It’s time to change the defensive system

alain vigneault
Photo: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Adapt or die.

That’s a quote from the movie Moneyball. Although that direct quote references including stats in analysis, it applies here to Alain Vigneault. AV has run the same hybrid overload/man coverage system in New York since his arrival in 2013. It seemed to work initially, but each season we’ve seen diminishing results.

At first it seemed to be a personnel issue. The Rangers weren’t mobile on defense, and it was certainly getting exploited regularly. This offseason changed things, as Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith replaced Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. More playing time for Brady Skjei should have also led to positive results. But they haven’t. The defense is still a train wreck.

When the personnel changes and the results are the same, it makes sense to start looking at the coaching. However Jeff Beukeboom was shown the door. Ulf Samuelsson left. Both were coaching the defense, and now the Rangers have Lindy Ruff in that spot. Different personnel, different coaches, same result.

With two variables seemingly returning the same results, there is only one logical explanation left. The system is the problem. That’s the only variable left in this equation.

To understand the issue, we must first understand the system. There are two aspects to AV’s system – the first is the defensive zone play, and the second is the neutral zone play. The Rangers certainly struggle in both aspects.

Neutral Zone

Neutral Zone
Modern Hockey Neutral Zone

Covering the neutral zone first, AV tries to force turnovers just inside the blue line, which plays into his counter attacking system. There are two aspects here, and both come between the blue line and the top of the circles, the “High Risk Area”. The first is in offensive zone entries, in which the Rangers make dangerous passes in that high risk area.

We can use the Vegas game to show how a bad pass in that area can spring a team for a breakaway. The only way to really avoid plays like this is to play more dump and chase hockey. I’m not a big fan of that style, so I’m comfortable with the risk here.

The other area is in preventing zone entries. The Rangers try to force turnovers in that high risk area, which in turn helps them begin odd man rushes the other way. It’s great when it works. But when it doesn’t, the result is a mini odd man rush.

That is something highlighted in the above goal against Vegas. Steven Kampfer, who himself is not the best defenseman, was deked out of his shoes by Alex Tuch. Kampfer’s traditional role is to force Tuch to the outside. However there is a quick move to try to force a turnover, and he got burned.

The fix here is two-fold. Press Tuch early, before he gains the blue line, and force that turnover before he can gain speed. Kampfer was already on his heels when Tuch burned him in the high risk area. The second is to recognize that Tuch has the zone and speed, and commit to forcing him to the outside and behind/around the net. It prevents the cut back to the middle, which is what happened on this goal.

Neutral zone play is critical, but can be fixed by some minor tweaks in timing and recognition. That can be player based, but is also a hard-wiring issue for the players if they’ve been programmed to allow the entry and then press. That’s a variable that is tough to account for, but it does exist.

Defensive Zone

This is the area that draws the most publicity and criticism, and for good reason. Too many times we see defensemen chasing to the blue line or covering the same man. Too many times we see three guys behind the net and no one covering the slot. Too many times we see guys in behind the defense and other plays that are direct results of lacking a head on a swivel.


AV has the Rangers playing a hybrid overload/man system in the defensive zone. This is designed to overload the half-boards and create turnovers. Depending on puck location, certain players will switch to man coverage, specifically D1 and D2, to create more pressure. This is why you sometimes see defensemen pressuring a forward at the blue line.

This worked like a charm in 2013-2014 (or so we thought – a lot of it was masked by Henrik Lundqvist). We’ve seen diminishing results since, though, as a combination of factors have contributed to the Swiss cheese defense. Be it personnel, deployment, or just NHL evolution, the system doesn’t work anymore.

Perhaps the solution is simple – just eliminate the man coverage and stick with straight zone in the defensive zone. The weakness of the overload is that it opens the weak side pass at the point, and if the positioning is off the high slot can become open. It’s certainly better than the back door or the slot being open, which is what’s happening now.

The major positive is that the players stop thinking about where they need to be and just react and are programmed properly. Overload is a very standard defensive zone system that you’re taught. There’s an adjustment period, but there would be less thinking –which adds to the time to cover the proper man– and more high danger areas covered.

