D-zone you need some D who can play the puck on the boards & win those board battles. That’s where the Ranger D falls down. The collectivity of Ranger D are very poor along the wall & routinely lose puck battles. In our system of breakouts forwards are static along the boards which allows them to be easily covered and constrains the D in their ability to move the puck up. Teams have caught on to this, cramping the speed game. Dumping the puck in is OK as long as you have forwards who can win board battles too because sometimes that is the only option. This is a team problem because Rangers need to play stronger on the boards. We have some of those players but not enough. You are right about the forecheck being nonexistent. I much prefer the Torts/Sullivan more aggressive forecheck. This also allows the D to move up into the play instead of hanging back. D pinching is a high risk move so it has to be used judiciously. On D you need a combination of puck moving D & stay at home D too, which is why the Yandle-DMAC pair was effective, realizing they did play sheltered minutes & depriving us of information as to how it would look with non sheltered minutes. Anyway loved your post.

      • Paul

        I haven’t heard that term in years. Funny how the game changes, yet still remains the same, under dufferent names !!!!!!!!!!

  • The game has evolved before our very eyes, and the need for a puck moving d-man is greater today, than ever before. That stated, there are very few Latang’s, Carlson’s, Subban’s of the world, and we certainly use one. MaC truck does a decent job, but that should be the type of players we should be looking at down the road.

    I’m also of the impression that the other skill sets are needed. Strong, physical defensemen still has their use, and teams still need those guys as well. Look at the Sens, they have the Carlson kid, moves the puck beautifully, skates like a dream, has a wonderful shot, but can’t play a lick of defense. Yet, they award the Norris trophy to these guys, instead of the real defensemen.

    Paul Coffey was mentioned, well he was nothing more than a 4th forward on those Oilers teams, that usually won games 5-2, 6-3, etc. All I’m getting at is we need both to be successful. The Flyers brought up the kid, everyone knows who I mean, name I won’t attempt, who became an offensive machine. He was effective because he also skated will some solid stay at home types. We need one puck mover per pair, and a more defensive conscious type skating at his side.

    Now how do we get the type of d-men in question with the boat anchors we have?? Mac Truck, Skjei, and from what I read Graves also can carry the puck well. Match these guys with a Shatty, DMc, and Klein, well we would be OK. Again, it always gets back to those lousy contracts Sather awarded to Dan, & Marc.

    On a side note, a good defense is a good offense, that’s been stated many times by me, especially when we go into that god forsaken prevent, how I hate that !!!!!!!!! Did anyone notice how Tampa never let up on the Fishsticks, even with a four goal lead ??????

    • Walt – it has been a pleasure watching the Bolts eat-up the Fishsticks up close and personal my friend.

      I personally have a grind with Yzerman over the way he handled/screwed MSL but you cannot for one minute argue with his success of building a winner. The way he played out the Drouin situation was just masterful.

      The problem he has now is that many of their young guns (and there are a bunch of them) are all reaching RFA stage either this year or next (the Rangers should have such problems).

      Kucherov at only 22 yrs. old is one dude worth trying to go the offer sheet route with – except ya know – we have no draft choices to send their way as compensation – so we are kind of out of that game.

      With the success they’ve had without Stamkos (and Stralman) and the cap situation they are in, it is pretty easy to see a scenario where they let Stamkos walk. At least that gives us some hope.

      Oh and Walt – not to hit one of your hot buttons or anything – but Cooper is one helluva a coach…..

      • Great post, and spot on……As for Cooper, well what can you say, the man is very good, and knows how to develope kids to the point that they may loose some for the very reasons mentioned !!!!!

        Can you imagine AV in his shoes doing the same things, I can’t !!!!!!!

    • And speaking of the Lightning it has got to be tough for all you Cally haters to endure watching all of these nationally televised Lighting games.

      Just as he does every game for the Lightning, Cally goes non-stop, every shift, every game, giving it his usual 200%. Penalty Kills, Power Plays, Hitting everything in sight and providing that grit, and heart and soul leadership that the NY Rangers solely lack. It is pretty tough to miss even for you haters.

      But I think I understand. It must be because of the “flawed logic of salary equals production” concept.

      The best way to describe this logic I think, is to borrow a favorite Bill Maher-ism – “The Bubble”

      The Bubble is a place where your big, strong, $7.8M forward with no outward signs of leadership or toughness, who scores regular season goals pretty regularly is revered as a great two-way player (Playoffs? Did someone say Playoffs?)

      While the hard working $5.8M forward who is three times the leader (just ask his mates), is a monster on the ice every freakin shift of every freakin game, and is now going into the 3rd Stanley round in consecutive seasons is chastised because because he is overrated, wanted a little more money and security and he is not a scorer.

      Ah yes – The Cally Bubble – Where Ranger fans ponder the “Why’s” and the Lighting fans ponder the “Why Not’s.”

      I am lucky to be still watching hockey – I wish it was the Rangers but it is the Bolts and that is not a bad thing. They are one helluva a hockey club and they do have grit, leadership, and tenacity and his name is Ryan Callahan.

      Sorry – I know I’m the contrarian here – but every time I leave a Bolt’s game my inner Ranger fan comes out and asks Why?

      My therapist tells me it is just better if I get it all out….I keep telling him – Yeah – but he is not a scorer!!!

      • Hated this post my man! Callahan wanted too much for his worth and would have just made another contribution to the whole salary cap issue. He would have been signed if he wasn’t so F***ing greedy! That’s fine he has the right, but let’s not pretend the Rangers didn’t want him.

        • Joe – I gave you a thumbs up just for responding.