The roster has changed. The assistant coaches have changed. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the system. Even John Tortorella adapted in Columbus. It’s time for AV to do the same.

"It's time to change the defensive system", 5 out of 5 based on 23 ratings.

45 thoughts on “It’s time to change the defensive system

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:18 am

    In 2013-14, you had:

    McD at his best.
    Stralman who was arguably 1A.
    A “better” Girardi.
    A “better” Staal.

    Today’s D should be much better than it is. Too much chasing and not very good positioning. The structure stinks and the last 5 years you have at least 3 different asst coaches with the same lousy results. There’s only one constant. It’s not a mystery.

    Tonight against TB should be a lot of fun. BTW, Girardi no longer on the top pair and getting 16 minutes per night. This should surprise no one.

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      I think part of it is the same thing that went on in 13/14. The Rangers got off to a slow start then too but after a while that system played right into the Rangers strength which was their skating & team speed.
      I hear what this post is saying. A part of me wishes AV would at least use a little more zone defense when the puck is low in the zone and just man up high. However, it looks to me like AV is taking his Dzone coverage to his grave. He made alterations like for last years defense he put training wheels on the defense by having the defense peel off his check by the top of the circles instead of following all the way to the blue line. The forwards were more involved in the Dzone then and there was less skating for his immobile defense.

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:54 pm

        You said it Lace, “zone defense.” I mean how many times are there 3 Rangers on one guy with the puck and the slot and in front of the net are left wide open? Way too many times.

        The players bear some blame but isn’t that what practice and coaching is for?

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:57 am

    What’s the influence Ruff has had on the defense?

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:51 am

      None. He’s the same coach as AV.

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 9:46 am

        Serious question, to Dave or anyone else who’d remember–when Ruff coached for 15 years in Buffalo, did he run the same systems throughout his time there? He did have some very different rosters over the years. And I realize Hašek may have skewed defensive/goals against numbers significantly, but I sorta remember Buffalo playing stifling zone D rather than a man overload in the Peca-Hašek days. Was that the case or am I imagining that?

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:35 am

          I don’t really have any insight to Ruff’s older Buffalo systems. I’d have to assume he adapted. The NHL changed a lot after the lockout.

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 4:09 pm

          You nailed it. Ruff’s system was have your goalie lead the league in sv% every year and win five Vezinas.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Change the system, yes. Try to implement dump and chase, no, not with the current team. Only few do dirty work and we would need 2 per line.

    Zone coverage sounds right.

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      They have the skill to play a more cycling game and not just run and gun all the time. Their problem is they have no backup when the run and gun gets shut down by a trap game.

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:55 pm

        Hey, you’re not allowed here!!

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:08 pm

          Agree simple zone would work wonders.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 7:51 am

    When doing the same thing over, and over, but it still doesn’t work, what else is there to do but change. Let’s see if they see the light???????????

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:11 am

      Unless it comes to linemates. You want them to stay together to develop chemistry even though it’s obvious they look horrible together. 😀

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:19 am

        Let’s see now, Mac Truck has had how many partners on the first pair?

        We’ve had how many defensive coaches under AV, and the same results.

        We switch linemates like underwear under this coach?

        Well if you’re OK with that nonsense, why be opposed to trying this, what he’s currently doing obviously doesn’t work!

        As for the lines, I guess you’re opposed to keeping the ZKB line together, they don’t work right??????? They are terrible, as are Hayes, Miller, and Grabner together as a unit.

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:30 am

          I just feel that you exaggerate how much he switches lines compared to other coaches. Every coach does it.

          And if you notice, he doesn’t switch up lines when the team is playing well. The problem is they haven’t played well the entire season.

          • Nov 2, 2017 at 9:01 am

            You have your opinion, so be it!!!!

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 9:58 am

      you’re right Walt, we need to change. Not not line mates and D man pairings. The systems. It’s the same thing with the special teams as well. We do the same things over and over and expect different results. we are pretty predictable.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Change the system ? Just play D and the damn center or weak side wings need to read the play better and play with some heart , stop being so damn lazy …. And for Christ sakes get some kind of forecheck going , we have speed use it !

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:38 am

      Changing the defensive play to cover the center/weak side is changing the system. That’s literally what I just wrote about.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:09 am

    You all know I was a big A.V. supporter, but I always hated his man on man defense. I like you Dave break down all their games. I watch them first to enjoy the game and then go back and watch it to break it down. All of your points are dead on and agree the reason we lost assistant coaches was due to his system. I am done with him at this point. I actually thought he would change this year and adapt better. Boy was I WRONG!

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:22 am

      I hate to say it but I am right!

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:20 am

    In the case of Triple E, the coach is right. He has wone 618 and no one can tell him he is wrong! The problem is the players! No one is an elite player so we can’t win with B players.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 10:33 am

    On two goals against vs Vegas, the notable difference is that D2 was the pursuing player trying to get back(and failing) from the wall on the strong side, not D1.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 11:03 am

    Hayes Miller Grabs
    CK20 Z Buch
    Nash Chytil Zucc
    Fast Vesey Boo
    McD Shjei
    Shatt Smith
    Pionk Staal
    Hayes line last year was good together . Zs line will be good if left alone for awhile Nash and Zucc are not playing up to par so far . Even tho i dont like Vesey on the fourth line , if given a chance it might work out . Also DD has not been bad but he is not the future , let the kid grow on the big team . been a Rangers fan since 1951 have the Good the Bad and The Ugly . Give them until Game 25 and see where we are at , we are only 4 points out of a PO position as of now

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      “Hayes line last year was good together ”

      This is entirely not true. The Hayes/Miller/Graber unit had an unsustainable first half of the season and that masks a lot of that trio’s deficiencies.

      The Hayes/Miller/Grabner unit had the worst shot differential of all NYR line combinations last year. Without the time to breakdown minutes apart from each other (Corsica doesn’t work on this computer) overall last year, In total Shot Attempts (SA For – SA Against) Grabner was the “best” at -175, Miller was next at -195, and Hayes was -233 in the hole. Every single player had a high E+/-, meaning they were giving up very high quality scoring chances against. That line spent oodles and oodles of time in the defensive zone.

      Lets not put them back together, please?

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 1:52 pm

        Their “slump” and shot differential numbers were directly related to AV matching them against the opponent’s top line from December on.

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 1:55 pm

          They were doing the same thing in the beginning of the season. You don’t get to that high a negative number for only 2 or 3 months.

          No one noticed the shots against because Grabner was shooting 30someodd % till December.

          • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:08 pm

            No, they weren’t.

            Stepan’s line had those matchups. I looked who was in the home starting lineups(where AV gets last choice on the lineup card) and Stepan’s line got started from the beginning of the season until the Dallas game in December. After that, Hayes’ line started most every game, Washington excepted.

            The stat differentials on those splits(before & after change in roles; home & away) were noticeable; not for how good the Hayes line was, but how Stepan’s had cratered. Not just possession, but zone starts as well.

            • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:21 pm

              Zone starts don’t matter. I’ve posted that before.

              And Derek Stepan has absolutely nothing to do with Grabner/Hayes/Miller being heavily outshot all season long.

              • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:28 pm

                If you believe those two statements, not much point in wasting my time.

              • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:39 pm

                You’re right. I’ll just post this again:

                “However, that spike lasts a very brief period of time. By far the biggest effect occurs within the first 10 seconds. By 15 seconds after the drop of the puck, we’re looking at a difference of about 20 shots* per hour (one shot every five seconds), and by 20 seconds, the effect is almost nonexistent. All lines converge and eventually begin to separate after about 40 seconds. At this point, all the for rates are grouped together, and all the against rates are grouped together. The longer the player stays on the ice, the more their for rate decreases and their against rate increases.”

                ” offensive and defensive zone starts make up only a small portion of all players’ shifts – the rest of them, neutral zone faceoffs and on-the-fly changes, regress the personal metrics back towards the individual player’s natural capabilities”


      • Nov 2, 2017 at 2:12 pm


        Your assumption is backwards. If they gave up shot differentials of 175-233 shots, yet still had +/- of 22 (Grab), 17 (Mill), and 10 (Hay) that means 1 or 2 things: 1) their team’s (line’s) shot percentage was extremely high versus the league avg or their opponents extremely low. The latter implies they gave up lower quality shots. Otherwise their +/- would be very low.