          I was simply making a comparison to the love that Nash gets and the pay he gets for his performance vs. the hate the Cally gets and the pay he gets for his performance in the spirit of “flawed logic of salary equals production”

          No one knows the “what if” scenarios if Cally was signed but it may, as have you have noted, brought the cap issue to the forefront quicker and perhaps that is not a bad thing.

  • it is definitely time for changes in rangerstown keep mac truck, skeji, yandle, klein and buy out dan and staal trade nash to the blues for shattenkirk

    • “The issues with plus/minus are a little more detailed, because plus/minus isn’t indicative of 5v5 play. Empty netters and short handed goals against count as minuses.”

      ◾Dan Girardi – 49 GF, 38 GA = +11
      ◾Keith Yandle – 51 GF, 40 GA = +11

      “But Girardi was a +18. Yandle a -4. Girardi doesn’t play on the powerplay or when the Rangers need a goal late. Yandle does, thus he gets more minuses.”

      This does not make sense to me. How were the 5v5 totals determined? Are these the totals without empty net situations and we are saying that we had 15 goals against in this situation where Yandle was on the ice to make his +11 drop to -4? Similarly, G was on the ice for 7 empty netters we scored moving him from +11 to +18?

      Thanks in advance for helping me understand this.

      • I actually looked up the numbers and I did not fully understand them. Empty net goals are a big thing – the Rangers gave up sixteen of them while scoring six goals with the extra attacker. Yandle’s numbers were GF 3 GA 10, explaining half the disparity. I believe also that Yandle was on the powerplay when three short-handed goals were scored, narrowing the gap to five. You can easily see how these considerations bridge the entire Girardi gap.

        However, IIRC, the Yandle totals did not add up. The total goals against exceeded the sum of all different situations (including miscellaneous!). Presumably either the total or one of the numbers was wrong.

      • Don’t make yourself crazy trying to be a techie. Numbers are only indicators. You need to see what that number means. If you know what your looking at its plane as day to see the assets someone brings to the table as well as their vulnerabilities.

  • GImme a 2016/17 opening lineup of…

    McD – Shattenkirk
    Yandle – Klein
    Skjei – McIlrath

    …and I’d be smitten.

  • Ok….how would you like to be the Fishtanks with Boychuk until 2022 at 6 per year?

    Leddy didn’t exactly light it up.

    Speed thru the Nzone is the most important factor. Our speed retired and was traded. Not replaced.

      • Two things here. It’s hard to make a good first pass if the forecheck is strong & right on top of you. And second to make a good first pass you have to have forwards who are free to take that pass, one can’t happen without the other.

    • Good for the Fishsticks, they have their own Girardi, in Boychuk, who is 32 years old, at $47 mil over 7 years !!!!!!!!!!

      Stay the hell away from the geriatric players, they’ll kill you every time !!!!!!

  • You make good point about the traditional way of counting +/- being faulty, how better calculations show that Girardi is not vastly superior to Yandle but merely his equal. Because of luck, different partners, and different usage, this is still not definitive.

    However, goal-based stats are not like W-L in baseball, but more like ERA.

    The modern stats emphasize things that have been undervalued and so were informative five years ago before hockey incorporated them.

    First and foremost, defensemen need to be defensively responsible. They need to know how to play a two on one and various other things that just don’t show up on possession stats. Turnovers are important, but there are dangerous turnovers and turnovers that just yield possession.

    Now, there is one thing we do agree on. Moving the puck up ice is important. You don’t want six Dan Girardis, even in his prime. But they do have McDonagh and Skjei and just need someone for the third pair. Staal was better at this in the past, as he was at just playing defense.

    In truth, the biggest issue on defense for me is Marc Staal. Why was he ineffective? Will he remain so? If yes, what do you do?

  • One point I do not get above, maybe you can clarify; you said that Girardi does not play on the Powerplay or when they need a goal late, and Yandle does, so that gives Yandle more “minus'”. I see why the late goal scenario might cause that, but working the powerplay should absolutely provide more of a positive than a negative. I know we want to paint the black cloud over Girardi and hand Yandle the crown, but let’s use the stats correctly please.

    • The issue with the PP, relating to +/- is that you don’t get awarded a +1 for scoring a PP goal, but do get a +1 for a SH goal scored.

      Player 1 is on the ice for 50 PP goals scored in a season…. he’d earn a total of +0. If the other team over the course of the season scores, say 7 shorthanded goals during his PP minutes, his total special teams +/- would be -7.

      Player 2 kills penalties. If he is on ice for 50 PP goals against in one season, he’d have a total of -0. If his team scores 7 shorthanded goals over the course of the season, he’d earn a +7 on special teams.

      The two above scenarios, given the same 2 players earned a 5v5 +/- of +11, Player 1 nets a +4, Player 2 nets a +18. So by nature, the +/- stat is more kind to those who kill penalties verses those guys who are on the power play.

    • On the power play, short-handed goals foolishly are counted, but power play goals are not. Thus, because Yandle was on the ice for 3 SH goals, he gets a -3. OTOH, Girardi got a +1 for playing on the PK because he was on the ice for a Ranger shortie. Oddly, despite almost no PP time, he had a -1 on the PP.

      Unlike Dave, I like +/-, but it is only useful as an even strength stat and the counting of SH goals and goalie-pulled goals biases the stat against offensive players and benefits defensive players.

      Different stats are needed to evaluate PK, PP and 6 v 5 situations. Empty net situations are very tricky because goals for are more important than goals against. Incidentally, Yandle was on the ice for 3 of the Rangers six pulled goalie goals and 10 of the 16 ENers against. Guessing he was on the ice roughly half the time, that’s not so good. But if he were on the ice noticeably less than half the time, it is good. [My assumption is play Yandle, McDonagh, bench Staal in those situations.]

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