        Not that I want to get back on the subject but Kreider’s numbers are more disturbing: he had a whopping +153 goal differential yet a measly +6 +/-

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:18 pm

          I’m going to hope that you chose to just not read about Expected +/-.

          I’ll repost this: “This new metric, utilizing league-wide shot location data, shows what we’d expect a player’s +/- to be, based on where his team’s shots and his opponent’s shots came from while we has on the ice in even strength situations. The expected value of these shots is based upon league-wide shooting percentages from the various locations.”

          All three of them had HIGH E+/- numbers, indicating that they generated and/or took LOW percentage shots while they gave up HIGH percentage shots against. The simple fact that NY Ranger goalies stopped the puck more often than not, which kept their basic +/- high, does not negate the fact that the opposing team took high quality shots against them.

          Kevin Hayes +10, Expected +/- of -13.7
          JT Miller +17, Expected +/- of -10.3
          Michael Grabner +22, Expected +/- of -3.8

          Second, I hope you’re mistaking Kreider having a +153 shot differential with goals.

      • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:44 pm

        John B,
        I have to agree with Rangers17 here…….they hayes/miller/grabner line was terrific the first half of last year …UNTIL the injury to hayes and then grabner…..Grabner led the team with +22, miller +17 and hayes +10……to me those stats say it all……The new advanced analytics ….look like overkill to me……does it take into account if an opposing player shoot from right inside the blue line as opposed to shooting from in the slot?
        I did not need analytics to know Gretzky, messier, trottier, bossy, lemeiux, hull, esposito etc etc were great players…….

        • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:21 pm

          Hayes, Miller and Grabner had an unsustainable first half. Grabner in particular is simply NOT that caliber of player over the long haul.

          And please, I beg of you Rich, please stop making believe that ANY of our players should be mentioned in the same post as the guys you mentioned above. The way you overrate our talent is absolutely laughable.

          • Nov 2, 2017 at 7:44 pm

            You missed the point 3E…..I was not comparing our current players to those immortals just showing that you dont need analytics to see how good a player is!!!

            • Nov 2, 2017 at 7:50 pm

              But MY point is….they are not THAT good that you say, under no circumstance do you break them up. Grabner-Hayes-Miller would hardly be confused with the GAG line.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 11:24 am

    two common denominators here are AV and all defenseman have been bad,,,hah

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 11:39 am

    I think the human element cannot be overlooked here. McD has played a long time with Girardi, and he was used to that. He now has a carousel of partners so he looks lost. Smith looks like he is still out of shape, but hopefully is getting in shape. Shatty is trying to live up to his $5M contract, but he isn’t a first pair defender.
    Yes we may need to play more zone and less attack, but the players have to get to know each other. AV is looking for anything that works, as he knows he is on the hot seat and any 2 game losing streak might be his last.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Defence doesn’t just apply to defencemen but to the entire team. The defence team concept is lost on this squad. Why do defenceman leave their man to chase the puck carrier? It’s because the forwards haven’t come all the way back to pick up a check. They are too busy hanging around the neutral zone waiting for the quick break out stretch pass.

    Just like football in hockey short passes set up the stretch pass. There is simply not enough effort to provide puck support for the puck carrier. The result high risk passes and turnovers.
    This is not Torts hockey this is AV hockey.

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 12:39 pm

      That’s not entirely accurate in AV’s system. The system is designed to have d-men chase, but they chase too high. They are supposed to release at the dots.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    The suit wrote an article back in 2013 , I wants say October that has stuck with me where he addresses the odd man rush and open slot man in the av systems.

    It boiled down to where trying to counter attack opens yourself to that. We strayed away from that because hank couldnt stop an odd man rush or 2 on 1 that year.

    Now he’s back to it. Trying his system again with all the asssets he needs speed and sticks. And he can’t string some wins together.

    • Nov 2, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      That’s the post I reference in the neutral zone portion of this post.

  • Nov 2, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    Agree simple zone would work wonders.

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